Local colleges need conference, tourney to call their own


It's tournament time in college basketball, and, as far as th local schools are concerned, the whole thing is crazy.

It's no crazier than it is all year, since our teams are in conferences that make no sense geographically. At tournament time, it just looks worse with everyone hitting the road.

Towson State and UMBC are first-year members of the Big South, which holds its tournament starting tomorrow at North Charleston (S.C.) Coliseum.

Loyola College is in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. The MAAC holds its tournament next weekend in Albany, N.Y.

Morgan State, Coppin State and UMES play in the Mid-Eastern (( Athletic Conference. Tournament site starting Thursday: The Scope in Norfolk, Va.

Mount St. Mary's is in the Northeast Conference with a bunch of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York schools. Tournament games begin tomorrow at campus sites.

Navy is in the Patriot League and plays its first-round game at Colgate in Hamilton, N.Y.

The other day I talked with Mebane Turner, president of the University of Baltimore, about all this.

I told him it made no sense to me that Towson and UMBC spend so much time and money to travel to conference schools in the Carolinas, and that Loyola was no better off running back and forth to upstate New York.

Besides, does anyone in Baltimore really care about Towson State vs. Winthrop? Or Loyola-Canisius? President Turner smiled.

"It makes no sense at all," he said, "for these schools to spend all that money to travel and have their players miss so much class time.

"Frank Szymanski had the answer -- 20 years ago. He wanted all the local schools to go to Division I and form their own conference, with the winner advancing to the NCAA tournament."

4 "Could you have done that at the time?" I asked.

"Sure," he replied.

Twenty years ago the University of Baltimore had an outstanding Division II basketball team. At one point Towson State and B.U. were ranked 1-2 in the nation in the division. Szymanski was the Bees' coach and athletic director.

"In 1973," Frank recalled yesterday, "we were in the old Mason-Dixon Conference. The NCAA decided that Division I schools could play only a limited number of games against Division II teams. It was clear to Tom O'Connor [then Loyola's A.D.] and me that we had to do something.

"We held a meeting of our conference athletic directors -- Bob Scott, from Johns Hopkins; Dick Watts, from UMBC; Ed Athey, Washington College; Dick Clower, Western Maryland. Salisbury State and Frostburg State were there.

"We told them that we all had to move up to Division I collectively or the rest would tumble. Our school went up to Division I the next year, Towson came up a year later, but most of the schools were afraid they'd be adding $2 million to their athletic budgets. Either O'Connor and I were ahead of our time or we didn't present it very well.

"Later, Mount St. Mary's moved up to Division I for one reason -- so it could continue to schedule traditional opponents like Loyola and Towson. The University of Baltimore dropped intercollegiate athletics altogether because of budget considerations.

"We could have an excellent conference right now," Szymanski said, "starting with the six local Division I colleges [Coppin State, Towson State, UMBC, Morgan State, Mount St. Mary's and Loyola]. They'd have packed houses at their games.

"Imagine the excitement if we had a tournament here this weekend for a conference involving those schools plus maybe a couple others from Washington. Think of the time and the money would save. And the fans would love it."

"That would be nice," agreed Billy Hunter, Towson's athletic director, who was coaching third base for the Orioles when all the new leagues were being formed.

"When our Towson team travels to South Carolina for a Saturday-Monday deal it costs a lot of money. The plane alone costs between $5,000 and $6,000. Then you have buses at each end of the flight, plus lodging and meals.

"That's why I said what I did to Dick Schultz [NCAA executive director] when we played for the Division I lacrosse championship two years ago at Syracuse.

"I told Dick the NCAA should declare a six-month moratorium and re-arrange all the conferences. Life would be a lot simpler if all the schools around here could play in the same conference."

"I guess it was just too logical," says Szymanski.

Consequently, the set-up today is illogical.

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