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Maryland Heads Into Uncertain Big Ten Future

June 16, 2014
After some initial skepticism, Maryland loyalists are embracing the athletic program's move from the ACC to the Big Ten

Change has become a constant in intercollegiate athletics. During the last five years, colleges and universities at all levels of the NCAA have switched conferences at an accelerating rate. Age-old rivalries, such as Nebraska-Oklahoma football, have been sacrificed mainly for more lucrative television contracts.

The change is about to hit home. On July 1, the University of Maryland will officially leave the Atlantic Coast Conference to become a member of the Big Ten conference. The Big Ten, which will also add Rutgers University, has developed a reputation as one of the nation's best leagues in football, men's basketball and women's basketball. It also gives its member schools television exposure on the Big Ten Network.

Issue 198: The Big MoveThe Terrapins' move, which was announced in November 2012, drew mostly negative reviews at that time from media outlets, Maryland alumni and fans of the school's athletic programs. After all, how could the university suddenly leave its comfortable home in one of the nation's premier conferences for an uncertain future in an unfamiliar league?

Yet, the initial feelings of surprise and anger at the thought of Maryland leaving its 60-year old ACC traditions behind have generally changed to an attitude of acceptance and anticipation.

"When I first heard the news, I was shocked," said Crystal Langhorne, who led Maryland to the 2005-06 NCAA women's basketball championship and now plays for the WNBA's Seattle Storm. "But it's exciting for Maryland, and I think it's a good change for the school. There are so many schools changing conferences, and we need to embrace it."

Red Is A Primary Color

Since joining the ACC in 1953, Maryland has built a rich athletic history. Annual football and men's and women's basketball battles, particularly with North Carolina, Duke, Virginia and North Carolina State, fueled the traditions that became a part of the Maryland fabric.

But tradition doesn't help pay the bills. Money is a driving force in today's world of Division I college athletics, and the University of Maryland didn't have enough of it.

At the time the move to the Big Ten was announced, the Maryland athletic department was swimming in red ink. In 2011, the athletic department had been forced to borrow approximately $1.2 million from the university to overcome its budget shortfall. According to an August 2013 university report, the athletic budget deficit had grown to more than $21 million. 

The university is still waiting for approximately $15 million in ACC revenue that the conference is withholding because Maryland has refused to pay the league's $52 million exit fee. Maryland has contended that the exit fee is illegal, and representatives from the school and conference have gone to court in Prince George's County and North Carolina to resolve the dispute.

Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson and university president Wallace Loh, who both came to College Park in 2010, took steps to rectify the department's financial situation.

In July 2012, they eliminated seven of the school's 27 sports. The 2011-12 athletic year was the final one for men's and women's swimming, men's tennis, men's cross country, men's indoor track and field, women's water polo, and acrobatics and tumbling (formerly known as competitive cheer).

But the deficit remained. The 2006 expansion of Byrd Stadium, with the goal of adding luxury suites, left the Maryland athletic department with structural debt. It was anticipated that suite sales would generate revenue, but that hasn't happened. Many of the suites didn't sell, and the debt carried on.

Maryland needed a cash infusion, and school officials began to look into a conference change that would provide greater revenue. They found a willing partner in the Big Ten, and negotiations to join the new conference didn't take long.

"There are so many positive attributes with the move to the Big Ten," Anderson said. "Thirteen of the 14 schools are large, flagship universities, and mirror who we are. We have great coaches and student-athletes who always seem to rise to the occasion, so there was an opportunity to be competitive immediately. We also had the chance to be a part of the Big Ten Network.

"We didn't operate in a vacuum. Before the decision was made, we talked to many of our key stakeholders about the positives and negatives." 

For some Maryland alumni, more negatives than positives came to mind when they heard the announcement.

"I was a little disappointed at first because of the tradition," said Torrey Smith, a Maryland graduate who is now a fourth-year wide receiver with the NFL's Baltimore Ravens. "I went there to play against the local teams, especially with me being from Virginia and having the opportunity to play against U.Va., Virginia Tech, the Carolina schools and Florida State."

Even though Maryland had financial reasons for making the conference switch, the suddenness of the decision and the university's lack of transparency angered some of its constituencies. Tom McMillen, one of the finest basketball players in school history and a member of the board of regents, voted against the proposal.

"The way it was done was not the way it should have been done," said McMillen, who was a Rhodes Scholar and played professional basketball for 12 years after graduating from Maryland in 1974. "It was a very rushed process, with little deliberation, and I didn't think this was the way to go about it. But given the financial situation, there was no choice. In retrospect, this was a very compelling financial decision for the university. It was so compelling that I wasn't sure why we didn't sell it on the front end."

The move to the Big Ten is expected to erase Maryland's long-term athletic debt. When the school announced the switch in 2012, each Big Ten school was receiving $22.6 million annually from the conference's television revenues, including the Big Ten Network, and NCAA distribution plan. That figure grew to $27 million in 2014, and stands to mushroom even more throughout the next few years.

By the 2017-18 school year, 12 of the 14 member schools (not including Maryland and Rutgers) are expected to receive a $44.5 million annual payout from the conference. Beginning with the 2020-21 school year, Maryland and Rutgers will receive full shares.

The Big Ten figures are higher than the ACC's annual payments. In 2011, each ACC member received $12.3 million. The following year, the payout rose to $16.9 million.

"We have a financial plan in place, and our projection is that we will balance in 2018-19," Anderson said.

Empty Seats

Attendance at home events has dropped for the Terrapins' football, men's basketball and women's basketball programs, further contributing to the athletic department's financial woes.

Less than a decade ago, all three teams were thriving at home. In 2005, Maryland's football team set the all-time school single-season record with an average crowd of 52,426 in 54,000-seat Byrd Stadium. By the 2013 season, Maryland's average football attendance had fallen to 38,878.

The Comcast Center was filled to its 17,950 capacity for the 2007-08 men's basketball season, but attendance fell to an average of 12,557 during the 2013-14 campaign.

The 2006-07 women's basketball team attracted 9,533 per game and sold out home contests against Duke and North Carolina. During the 2013-14 season, Maryland reached the Final Four, but its average attendance dropped to 4,881, with the high-water mark a crowd of 15,327 for a Nov. 15 game against national champion Connecticut.

Those figures stand in contrast with the crowds that attend Big Ten football and basketball games. In 2013, the Big Ten ranked second behind the Southeastern Conference in average football attendance at 70,541. An average of more than 90,000 fans attended games at four Big Ten schools -- Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Nebraska. Northwestern was the only Big Ten school that averaged fewer than 40,000 fans per game.

In men's basketball, the Big Ten led the nation in attendance for the 37th consecutive year with an average of 13,114 spectators per game. Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Illinois and Michigan State drew more than 14,000 per home game.

Women's basketball coach Brenda Frese has first-hand knowledge of the Big Ten's reach. Frese grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and was the head coach at Minnesota before coming to Maryland in 2002.

"When you walk off the plane in Cedar Rapids, you are bombarded with the Iowa Hawkeyes," Frese said. "In the Midwest, it is college athletics through and through, and you can see 10,000 fans at a women's basketball game. I'm excited about the phenomenal fan base of the Big Ten."

The fan bases not only turn out for home games, but also are willing to travel with their teams. The Big Ten schools also have more than 91,000 alumni living in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area alone, and thousands of those graduates will probably find their way to Byrd Stadium and the Comcast Center during the coming years.

A Competitive Force

Only time will tell whether Maryland will be able to duplicate the success it enjoyed from 2001-08 when it is competing in the Big Ten. During that eight-year span, the Terrapins won national championships in men's basketball, women's basketball and women's lacrosse. 

The men's soccer team captured NCAA crowns in 2005 and 2008. In 2001, the Maryland football team earned the ACC championship and made its first Orange Bowl appearance in 46 years. The Terrapin athletic program had become firmly established as one of the finest in the nation.

Halfway into the next decade, the Maryland athletic program is still having success. During the school's final year as an ACC member, several Maryland teams earned the national spotlight. The women's lacrosse team won an NCAA championship May 25, and Terrapin midfielder Taylor Cummings earned a Tewaaraton Award, which is presented to the nation's top collegiate player. An established national power in women's basketball, Maryland advanced to the NCAA Final Four in April behind the record-breaking production of the school's all-time leading scorer and rebounder, Alyssa Thomas.

In men's soccer, Maryland reached the NCAA championship game for the second straight season in 2013, and Terrapin midfielder Patrick Mullins won a second consecutive MAC Hermann Trophy as the sport's top player. The field hockey program, which has won five NCAA championships since 2005, reached the national semifinals for the eighth time out of the past nine years in 2013. The men's lacrosse team made the Final Four for the third time out of the past four years, while the baseball program received an NCAA tournament bid for the first time since 1971 and earned its first-ever Super Regional appearance.

But there have been setbacks, particularly in football and men's basketball. During head football coach Randy Edsall's first two years at College Park, the Terrapins' combined record was 6-18. The Terrapins rebounded in 2013, finishing 7-6 and earning their first bowl bid since 2010. 

But the men's basketball team hasn't replicated the success it had when Gary Williams was its head coach. During the three years since Mark Turgeon replaced the retiring Williams, the high-water mark for the Terrapin program was a 2013 trip to the National Invitation Tournament semifinals. Once a staple of March Madness, Maryland hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since the 2009-10 season.

Are We There Yet?

One of the primary purposes of being a student-athlete is to get a quality education. Can long absences from the classroom compromise that education?

The 12 other ACC schools are an average of 455 miles away from College Park. Maryland's teams will have to travel an average of 665 miles to face their 13 Big Ten opponents. Eight of the Terrapins' new rivals are located in the Central time zone.

"I think the Big Ten is an unbelievable conference, but I wonder how the student-athletes are going to be able to handle their academics with all of the travel," said McMillen, who played for Maryland when the league contained seven schools in a four-state area. "You can't possibly miss a lot of school and still be a successful student-athlete. We have to make sure that it works for them."

Langhorne said the academic support structure could provide Maryland student-athletes the opportunity to stay ahead.

"You can get a lot of reading done on the long plane rides," she said. "And there are good academic advisers who travel with the team."

The move to the Big Ten will also impact hundreds of families whose children compete for Maryland. While the university has a strong national profile, most of its student-athletes hail from the East Coast.

"We like the ACC, because the competition is just phenomenal, but the Big Ten is up-and-coming with teams like [Johns] Hopkins, Penn State and Ohio State," said Rich Rambo, a native of Glenside, Pa., whose son Matt is a starting attackman for the Terrapins' men's lacrosse team. "It'll be a good mix. I'll go anywhere to see the boys compete. If it means a little more debt, then that's the way it is."

Rich's wife, Annette Rambo, said she was looking forward to the move for a different reason.

"I'm excited because our oldest son plays for Rutgers, and they'll face each other from now on," she said. "I haven't heard any negativity [from the other men's lacrosse parents]. I think it's a good move, because it provides a change of pace and a change of atmosphere."

Despite the conference switch, it seems that student-athletes have generally remained loyal to the school.

"The No. 1 reason that they came was to play for Maryland, not for the conference affiliation," Frese said. "They haven't blinked for one second."

Men's soccer coach Sasho Cirovski, whose program is leaving one of the nation's best soccer conferences, said Maryland's standing as a national university would help in the transition.

"The culture we've built here is pretty special," said Cirovski, who recruited Mullins out of New Orleans. "We're a national brand, and we're going to attract good players from all over. We look at the whole country as our oyster.

"It's like when you move from a house you love. You're bound to have some melancholy feelings. But I'm looking forward to moving to another neighborhood."

What The Future Holds

Rivalries typically play a role in intercollegiate athletics. The most notable ones, such as Auburn-Alabama and Michigan-Ohio State in football and the basketball tug-of-war between Duke and North Carolina, took decades to flourish.

For the last several years, the ACC/Big Ten challenge has brought the Maryland men's and women's basketball teams together with its future rivals. But it could be a while before Maryland's games against Big Ten opponents approach the passion of the historic matchups with Duke and North Carolina.

"I think rivalries will develop," said McMillen, a former United States Congressman and now the chairman of the National Foundation on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. "It was fun to go to North Carolina, Duke and Virginia, but take a look at Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State. It's a premier league."

The unfamiliarity will be more pronounced in football. When Maryland opens its league schedule Sept. 27 at Indiana, it will be the program's first game against a current Big Ten team since the Terrapins defeated Purdue during the 2006 Champs Sports Bowl. Maryland took on incoming conference partner Rutgers in 2009, and has faced six of its 13 Big Ten opponents throughout its history.

There are encouraging signs on the Maryland campus. The Terrapins' home football schedule includes Big Ten foes Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan State and Rutgers, plus nearby nonconference rivals James Madison and West Virginia. The school sold 17,648 football season tickets in 2013, and was already nearing the 20,000 mark with 12 weeks to go before the Aug. 30 season opener.

"Our sales are up 25 percent over last year," said Matt Monroe, Maryland's assistant athletic director for ticket services. "We have some top-tier programs coming in, and this could be the best home schedule we've ever had."

In football, the Terrapins will be playing in the Big Ten's East Division and will have annual games against teams such as Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers. 

"In football, our kids are excited to play in places like The Big House (Michigan), the Horseshoe (Ohio State) and Nebraska," Anderson said. "I believe that our average sports fan will become more excited every day when they think about the type of teams that we'll be playing." 

Ken Moss, a member of the Terrapin Club since 1988 and longtime season-ticket holder, said he would miss the old rivalries, but was aligned with the Big Ten move.

"I think a lot of longtime fans felt that the ACC was a North Carolina-centric league, and Maryland was treated like an outsider," Moss said. "Getting to see Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State in football really excites me."

The Terrapins' natural football rival would appear to be Penn State, whose 1994 entry into the Big Ten signaled the close of a 37-game series between the schools, which had begun in 1917. The Nittany Lions and Terrapins will meet for the first time in 21 years Nov. 1.

"Rivalries start when you recruit the same people," Smith said. "With Penn State, you have it right now with [former Terrapin assistant coach] James Franklin being a great recruiter and trying to step into Maryland boundaries. They had that rivalry way back in the day, so it's pretty cool to bring that back."

Whether or not the rivalries develop, Maryland student-athletes and their coaches will be trying to adapt to their new surroundings. They will still have ample opportunities to win conference and NCAA championships against a new set of opponents.

McMillen said it could be 10 years before the Maryland community knows whether the move was beneficial. A Maryland Hall of Famer, McMillen said he was fully committed to making it work, and he's not alone. Smith said his attitude about the decision had changed.

"I'm all in now," Smith said. "I think it's a big move for the entire university and not just the athletic programs, and that'll go a long way in the long run. It will make the University of Maryland better."

Issue 198: June 2014