December 1, 2001
 The Joy of
Late Blooming

Delayed Victories Are
Often the Best Ones
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Talk about a late bloomer.

“For decades, [Ralph] Friedgen had been offering just about everyone in college football his soul, and no one was interested.”

That’s how the Washington Post recently described the new head football coach at University of Maryland.* The Terrapins have just finished the fall with a 10-1 record, clinching the Atlantic Coast Conference title. This storybook season has been remarkable for the Maryland team, who have performed at a mediocre level for years and haven’t won a division title since 1985. Friedgen’s coaching has made all the difference. He accomplished the impossible through innovative ideas, rigid discipline and inspiring high expectations in his players.

To say that Maryland students and Terrapin fans have fallen in love with Friedgen and the revitalized Maryland team is putting it mildly. Following a recent win at home over the Clemson Tigers, “players watched in amazement as raucous fans stormed the field, ripping down the goalposts and carrying them out of the stadium.”

Ralph Friedgen’s achievement with the Maryland Terrapins is impressive by any standard. The most stunning part, though, is that this is the 54-year-old’s first season as a head coach. Friedgen had actively sought such an opportunity since graduating from Maryland in 1969, both within college and professional football, but was continually turned down.

Friedgen’s long and winding road to this prized role with Maryland reminds us that the best opportunities in life sometimes open later than we expect--sometimes much later. The subject of late blooming is one I often return to in Nehemiah Notes, and with good reason. Each of us is a late bloomer in certain ways. While we naturally label certain individuals, like Ralph Friedgen, late bloomers, every one of us has areas of life where we realize our potential on a timetable that to us seems behind schedule, in some cases greatly delayed. For one person it may mean finding the opportunity to marry later in life, for another achieving a major career goal, for another realizing an artistic or athletic accomplishment, for another discovering a unique opening for ministry.

For these opportunities to blossom, however, we have to stay hopeful, alert and active in pursuing them. It takes so little to discourage us, and to convince us that a dream’s delay means God’s hand has turned against us. Friedgen describes his own discouragement: “A lot of good things passed me by. All of the sudden, I was 45 years old, and all my buddies had been head coaches for 10 years. You get really discouraged.”

Yet Friedgen never let go of his hope of becoming a head coach nor let down his guard in pursuing his dream. Here are some of the things he did to keep his life in motion:

q Upon graduating from Maryland in 1969, Friedgen sent 160 letters to colleges and high schools inquiring about coaching opportunities. When this effort failed to win him a single interview, he volunteered his services with Maryland’s program.

q Maryland then offered him an assistant position for $150 a month, which he accepted.

q In the decades that followed, he accepted various assistant roles with college and professional teams. He gave his best effort in every case, winning wide respect as one of the most talented assistant coaches in the country. He also continued to actively look for a head-coaching job.

q Just as important, Friedgen kept his mind engaged about how he would carry out a head coaching role. “For years, he made notes about what he would do one day with his own program, jotting down everything from lists of coaches he’d hire to curfews he’d like to install.” When he finally gained an interview with Maryland’s Athletic Director Debbie Yow, he was extraordinarily well prepared. “He was so overflowing with ideas that he was only a third of the way through his pitch when she leaned over to him and said, ‘You’re my guy.’”

Friedgen, in short, managed his life during his long period of disappointment in a manner that made achieving his goal eventually possible. One lesson we learn from his experience is that there’s value in maximizing the potential of real-life opportunities we have, even though they fall short of our ideals. We do well to stay as active as possible in a field where we want to succeed, even if it means accepting lesser roles than we desire. Through doing so we continue to polish our skills and to develop contacts that may help accomplish our broader objective.

It’s just as important that we continue to prepare mentally for achieving our dream. By keeping our minds fertile--as Friedgen did by continuing to write and muse about head coaching--we’re prepared to communicate effectively with others and to hit the ground running when a door finally opens.

God’s Perfect Timing

Friedgen’s experience also demonstrates how cherished opportunities can open at unusual points in life. We’re reminded that God has radically different timetables in unfolding his plan for each of us.

Christmas is an ideal time to reflect on the perfection of God’s timing, and to renew our confidence in his unique direction of our own life. The Christmas story provides some of the most enlightening insight into the dynamics of God’s timing that we find in Scripture.

Paul declares that Jesus was born “when the time had fully come” (Gal 4:4). The beautiful poetic language of the King James renders the phrase “in the fullness of the time.” It means a time that was perfect because God had brought a wide variety of circumstances fully into place.

We now recognize a multitude of ways in which this was true. Christian historian Kenneth Scott Latourette notes, "Jesus was born in the reign of Augustus. After a long period of wars which had racked the Mediterranean and its shores, political unity had been achieved . . .. Never before had all the shores of the Mediterranean been under one rule and never had they enjoyed such prosperity."* The benefits of this time of cooperation included a unified language and an elaborate road system that provided unprecedented ease of travel. Yet the urbanization that resulted left many feeling disoriented, fostering a hunger for spiritual perspective that the Christian gospel answered.

God knew exactly what he was doing in bringing Christ to earth when he did. We can take comfort in knowing that the same power of timing that affected the events of Christ's birth also operates in the circumstances of our individual lives. Just as God brought Jesus to earth in the fullness of time, he brings about important events in our lives in the fullness of time for those circumstances. We see only the faintest portion of all that God is doing. Yet God takes a vast number of factors into account in providing for our needs, fitting his blessings into the broader context of his plan for our life and his intentions for the world. This means we may reach certain horizons earlier in life than we expect, in other cases later.

While we see in the Christmas story at least one major example of the former extreme (Mary was probably a very young teenager when she bore Jesus), it’s the latter extreme that’s most graphically demonstrated by individuals in the biblical accounts. Among the privileged few who enjoyed the chance to see the baby Jesus and help his parents commemorate the occasion, for instance, were Anna, an 84-year old prophetess, and Simeon, a devout elderly man.

Most inspiring are Zechariah and Elizabeth, who became the parents of John the Baptist, even though they “were both well along in years” (Lk 1:7). They experienced the joy of parenthood at a highly unlikely time of life. Zechariah also realized a major career dream in the process--being chosen by lot to offer sacrifice in the holy of holies, where he encountered the angel who prophesied John’s birth. The privilege of ministering in the inner temple was granted a priest only once in a lifetime, and by now Zechariah undoubtedly thought the opportunity had passed him by forever.

Elizabeth and Zechariah’s experience demonstrates the most gratifying part of late blooming--the fact that late-realized dreams are often the most fulfilling. Their dream of parenting not only finally came true, but they were privileged to raise a son who ministered profoundly to people of his day. And Zechariah’s opportunity for temple duty, coming very late in his career, involved a theophany, which few if any of his colleagues were honored to enjoy.

Waiting Is Worth It

When we personally have a dream that has long been frustrated, though it fits us well, it’s natural to conclude that God doesn’t want us to succeed. Zechariah and Elizabeth’s example suggests a different possibility--that God may intend us to succeed on a later timetable than we assume, and to enjoy even greater benefits as a result.

We certainly see this outcome in Ralph Friedgen’s case. His unusually long path to head coaching allowed him the chance to prepare exceptionally well. The result has been a record few head coaches ever enjoy their first season. Plus unusual acclaim: this week colleagues in the Atlantic Coast Conference voted him unanimously their Coach of the Year.

 Perhaps like Ralph Friedgen, you’ve long offered your soul in pursuing a major life objective but with very disappointing results. Don’t be too quick to write the final chapters of your experience before they take place. There may be important lessons to learn from failure, to be sure, and changes in your approach that can make a difference.

There are times, though, that failure doesn’t indicate we’ve done anything wrong, but simply that God’s time for success hasn’t yet come for us. And, as we’ve noted, God sometimes delays dreams in order to increase our joy and effectiveness once we achieve them.

The Christmas season should be a time when, more than anything, we renew our confidence in Christ’s infinite love for us. He provides us grace to enjoy life and to live productively in spite of many unfulfilled desires and unrealized dreams. This is an occasion to let Christ’s encouragement flood our hearts and to compensate for any losses or discouragement we feel. It’s a time to focus on him, to worship him, to let his joy be our strength.

Christmas is also an excellent time to renew our confidence in Christ’s timing--to collect ourselves and remind ourselves that God’s delays don’t necessarily mean he is saying no to our dreams. It’s a time to remember that delayed dreams are often the best ones, and to rekindle our determination to stay committed to those he has shown us are most important. Appreciating God’s infinitely creative timing helps us find the heart to stay the course.

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*”The Journeyman Finally Arrives: At 54, First-Year Coach Friedgen Transforms Terps,” Rachael Alexander Nichols, Washington Post, November 17, 2001, p. A01; quotes that follow are also from  that article. Back.

*Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity (New York: Harper and Row, 1953), p 21. Back

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