Part three of the new blog series – A Tree Grows in Charleston: The Bloodline of Citadel Football
Ralph Friedgen owns the rare distinction of coordinating the offense for both a collegiate national champion and a Super Bowl team, both under the direction of former Citadel Head Coach Bobby Ross.
He also holds another distinction that, as my research and interviews have shown me, is much more common: He started his successful career in collegiate or professional athletics as a coach at The Citadel.
Friedgen, who graduated from Maryland in 1970, got his feet wet in the coaching business right out of college as a graduate assistant for the Terrapins before receiving a phone call from Ross, who had recently been hired by The Citadel.
Ross handpicked his first staff to come to Charleston and help him succeed and he collected a group of youngsters that at the time no one had ever heard of. Guys like Frank Beamer, Jimmye Laycock and Friedgen, who was named the defensive line coach.
“The Citadel was very influential to my coaching career, and while down there we had a lot of great kids who would give everything they got,” said Friedgen. “I learned how to study many different ways of doing things in order to put our players in the best situations to succeed.”
From Ross, Friedgen learned how to coach, but more importantly to not “overcoach” the athletes, which was an art that Friedgen learned to master and credits a lot of his success to.
“There were a lot of times when Coach Ross would warn us of overcoaching the athletes. He wanted us to be very precise on every technique we taught because he wanted our players to be disciplined in how they played. As a young coach this made me very knowledgeable about many different ways to be successful.”
Ross departed from The Citadel in 1977 to become the special teams coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs, while Friedgen stayed in Charleston until 1979 when he took over as the offensive coordinator and offensive line coach for the Bulldogs. But the Friedgen-Ross connection would continue far past the walls of The Citadel.
Friedgen served one year at William & Mary and Murray State before receiving a phone call from his former head coach in 1982 offering him an offensive coordinator position at his alma mater under the direction of the newly-hired Ross.
The four-year stint in College Park earned Friedgen national attention as the Terps captured three consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference championships between 1983-85 and played in four bowl games between 1982-86. He headed an offense that won two bowl games (1984 Sun Bowl and 1985 Cherry Bowl) and was the driving force behind the success of future NFL quarterbacks Boomer Esiason, Frank Reich and Stan Gelbaugh.
After bringing national attention to Maryland, where he played offensive guard in the late 1960s, Friedgen decided to move to Atlanta with Coach Ross where he would take over as the offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech from 1987-91.
His career was lifted to new levels in 1990 when he helped take a preseason unranked Yellow Jacket team to an undefeated 11-0-1 mark and the school’s first national championship title since 1952.
The Ross-Friedgen connection was solid gold at this point, and in 1992 Ross was hired by the San Diego Chargers, where he took his “partner in crime” Friedgen with him to be the running game coordinator.
After two seasons in that role, Friedgen was promoted to offensive coordinator and in his first season helped lead the Chargers to their first (and only) Super Bowl appearance.
The dynamic coaching duo parted ways in 1997 when Friedgen returned to Georgia Tech for three years before taking his first head coaching job back at Maryland. He would spend the remainder of his career in College Park where he transformed a struggling Terrapins football team into a perennial bowl contender.
In just 10 seasons he earned a winning percentage of .600, fourth in program history, and led the Terps to seven bowl games. His 75 career wins is 10th-most in ACC history, behind leader and former Citadel assistant coach Frank Beamer, who is entering his 26th year at the helm of the Virginia Tech football team.
But even through his 42-year coaching career, Friedgen’s seven-year jaunt at The Citadel to open his career was his second-longest consecutive tenure at one school, behind only Maryland, and he still remembers his years inside the gates of the military college as some of his most influential.
Friedgen spoke of a few memorable experiences at The Citadel but went in detail about one in particular that stood out and defines the traditional toughness of the Bulldog football program:
“It was my second season at The Citadel and we were having a tough season with a young team. The last game of the year was against Furman and they had a very good team and we were playing them in Greenville. Our kids warmed up prior to the game and one of the Furman players said something to Brian Ruff as he was leaving the field.
Well, our locker room was a little white shack at the end of the field and when Brian came in and told the team what the Paladin player had said, it incited our team. By the time Coach Ross finished talking to the players, they were banging their helmets against the supports of the shack (I thought it would collapse).
We were fired up!
We played a great game both offensively and defensively and beat Furman 24-0. I was coaching the defensive line and a great player named Tony Starks had 21 tackles from his defensive guard position.”
It’s vividly remembered stories such as these that make the hairs on your arm stand up when you talk to some of the all-time greats. You can feel the excitement when they chat about The Citadel being an influential part of their careers.
The small military college commonly goes unnoticed and more commonly overlooked when people try to find where the successes and knowledge of a great coach began. But if you talk to the coaches themselves, they will be the first to speak of their wonderful memories of building families, values, discipline and coaching styles right here at Johnson Hagood Stadium.
Stay tuned as the series continues and I highlight more stories, experiences and “branches” of The Citadel’s extensive (and ever growing) football coaching tree.
If there is a coach you feel should be highlighted, or if you have any information on a former coach who you think would be a good fit for this series of posts, please reach out to me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org with some information and I would be happy to help the tree grow!
Assistant Director of Media Relations