The end of Ralph Friedgen's tenure as Maryland's football coach will arrive Wednesday, well after the sun sets on a seven-story concrete cereal bowl in the nation's capital.
It creates a stark-yet-vivid picture. The 63-year-old coach bowing out --- and not of his own volition --- in a stadium long past its most beloved days is an eerie parallel most fans would probably rather not dwell upon.
Nor would I, but it's the scene set to unfold at the Military Bowl. The coach's limited present and unknown future will weigh heavily on the minds of Maryland fans who attend the Fridge finale.
But it's tough to set aside 10 years worth of memories --- good, bad and indifferent. As tempting as it is to fixate on the end, the beginning was just as riveting, at least on a personal level.
Friedgen was a first-year head coach, hired to bring relevance to Maryland when his three immediate predecessors failed spectacularly and forgettably at the same task. Meanwhile, I was 20, covering a major football program for the first time (for Maryland's student newspaper, The Diamondback) and far more clueless than I could have fathomed at the time.
Friedgen's first chore in August 2001 was instilling a belief in his players they could be winners after a decade and a half of losing. My first chore that same month was getting a one-on-one interview with Ralph. Unsurprisingly, our goals didn't line up too well.
Eventually, Friedgen agreed to talk over lunch between a morning and afternoon session a week and a half before the season opener. So off we went to the Ellicott Diner (this before some Ralph-fueled improvements included a dining hall in the team house), Friedgen devouring a huge salad as I rattled off a wholly unoriginal series of questions. He ate quickly and glanced up occasionally while listening to queries he'd heard several times over already, and I rapidly realized I was on the clock.
Finally, it clicked. Here was a guy who prepared for nearly everything --- a trait that, in anyone, I respected immensely then and even more so now. So just what wasn't he prepared upon being hired?
He paused for just a moment and mentioned his introduction at a home basketball game against North Carolina.
"I was overwhelmed when I walked into Cole Field House and everyone stood up and gave me a standing ovation, because for 31 years no one knew I existed," he said. "It's a little overwhelming now that they know who I am. It's really surprising. I just hope it will continue."
Little did either of us know at the time it would for another 10 years.
There's perception, and there's reality. The perception of Friedgen upon his hire was pretty simple.
He didn't suffer fools. He called it as he saw it. And his offensive scheme would be effective.
From a media perspective, though, the whispers were hard to ignore. Friedgen wasn't remotely interested in idle chatter. He was at his most comfortable in a dark film room, scouring over tape to pick up one more tendency to exploit. He would be miserable for reporters to deal with on a regular basis.
And it turned out to be far from the case.
If anything, Friedgen was quietly a bonanza for beat writers. Sure, he'd have lousy days, usually after lousy practices. He'd grouse about questions about injuries, though that died down the last couple years. But for a man whose peers are increasingly secretive about even the most mundane topic, Friedgen offered up hilarious tales (sometimes the same ones over and over) on a regular basis.
Sure, he'd get himself in trouble sometimes with his words. With his emotions running high, it would take great effort to avoid an eruption in the roughest of times.
But for the most part, Friedgen was easy to deal with. He was candid more often than he was not. He unintentionally mangled names (Ralphisms, as they came to be called) to the amusement of writers. He slipped sly jokes into otherwise uninteresting replies (his assertion in 2007 before playing Florida International that "every game with them is a knock-down, drag-out fight" that went over the heads of nearly everyone in the room remains a personal favorite).
In short, as a head coach he was a real person, with real goals, real strengths, real blind spots, real experiences, real stubbornness, a real family and real cares.
Maybe that what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach was why in his final seasons, there were only minimal calls for his ouster from writers and broadcasters. Far from being overly difficult to deal with, the initial perception of Friedgen wasn't quite accurate. And that was a good thing.
After Friedgen's first season, I didn't boomerang back to the Maryland beat until two games into the 2005 season. It was his fifth year on the job, and arguably his most trying. A team every bit deserving of a 5-6 record finished with that mark, and a Halloween night brawl led to suspensions and a late-season disintegration. The Terps underperfomed on the field and were a wreck off of it.
In short, it was hellacious on-the-job training, an assessment my friend Dan Steinberg would surely agree with. Because of the sheer number of people floating around, football is a sport that requires a season for a writer to possess a complete sense of all that is around them.
In time, that happened, even if it seemed thoroughly impossible at the time. The faces changed, of course, but Friedgen remained a constant throughout those years.
So often, as he talked about Josh Allen or Jordan Steffy or LaQuan Williams or Drew Gloster or whoever the topic du jour was, Friedgen discussed the joy he received from seeing his players grow and mature.
It wasn't until the last couple weeks that I stopped to consider how much I'd grown in the last decade, and how at least professionally, Friedgen was a central figure for almost the entire time. While few followed Friedgen's teams on a day-to-day basis more, that observation can be reversed. He is as well suited as anyone I've covered to track my own arc.
I didn't get the chance to talk to Friedgen about my own job loss at the start of this year until early February. It was national signing day, and I had a few mundane details to ask him about that didn't seem to interest too many other folks. Along the way, I mentioned the end of my paper's sports department and acknowledged an uncertain future.
"You're going to have to reinvent yourself," Friedgen said.
I believe I have, or at least laid the groundwork for something bigger down the road. And I tend to think the decision not to hit the reset button and start over doing something else --- a favorite metaphor of Friedgen's whenever he "gets philosophical again" --- probably earned me a little more respect from him in the process.
In the end, Maryland made a business decision. Friedgen would be a lame duck if he returned in 2011 without an extension, a situation the school really couldn't afford in the short term or long term, especially financially. Analyzed without emotion or sentiment, Friedgen's ouster is a logical and calculated choice.
(If nothing else, the three days Friedgen spent twisting in the wind were unwarranted, regardless of any surrounding circumstances. As someone who just last year endured four weeks of certainty that I'd lose a job I enjoyed without knowing precisely when it would be taken away, I have a visceral reaction to seeing something similar happen to anyone. Just make the decision and move on).
Eventually, the scars of the last couple weeks will heal. Friedgen will walk away knowing he did what he could even if he couldn't match the supernova of his first three seasons.
He's the third-winningest coach in school history, and he remained on the job twice as long as anyone realistically expected upon his hire. At some point, the committee that votes on the school's athletics hall of fame will be wise enough to grant Friedgen admission. When it does, an event that often goes unnoticed will be part of a fascinating and memorable weekend.
Fans, too, will some day look past the midpack performance of the last seven years (43-42 in that span entering Wednesday's game against East Carolina) and realize the overall body of work stands up well. Maryland football was a complete afterthought when Friedgen was hired in November 2000. Today, eight wins and a bowl trip is usually a realistic annual expectation. That's progress for a program.
Uncertainty is perched in the not-too-distant future. The identity of Friedgen's successor remains unknown. So will how Maryland deals with its dicey finances, re-engages fans who have checked out since the Friedgen era hit its apogee and sells a program that appears to be on the upswing to a market that demonstrated it wants 10-win seasons or else it will invest its discretionary income elsewhere.
Friedgen didn't have all those answers. But it's possible no one does.
"I'm telling you," Friedgen told reporters this week while cracking a smile. "You guys are going to miss me."
Probably so. Not bad for a guy who for 31 years figured no one knew he existed.