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UM football coach Ralph Friedgen fired

COLLEGE PARK — In the end, it wasn’t about wins and losses for University of Maryland football coach Ralph Friedgen. It was about empty seats and suites.

Director of Athletics Kevin Anderson announced Monday that Friedgen would not return for the final year of his contract but would stay on to coach the team through next week’s Military Bowl in Washington, D.C. Because Anderson could not convince Friedgen to retire, the school is obligated to pay him the $2 million due for the last year of his contract.

“I no longer believe allowing a head coach to enter the final year of his contract was the best financial decision for our department or for moving our football program from good to great,” said Anderson, who replaced Debbie Yow as athletic director in September.

The move was not seen as performance based because in addition to being named the Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year for 2010, Friedgen posted an 8-4 record after a 2-10 season the year before.

The Terps drew 235,007 fans to six games at Byrd Stadium last season, off 24 percent from the prior year and the lowest total since 2000, when they drew 204,775. The average home attendance this season at the stadium, which seats 54,000, was 39,168, and none were sold out.

The stadium went through a $50.8 million renovation that was finished for the 2009 season, and included 64 luxury suites selling for up to $50,000 a year. Fewer than half of the suites were sold this season.

At the news conference on Monday announcing the decision, Anderson was asked what role the low attendance played in the decision.

“We’re all concerned about that,” Anderson said. “Anybody in my position would take that into account.”

The decision for the buyout was sparked last week when offensive coordinator and James Franklin, who had been tabbed by Yow as Friedgen’s successor, took the head coaching job at Vanderbilt University. Franklin’s contract said he would be paid $1 million if he did not succeed Friedgen as Maryland’s coach.

Experts say Anderson must now find a way to inspire confidence in the program and hire a coach who can not only put people in seats but instill confidence in the program’s future.

Sports marketer Bob Leffler, of the Baltimore-based Leffler Agency, said Anderson had a tough decision to make and had to do what was right for a department he took over that was beset with lower attendance and a coach he did not hire with no clear line of succession.

“It’s not going to be pretty, but as athletic director he has to do the right thing that will revitalize the program for the next five to 10 years,” said Leffler, whose agency has worked with the Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the U.S. Naval Academy, among others. “He’s got a job to do and it’s difficult. Plus, it’s not like Friedgen has been a disaster — far from it — and that’s what makes it so hard.”

Bernard Mullin, CEO of the Atlanta-based Aspire Group sports marketing firm, said that the key to boosting attendance was to make fans believe in the system, and that hiring a new coach was the best decision for the team.

Mullin, a former president of Atlanta Spirit, which owns the Atlanta Hawks of the National Basketball Association and the Atlanta Thrashers of the National Hockey League, said the athletic director has to take a long-term look at what’s best and convey that message to fans and boosters.

“Letting coaches go is never easy, but basically you have to make as clean a break as possible,” Mullin said. “You have to sell hope, not wins and losses. You sell on hope and the experience of collegiate sports.”

Anderson said the main factor in his decision was that he did not want to have a coach with one year left on his contract and no prospect of an extension. That, he said, would make it too hard to recruit both players and replacements for any coaches who leave to join Franklin. Anderson said he made it clear to Friedgen last week that an extension was not in the cards. He said the two were then supposed to sit down before Friday and discuss an exit strategy.

“Somewhere between Wednesday and Friday that never materialized,” he said. “I can’t tell you what happened, but I gather he had a change of heart.”

Another burden on the department at Maryland will be covering the $2 million buyout, as well as funding a nationwide search for a new coach and then paying that salary after a hire is made. Anderson said the department would raise funds, find new revenue and make “strategic” business decisions to find the money in a tight budget year.

“It is important to underscore and understand that there will not be any state taxpayer money used to pay this buyout,” Anderson said.

Anderson said Friedgen and the Terps coaching staff agreed to stay on through the team’s appearance in the Military Bowl on Dec. 29 when they play East Carolina University at RFK Stadium.

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