UMBC arrives at party only to find it's over


One year, that's all it lasted. UMBC couldn't wait to join the East Coast Conference. Now, as the league faces extinction, it has virtually no choice but to leave.

No one blinks anymore when a Miami joins the Big East or a Florida State joins the Atlantic Coast Conference. But then you look at a UMBC, and you realize just how screwy the game of conference musical chairs has become.

UMBC was an independent its first four years of Division I, giving its men's basketball team the unique educational opportunity of playing 56 different opponents in 20 different states.

The ECC was supposed to correct all that. The ECC was supposed to give UMBC an identity, not to mention the chance to profit from college basketball's very own money market, the NCAA tournament.

Problem was, the ECC was falling apart even when it recruited UMBC two years ago. Bucknell, Lafayette and Lehigh already had decided to leave. Delaware and Drexel would soon follow.

Looking back, UMBC should have seen trouble coming. But its only other conference choice at that time was the Northeast. The ECC included a Baltimore rival, Towson State. The Northeast did not.

Two ironies:

* The expected departure of Towson State for yet another conference (the North Atlantic) is probably "the straw that broke the camel's back" for the ECC, according to UMBC athletic director Charlie Brown.

* UMBC's next conference is likely to be its old friend the Northeast, a group including one Maryland school, Mount St. Mary's, and eight others ranging from the New York metropolitan area to western Pennsylvania.

At first glance, UMBC would seem to lose little by merely switching conferences, and in the long run that might be the case. But school officials, left standing in this game of musical chairs, are disturbed nonetheless.

"We thought we were just getting settled," vice president of student affairs Dr. Susan Kitchen says. "We had very much looked forward to a local rivalry with a sister institution like Towson. We were committed to making the conference work."

Brown, the athletic director, is even more direct. "The very schools who were inviting us to the ECC were thinking of leaving at that point," he says. "That's very upsetting to us."

Yet that's the depraved new world of college sports, where each institution seeks only to protect itself, without regard to past alliances or geographic sensibilities.

Thus, Towson would appear to be the villain in this scenario, but that's too simple an analysis. The ECC will be down to five teams next year, one below the minimum needed to retain its automatic bid to the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Towson simply grew tired of being in limbo.

The thing that puzzles UMBC's Brown is that Towson and the rest of the ECC pushed for an NCAA waiver that would have enabled the conference to regain its tournament bid in 1993.

If Towson leaves, the bid will be lost for five years, and the league almost certainly will collapse. Yet even if Towson enters the North Atlantic -- with perhaps its most powerful basketball team ever -- it still might have to wait a year to become eligible for the tournament, due to scheduling problems.

Why not just stay in the ECC?

That's UMBC's question.

Towson, remember, is the school that considered dropping football last fall because of financial problems in its athletic department. Now it wants to enter a conference that features six New England schools, a conference where its travel costs would increase immeasurably.


The North Atlantic, without question, has its appeal -- bigger schools, more championships. But all things being equal, Towson still might rather stay; its athletic director, two-time ECC president, Bill Hunter, fought hard to keep the conference together.

Problem is, all things are not equal.

He who hesitates is left behind.

"I have been accused internally of not looking out for us enough," Hunter says. "There was a domino effect when the big schools started aligning. We knew it would get down to us sooner or later, and it did. I think we made the right decision."

Meanwhile, as Hunter awaits word from the North Atlantic, UMBC's Brown is investigating the Northeast; the Big South, another option, would mean too much travel. Brown's first choice is still the ECC, but only in his dreams.

"The entire campus community was anticipating our entry into a conference," he says. "This is a setback for us. We have to change gears, develop new rivalries. Our recruiting is affected. It's an unnerving situation."

One year, that's all it lasted.

One year, and UMBC is back on the street.

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