In his first 2 1/2 years as president at the University of Maryland, Wallace Loh oversaw sweeping changes to the leadership of his athletic department and confronted the pain of cutting teams to patch gaping budget holes.
But he had never steered headlong into the kind of controversy that erupted Monday when the university broke a near-60-year relationship with the Atlantic Coast Conference in favor of the long-term television riches offered by the Big Ten.
The decision is so large — fundamentally changing the portal through which many alumni and donors interact with the university — that it seems likely to define Loh's presidency, for better or worse.
He harbors no illusions about the short-term reviews from students and fans, many of which have been scathing. But he has cast the decision as a test of leadership, one in which he had to focus on the long-term health of the university rather than immediate emotions about athletic rivalries with Duke and North Carolina.
"I want to leave a legacy where, for decades to come, long after I'm gone, presidents will not have to sit around wondering whether Maryland athletics as we know it can survive," he said.
In that light, Loh could not pass up the $45 million a year the university is expected to receive from the Big Ten by the end of the decade.
Observers gave Loh credit for moving boldly in the face of inevitable backlash.
"I think that's a sign of excellent leadership at an institution," said David Nevins, a former chairman of the university system's Board of Regents who also negotiated television deals with the ACC as former president of Comcast SportsNet. "Not every bold move is a great move, but I think this one could be. You have to give a leader credit for not always making the easiest decision."
"Believe me, it took enormous courage," said Loh's boss, university system chancellor William E. Kirwan. "There are a lot of people who are hurt and angry, pointing the finger at him. So in my opinion, it took both courage and vision. I also believe it will prove to be very wise."
Some criticism Monday focused on the rapidity of Loh's decision, with even state regents such as former Maryland basketball star Tom McMillen saying the university community never got a proper chance to weigh in.
Loh made it clear that he deliberately brought negotiations to a point of near completion before news of the possible move spread.
"Leadership on major public issues cannot be conducted in the public limelight," he said, indicating that he was never interested in a referendum on the subject.
Prior to Monday's announcement, however, he secured support from key donors, politicians and campus figures, at least to the extent that none blasted the move publicly. Loh described in an interview Tuesday how he gradually spread the news last week — first to his cabinet, then to athletic director Kevin Anderson, then to Kirwan and finally to a small circle of major donors, alumni leaders and elected officials. He said the group totaled 25-30 and that he would have backed out of negotiations if any segment refused to support the move.
"In every single case, the first time we discussed it, there was no buy-in whatsoever," Loh said. "They told me, 'You can't be serious Wallace.' … But you can't run a university solely on emotion, and they understood that. These are the heads of major corporations and major public officials. They understand how things work."
Kirwan confirmed Loh's description, saying, "I think with all of us, the first reaction was, 'This isn't going to happen.' But the more you think about it, the more sense it makes."
Loh's appeals to rationality gradually won the day as evidenced by the statements of support he received from key figures.
Under Armour founder Kevin Plank, for example, has downplayed his involvement in the decision and denied rumors that he will pay the university's $50 million exit fee from the ACC. But he endorsed the move in a statement released Tuesday, congratulating Loh and other university leaders: "The ACC has been a great partner to Maryland throughout the years, however joining the Big Ten now provides new and exciting opportunities for our beloved university. The positive financial impact of this move has been well-documented; however, enhancing the experiences for all of our student-athletes and our campus as a whole is the most important consideration. I look forward to this new chapter for Maryland and I am excited for our future."
Longtime regent Frank Kelly said he didn't hear about the possible move until Thursday and that his first reaction was: "What?"
But he credited Loh with delivering a strong pitch on the economic and academic benefits of the move. "The money was just so attractive," Kelly said. "Anybody looking at those numbers would have said that we didn't have a choice here."
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.
Despite the cuts, Loh said the athletic department remained in shaky financial shape, living "paycheck to paycheck." Maryland came to represent the hobbled economic model at many Division I programs, where the costs of attempting to run big-time football and basketball programs often outstrip the resulting revenues.
Coaches alluded to this reality Monday in reacting to the Big Ten announcement. Men's basketball coach Mark Turgeon recalled telling university leaders he didn't want to do any fundraising when he took the job last year. "Well that's all I've done is fundraise since I've been here," he said.
All of this financial woe heavily influenced Loh as he considered the Big Ten move. He said he did not take the possibility seriously at first. Indeed, he had said only a few months earlier that Maryland would remain in the ACC long-term. But the television revenues projected to flow from an expanded Big Ten spoke loudly.
Loh said he first learned of possible Big Ten interest two years ago at a meeting of the Association of American Universities. He said he indicated to Big Ten presidents that he would be open to a discussion but that nothing happened at the time.
He said he still didn't take the possibility seriously when Big Ten leaders inquired about a meeting six weeks ago. "That's the job of a president, to listen to opportunities," Loh said. "But nine out of 10 times, nothing comes of it. I thought it was just another meeting on my schedule."
Negotiations heated up in a hurry after Loh saw projected numbers about two weeks ago — he declined to reveal specifics — and realized that the revenues could wipe away his budget problems. But he said he was still reluctant to take on the "firestorm" of public opinion when he broached the possibility with Kirwan.
"He didn't go looking for this," Kirwan said. "But when he came to me, I told him, 'This is the most prestigious [conference] in the country outside of the Ivy League. So you owe them the courtesy of listening to what they have to say.' "
Some have criticized the secrecy of Loh's approach. The non-profit Student Press Law Center said Tuesday that the Board of Regents violated Maryland's open meeting laws by discussing the issue in closed sessions Sunday and Monday. Director Frank D. LoMonte wrote that "the purposeful exclusion of the public from the Board's deliberations reflects a disturbing indifference to the transparency obligations that accompany governance of a public institution." Kirwan has said the attorney general's office told him the regents acted within their rights.
Loh said it would have been impractical to hold public meetings on the financial terms of the deal.
But after further negotiations, he believed he would be "remiss" not to pursue Big Ten membership. What if he faced the possibility of cutting more teams in three years and someone realized he had walked away from such an opportunity?
"All I can say," he said, "is that the revenues from the Big Ten would be so large that I could go to the Board of Regents and say, 'This truly guarantees the future of Maryland athletics for years to come.' This is not hyperbole."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun