After Williams' departure, face of College Park less certain

Few state leaders care about the University of Maryland, College Park and its athletic teams more than Thomas V. Mike Miller, president of the state Senate.

In recent years, Miller heard weariness creep into the voice of his friend Gary Williams at the prospect of courting another wave of teenage basketball players.

So when Williams shocked much of Maryland by announcing his retirement Thursday as men's basketball coach, Miller hardly blinked. More importantly, he did not fret for the future of his alma mater, despite the latest in a year of big changes.

"He accomplished all that he could accomplish," Miller said. "I think things are looking good in College Park. In this case, change is positive."

With a new president, a new athletic director and changes atop its football and men's basketball programs, the state's flagship university confronts the most uncertainty over its public face in more than a decade.

From 2001 to 2010, the same four people held those high-profile jobs. And it was quite a run, one in which the university hit new peaks of research funding and selectivity while also reaching the postseason more often than not in its two highest-profile sports.

But last year, C.D. "Dan" Mote stepped aside after 12 years as president. Debbie Yow left for North Carolina State after 16 years as athletic director. Her replacement, Kevin Anderson, pushed football coach Ralph Friedgen to the curb after he was named Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year. And on Thursday, Maryland supporters were stunned by the news that Williams, probably the most famous man on campus, was retiring after 22 seasons.

Despite those changes, campus and state leaders joined Miller in offering positive forecasts for College Park. The university stands on a rock-solid foundation, they say, and new administrators and coaches will bring fresh ideas to an institution that's thriving.

"I think there's an opportunity for us to move up to the next level," said Steve Glickman, who just finished his second term as student government president. "The leadership has been pretty stable, and they've moved us to a level we've never been at before. But I'm optimistic that we can get to the next tier."

There is, however, a less sunny view. As Mote's replacement, Wallace Loh brings a stirring story of immigrant success but neither experience as a college president nor national fame. Anderson, the new athletic director, came from a lower-key sports program at Army. New football coach Randy Edsall won at Connecticut, but Terps fans, dreaming of former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach's carnival-ride offense, greeted his hiring with ambivalence. And now Williams, the greatest institution of them all, has left a basketball program without an obvious star or a clear path forward.

Despite his optimism, Glickman acknowledges that students at College Park flooded their Facebook pages Thursday with the general sentiment "R.I.P. Terps basketball." They felt jolted not only by Gary Williams' announcement but by the departure of star forward Jordan Williams to the NBA.

"Having successful football and basketball boosts student morale, no question," Glickman said. "If the programs are hurting, it could hurt the number of students applying."

The uncertainty could also have an impact on athletic fundraising, already down in recent years amid the recession and mixed success of Maryland teams.

"It's always a possibility when you have change that you could see a drop in fundraising," said Cheryl Harrison, senior associate director of athletics.

Donations and season ticket sales for football got off to a slow start in 2011 but have picked up recently, she said. The impact of Williams' retirement remains to be seen.

Such short-term fears aside, it's hard to find close observers of the university who worry that the changes will halt its momentum.

"Gary Williams was an institution at the institution, but he will be replaced and life will go on," said David Nevins, a former member of the Board of Regents who runs a Hunt Valley marketing firm. "College Park as a great institution won't miss a beat."

The university has endured far more troubled periods in its athletic history. Even as the department reeled from the cocaine-induced death of star forward Len Bias and subsequent NCAA sanctions, the institution hardly lost its way. In fact, between 1987 and 1990, its endowment nearly tripled, private gifts increased 41 percent and academic standards rose, according to C. Fraser Smith's book "Lenny, Lefty, and the Chancellor."

Chancellor William E. Kirwan, who was president at College Park during part of that span, says he took the lesson that "athletic programs can be a wonderful complement to a university's efforts to become great, but they're certainly not a necessity."

"If there's any sense of anxiety," he said of the current situation, "I'm sure it will pass quickly."

Tom McMillen, a former Maryland basketball star and current member of the Board of Regents, was caught off guard by Williams' decision. "But many times, change is a good thing, as it has been with the new president," he said. "In the history of anything, it's pretty hard to find someone who is irreplaceable."

Such a large and successful university is unlikely to be damaged by mere coaching changes, says Charles Clotfelter, an economics professor at Duke University who wrote "Big-Time Sports in American Universities."

"I don't see this as a crisis," said Clotfelter, who taught at College Park for five years in the 1970s. "Maryland is a big ship that has got a lot of momentum. It takes a lot to change that, for good or for ill."

That's not to say that Clotfelter sees the football and basketball coaches as unimportant. He argues that in a time of declining state spending, universities are more reliant than ever on private donations. And winning sports are perhaps the quickest way to nurture relations with potential donors.

"It's silly to think that as universities, we're only in the research, teaching and service businesses," Clotfelter said. "We are also in the entertainment business. Those teams are the parts of the university that most residents are most likely to know."

In terms of revenue, the football and basketball programs account for a tiny sliver of the university's $1.6 billion operating budget. Their earnings serve mainly to keep the athletic department's budget balanced.

But universities are most likely to appear on television or to be written about in The New York Times because of sports, Clotfelter found in researching his book. Football coaches are the subjects of far more Google searches than college presidents. Sports also produce hard-to-quantify benefits such as state pride and positive examples of interracial cooperation, he says.

"It's with us," Clotfelter said of the impact of big-time sports. "It's not going anywhere. So of course you want good people in those jobs."

Miller, who has maintained close relationships with several generations of university leaders and coaches, says he's confident that Maryland has the right football coach in the tough, disciplined Edsall and will hire a strong replacement for Williams. He sounds excited about luring a top coach such as Arizona's Sean Miller or Villanova's Jay Wright.

"I think there are a lot of people who think it's a Top-10 place to come in the country," he said.

Miller says winning football and basketball teams are important for the university and beyond.

"When UM is winning, there is an enthusiasm toward the state," he said. "You see the university's insignia everywhere. People are happy."

Loh likes to describe athletics as the university's "front porch," meaning not the most fundamental element but the first that many people see. When describing plans to expand international relationships during his recent inauguration, for example, Loh said the men's and women's basketball teams will play in China as ambassadors.

"What happens on the front porch affects how people perceive the rest of the institution," he said. "I don't think it's a coincidence that many of the most successful academic institutions in this country also have very strong athletics."

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