‘Fridge’ returns Maryland to the top

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 2, 2002

Sports Editor

People haven’t been this excited about a man nicknamed "Fridge" since William "The Refrigerator" Perry doubled as a defensive lineman and fullback for the 1985 Chicago Bears.

As Perry and the Bears did to the nation, first-year Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen captured college football’s attention with a turnaround 10-1 record in 2001, after finishing last year at 5-6.

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Friedgen, a Maryland offensive lineman in the late 60s, was named college football’s Coach of the Year. The Terps had their best year since 1976 and captured their first ACC title since 1985.

It’s safe to say that "Fridge Fever" is running wild in College Park, Md., as the No. 6 Terps prepare to take on fifth-ranked Florida in the FedEx Orange Bowl in Miami.

"People want to congratulate me, our program, get autographs, take pictures," Friedgen told the Associated Press. "I was in the car the other day and a woman started beeping her horn. I rolled down the window – I thought there was something wrong with my car – and she said ‘Fridge!’"

As a longtime offensive coordinator, most recently at Georgia Tech from 1997-2000, Friedgen came to Maryland and sought to field one of the most balanced offensive attacks in college football.

He achieved that desired result almost to perfection.

By the final game of the year, an ACC-clinching comeback win over N.C. State, the Terps were averaging 219 yards passing and 220 yards running the football.

Shaun Hill, Maryland’s starting quarterback who threw for 2,380 yards this season, gives his head coach the ultimate endorsement.

"If I were a high school quarterback right now and being recruited by Maryland, there would not be another choice on my plate," he said. "The way Coach Friedgen and Coach (Charlie) Taffe can develop quarterbacks is amazing. I don’t see how a young man in that position can make a better choice then coming here."

But before Freidgen and company can start pulling in those Blue Chip recruits, they must share the national spotlight with another team known for its offense.

Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators.

Florida was ranked No. 1 in the nation earlier in the season, before falling on the road to an upstart Auburn team, 23-20. The Gators then had a chance to get back in the national title hunt with a win in "The Swamp" over Tennessee. A victory over the Vols would send Florida to the SEC Championship game in Atlanta, Ga. A win there would put them in the Rose Bowl against top-ranked Miami.

But Tennessee’s Travis Stephens churned through Spurrier’s swamp like an airboat, eating 226 yards on 19 carries as the Vols won, 34-32.

No matter, though, the Vols blew their chance at the Rose Bowl one week later in Atlanta against LSU.

Still, Spurrier knows what his Gators missed out on – a chance for their first national title since 1996.

"It hurts," he said. "We knew what was on the line. They (Tennessee) kicked our tails. We had a good record this year, but we didn’t win anything."

Indeed, at midseason most experts had Florida and Miami rated as two of the most talented teams in college football. And in a majority of the cases, it was thought that Florida had the better overall athletes of the two.

But one reason the Gators suffered two losses this year is that one of those athletes, tailback Earnest Graham, wasn’t playing. And while quarterback Rex Grossman’s numbers were outrageous, (3,896 yards, 34 TDs), Florida’s offense became one-dimensional without Graham in the lineup.

The Gators’ defense, which played good up until the Tennessee game, could also have its hands full with Maryland’s Bruce Perry, who ranked 20th in the nation in rushing, averaging 112 yards per game.

But, just for fun, throw in the "Florida State" factor.

Maryland got drilled by the 7-4 Seminoles, 52-31, in Tallahassee. Florida, however, had shaken Bobby Bowden’s mediocre 7-4 team off by halftime, eventually winning the ball game, 37-13.