Straightforward approach

While Loh sought consensus from his closest advisers, thousands of rank-and-file boosters were left to follow the story in the media as it developed over the weekend. Originally miffed by the lack of information and reticent to consider a future without booing Duke, some were won over by Loh's straightforward explanations.

"Once we had the details and time to think about this, it was clear that the decision had to be made," said Bryan Whittington, a 1986 graduate who organizes a large tailgate party before football games and has basketball season tickets. "The money is overwhelming, but once you take a clear view at the ACC, you see it's not what it used to be and that this is more stable."

Fabien Jimenez, who has volunteered with Maryland's alumni association and athletic department, said most savvy fans had suspected that a move to the Big Ten could happen because it had been rumored two years ago.

"In a perfect world, from a [public relations] standpoint, there would have been more transparency and a more thorough process," he said. "But you can understand that privacy and time were of the essence. As long as it is true that president Loh met with a cross-section of people, I can accept it."

Loh described the two weeks of serious negotiations with the Big Ten as "very, very intense" and largely sleepless.

Monday's announcement cast a bright light on the native of China, who arrived in Iowa as a teenager, with $200 in his pocket and dreams of the opportunities afforded by an American education. Loh, 67, went on to earn a law degree at Yale and to become one of the highest ranking Asian-American educators in his adopted country as provost at the University of Iowa.

The Big Ten move is not the first high-profile action of his tenure in College Park. He has traveled to China to promote the university, emphasized entrepreneurship among faculty and students and stood at the center of negotiations over a possible merger of the University of Maryland's College Park and Baltimore campuses.

But observers said there's little question that Loh just locked in the first line of any story written about his time at Maryland.

"This will be the decision that, no matter how long he stays at the university, will get the most attention," Nevins said.

"It's historic," Kelly said. "I don't know if I would use the word defining until he's done with his career, but it's very impactful."

When Loh came to Maryland in 2010, he described athletics as the "front porch" of the university, a useful tool in marketing and alumni relations. Those who've spent significant time with him say sports fandom is not an integral part of Loh's being, but from the start, he tried to work Terps boosterism into his public appearances.

He had little idea, however, that the early years of his presidency would be dominated by major decisions about sports.

Maryland's athletic department had been exceptionally stable for a decade, with Gary Williams and Ralph Friedgen atop the men's basketball and football teams, respectively, and Debbie Yow as athletic director.

Within a year of Loh's arrival, all three were gone, Williams and Yow voluntarily and Friedgen under pressure from Yow's successor, Kevin Anderson.

Complicating matters further, Loh and Anderson learned that the department was on less stable financial ground than they had assumed. For years, Yow had borrowed from reserve funds to balance the budget, but that well was finally tapped. Revenues from football and men's basketball were declining, and the university still faced substantial debt payments for a $50.8-million renovation of Byrd Stadium.

A personal toll

At the end of last year, Loh announced that the university would have to cut eight programs — the number ultimately fell to seven — to close an immediate $4-million deficit in the athletic department budget and to avoid a projected $17-million deficit by 2017.

Loh cast the pain of the decision in personal terms, noting that his daughter, Andrea, had called to say her "world would come to an end" if anyone tried to eliminate her Division III soccer program at Occidental College in California. He described sitting and crying with Maryland athletes as he told them of the planned cuts.

"That was probably the most painful experience I've ever had in my life," Loh said in a late-Feb. interview. "I certainly didn't come here to cut teams. I was really quite blindsided when I arrived here. I knew in the job interview they had mentioned attendance had slipped in basketball and football and so on. But I don't know if anyone really knew that we had been spending more than we earned and covering up the deficit [by] drawing from our reserves.