Maryland's leaving the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) is like a slow death. There's nothing immediate about it. It's sad, toxic and terribly emotional.
This isn't just about history and tradition — or even conference pride. For seasoned fans of the University of Maryland, it's far deeper.
We're witnessing the end of generational ties to Maryland where parents nurtured championship dreams and molded team loyalty for their children based on rivalries of old. The end of conversations and spirited debate about players and stats versus a particular conference team. The end of "Carolina ref" chants when a call doesn't go our way and of using certain single-syllable words when dissing other teams: Wake, Tech, State.
The legendary and charismatic coach Lefty Driesell understood these roots when he proudly expressed his desire to display the 1984 ACC Championship trophy on the hood of his car while cruising through North Carolina. Chances are, if you ask the common Terps fan where the nucleus region is for its next conference home — the Big Ten — you'll receive a confused look similar to the one Buck Williams showed on his face following the tough no-call against Duke in the 1980 ACC Championship.
On Sunday, the Terps men's basketball team plays its final regular season game as a member of the Atlantic Coast against Virginia. And while the official date the university joins the Big Ten isn't until July 1, you can't help but look at this as the end. The Maryland faithful have always had a stronger bond to the basketball program than other sports, including the revenue-producing football.
If you don't believe this statement, then simply look at the fact that Maryland dropped $110 million on a new basketball arena because athletic officials believed the men's team would be able to financially support all other sports, including their fully-paid scholarships.
In deciding to abandon Cole Field house, former Athletic Director Debbie Yow (who left in 2010 to go to NC State) and Senior Associate Athletic Director Joe Hull (who left in 2007 for the College of Charleston in South Carolina) delivered what they thought was in the best interest of the fans, alumni, boosters and student-athletes. But looking back at it, the decision set-off a chain reaction of hard choices, which concludes with the university selling its soul to join a group of schools sporting a different culture.
The decision to leave a conference where Maryland was a pioneer member showed the school was at a cross roads. Their choices were to continue down the path of losing money and alienating many alumni, and possibly eliminating additional sports from athletics, or to capitalize on the fact that the campus happens to be in the ninth largest media market in the country and has the world's most powerful government in its backyard.
The choice was too easy.
Nobody can accurately predict the future, but the Big Ten is not likely to feel like home from the start, or any time soon. There appear to be zero plans in place to kick-off the relationship, which should last for the next century. Actually, the marketing for Terp athletics has always been subpar, and selling fans on a football schedule will be difficult to monetize. The school can ill-afford an economic mishap, like the one it willfully faced by squeezing a handful of wealthy boosters to fund what has become a quiet cavern of basketball malaise.
Unfortunately, the backbone of the athletic department's booster club — The Terrapin Club — is showing gray as the median age of its members touches 70; and without a younger base to pick-up the slack, the school will have to rely entirely on television and bowl-split revenues. Private contributions are tough to come by, especially for a university known to compete against itself when trolling for dollars from a very small community of donors.
The University of Maryland cannot let this move to the Big Ten end in failure. It may take a generation or more before a solid foundation of tradition forms, but the athletic department has a very thin margin of error to work with in the short-term.
Let's hope athletic officials can find a way and use this move to economically recover and create a prosperous environment for its teams and student-athletes. That's a move all Terp fans will definitely support.
Todd M. Schoenberger is the managing partner of hedge fund firm, LandColt Capital LP, and a former executive board member of the University of Maryland Terrapin Club. Follow him on Twitter @TMSchoenberger.
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