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Maryland Football's Recipe For Success?

July 11, 2013

Can the University of Maryland and football coach Randy Edsall successfully draw more players and fans from Baltimore to College Park?

By Michael Anft

Baltimore, as seen through Randy Edsall's eyes, is the belle of the ball, the elusive five-star recruit and one of the keys to advancing the University of Maryland football program.

Really, the city is all that to Edsall, who is entering his third year as the Terps' football coach.

"From my days growing up in southern Pennsylvania, I've known that Baltimore is a great football city," Edsall said. "They're developing some good football talent up there -- talent we can recruit. And Baltimore's the largest city in the state. To me, it just makes so much sense for us to get more people up there behind us."

But even though Baltimore is a football town, it's not necessarily a Terps football town.

As Maryland's athletic department gears up a pricey marketing and promotions campaign to win the heart of Baltimore fans in time for its move from the Atlantic Coast Conference to the Big Ten on July 1, 2014, it will try to bridge the 33-mile gap that separates Baltimore from College Park.

The Terps typically schedule a game in Baltimore every few years, and have come close to selling out a few, but the program has yet to drill a Charm City-to-College Park pipeline. That goes for both Baltimore pigskin fans and high school recruits.

Although the Terps, under Edsall, have begun to land commitments from high school recruits at Dunbar and Gilman, it's still more likely that Baltimore's top kids will head to Penn State, Virginia Tech or West Virginia. Those are often the players who end up on All-America lists and, later, in the NFL. (Tavon Austin of Dunbar and West Virginia, the eighth overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, is one recent example.)

When you think about it, though, Edsall is correct: It's surprising that Baltimore, the large center of a small state, isn't tailgating at the Terps football bandwagon. If you're not going to get a wellspring of support from Baltimore, where in Maryland are you going to get it? With so many Ravens fans shut out of games because of high prices and a tight ticket supply, why wouldn't they go see some football in their backyard, and maybe get hooked into a trip or three down to College Park?

But facts are facts, and perceptions are perceptions. The facts include the dearth of Terps fans willing to make the trek down Interstate 95 to College Park. School officials say that attendance at Byrd Stadium, where the capacity is 54,000, suffers in part because people who live miles from the Washington, D.C., area won't travel there. The average turnstile count at Maryland's 2012 home games was 36,023 per game.

One of the possible reasons for that figure is the 4-8 record the Terps had in 2012 (on the heels of a 2-10 season in 2011). Some Terps observers feel that the university's inability to successfully sell its football team statewide has cost it in substantial ways.

"The fact that they haven't filled Byrd Stadium has led to some of the budget problems that caused them to move to the Big Ten," said Bruce Posner, host of the "Terp Talk" show on CBS Sports Radio 1300.

The Terps' fortunes could improve in the Big Ten, which has a higher football profile than the ACC, as well as a lucrative television network.

"Edsall's doing everything right, but he's facing a battle," Posner said. "The Ravens take up a lot of the football money [in Baltimore]."

That's not all Edsall's facing. Many Baltimoreans perceive the ACC as a basketball league, and follow the basketball season more closely than the football season. Holders of season tickets routinely travel from Baltimore to College Park and back eight or more times per year to see Terps hoops, but won't make one trip to see the football team.

Maryland will have to assuage concerns about its football team, both on the field and at the gate, if it is going to have an impact in the Big Ten -- or if the Big Ten is going to have a an impact on it -- when the squad switches leagues in 2014. The team will have to start winning, for one thing, but that's not all.

Even if the school sells out some games in College Park, it might not be all that rosy a scenario, Edsall said. The Baltimore region contains 100,000 Maryland alums. Will they come out in the necessary numbers to create a home-field advantage?

"There may be more Big Ten alumni in this area than those from ACC schools," Edsall said. "We need to make sure there are more of our fans and alumni at games than, say, people connected to Ohio State. Otherwise, it will be like a few years ago at Camden Yards when the Orioles played Boston and the stands were full of Red Sox fans."

Edsall, a one-time Junior Oriole and current O's season-ticket holder who grew up idolizing third baseman Brooks Robinson and Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas, said he understoood how passionate Baltimorean sports junkies could be when they're properly motivated.

"We're in a marketplace where we're not the only show in town," Edsall said. "We have to do the grassroots work in Baltimore to make people notice us."

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Issue 187: July 2013