COLLEGE PARK — Scott Van Pelt is joking that he may have gone too far this time, that Maryland may turn on him for his pointed criticism about the droves of fans who abandoned Byrd Stadium's student section before the end of the Terps' one-point win over rival Virginia on Oct. 12.
The ESPN commentator, radio show host and former Maryland student says he expects the stadium to be packed for this Saturday's homecoming game against Clemson, "and they'll probably have signs that say I [stink]."
But nobody really expects that to happen. Not to Van Pelt, who is treated on campus as Terrapins royalty. Students often greet the instantly recognizable, bald, 6-foot-6 broadcaster by standing and applauding, chanting "SVP" and asking to pose with him for pictures. He's their link to the national spotlight, a celebrity they love to call their own.
"The reception I have gotten when I go back there is one of the more remarkable things I have ever experienced," Van Pelt, 47, says. "It might sound corny, but it's the truth. It's an emotional thing to be welcomed back so enthusiastically by them. They know I am one of them and they know I won't hide from that."
Van Pelt inhabits unusual territory, a man who discusses sports and sports fans for a living and is clearly a fan himself — and not just in a generic sense.
Many broadcasters avoid public discussions of their own sports loyalties in the same way that many political reporters avoid talking about their party affiliations.
But not Van Pelt. The SportsCenter anchor not only attends Terps football and basketball teams, he communicates regularly with the school's current and former athletes. He sent a note of sympathy last year to C.J. Brown after the Maryland quarterback tore his anterior cruciate ligament and missed the 2012 season. He texts former Terps Torrey Smith (Ravens) and Joe Vellano (New England Patriots) to offer encouragement.
When ex-Maryland basketball center Jordan Williams considered leaving for the NBA after his sophomore season in 2011, Van Pelt says he gathered information from experts to help the player make an "educated" decision.
That sparked debate over whether Van Pelt had gotten involved to an inappropriate degree.
"Mr. Van Pelt in no way tried to pursue me to go either way," Williams said at the time. "He was just giving me advice to help make my decision the best one."
Van Pelt says the best intelligence suggested Williams should stick around for another season, but the player left anyway and is now out of the NBA.
Van Pelt grew up in Montgomery County and attended Terps games regularly with his father before enrolling as a freshman in 1984. He said he's not concerned about his ability to remain objective professionally.
"I've been criticized by some in our profession, notably John Feinstein, for having the gall to actually go to games and cheer for 'my' team," he says in a characteristically candid email reply to a series of questions. "If I am off work and choose to go to a game and cheer for Maryland, who am I bothering? I didn't sign some media version of the Hippocratic Oath to be on TV or radio."
Feinstein, the author and sports commentator, wrote in his blog in 2011 that he and Van Pelt had a disagreement "because I commented on his behavior while sitting in the stands at a Duke-Maryland game in College Park. He took offense to my saying that, as a public figure who at times talked about college basketball on TV and radio, he needed to show some decorum, even while sitting in the stands. I wondered how people would react if say, Jay Bilas or I sat in the stands at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Duke gear and yelled at officials during a game."
Van Pelt wrote in an email to The Sun: "Anyone who pays attention ought to be able to immediately tell that I have a passion for sports. For games. For the outcomes of those games. That's not compromised on air because of a rooting interest. EVERYONE has them. I'm simply transparent about mine."
But Van Pelt, who joined ESPN in 2001, could potentially find himself one day in a delicate position. Would he publicly report a story he learned about that could prove damaging to Maryland athletics?
"That's a tough one to honestly tackle," he said. "I'd like to think I would."
Van Pelt sensed that his latest soliloquy about Maryland would incite a debate. "I'm probably going to get in trouble back in College Park for this one," he said before unleashing his criticism of early-departing fans during an "SVP and Russillo" broadcast on Oct. 14. He said on the air that the Terps' student fans — who he says are potentially outstanding — needed to provide the team with a more pronounced home-field advantage. "I wanted to puke," he said of seeing so many fans leave Byrd Stadium early.
The Terps (5-2, 1-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) have lost two of three heading into their game against Clemson (6-1, 4-1 ACC). Van Pelt said he won't attend Saturday because he will be at a wedding.
Van Pelt revisited the attendance topic recently on his weekly radio appearance on ESPN 980 in Washington. It was during that appearance that he mused about how fans might treat him now.
Van Pelt: "It turned into a thing,"
Co-host Thom Loverro: "It turned into a thing in large part because if you were writing a headline for this thing, you'd say: 'Scott Van Pelt says about Maryland fans: 'I wanted to puke.'"
Van Pelt: "That's how I felt."
Van Pelt, who has addressed the issue of campus fan support before, hardly faced withering criticism from students over his comments.
Matt Dragonette, a sophomore accounting major, wrote an editorial in the student newspaper, The Diamondback, saying that Van Pelt was right. "We can show up early, loud and consistent for games against Duke (whose fanbase does not even consider us rivals), yet we cannot support our team to the end in a blowout or defeat," Dragonette wrote.
Maryland, which is trying to increase its profile as it prepares to compete in the Big Ten next year, has embraced Van Pelt.
"I was a big fan of Scott Van Pelt, and since I've been at Maryland I have become an even bigger fan," athletic director Kevin Anderson said. "Scott has the ability to have an immediate connection with his audience. He is extremely personable and very approachable."
While at Maryland, Van Pelt says he lived in Ellicott Hall and played pickup basketball with former Terps star Keith Gatlin, among others.
"Keith said because of my shooting ability, I should walk on. I discussed it with [coach] Lefty [Driesell] but it was not like I was offered a spot," Van Pelt said.
Van Pelt considers Maryland games special, in part, because they remind him of attending games with his father, who died in 1988. His stepfather died three months later.
"Maryland is the one thing I still hold on to from my past," he said.
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