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UMD’s five-year football review

Students on the University of Maryland College Park campus talk about head football coach DJ Durkin keeping his job after the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair a few days after he sufferered heatstroke during practice on May 29, 2018. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)

In two weeks of college football, the University of Maryland has outscored its opponents 142-20. It romped over local rival Howard University 79-0 and thumped No. 21 Syracuse 63-20. Recognition of former player Jordan NcNair, who died of heatstroke last year after a practice, was everywhere, from the back of the helmets to the tree planted on campus in his honor.

To outsiders, it may look as if the Terrapins have overcome one of the most tragic periods in their storied history since Len Bias’ death in the 1980s.

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McNair’s death produced a year of external reports, firings, resignations and board of trustees restructuring. During that period, we learned that the culture in the athletics program included senior leaders acting as if they were in “Survivor” mode, determined to make it until the next tribal council meeting. Some left, some were fired, and one — Athletics Director Damon Evans — remains. The football program endured two different head coaches in 2018, followed by the return of a former assistant coach,Mike Locksley, as the new head coach. Staff turnover was significant, but not unusual for a high-profile program in transition.

This season begins the Terps fifth year in the Big Ten Conference. Usually, coaches are given five years to bring in their own recruits, coach ‘em up, and demonstrate the program is competitive in their new environs. So, let’s do a five-year review — how is the transition going?

Former athletics director Kevin Anderson told the media in 2012 that joining the Big Ten “guarantees our athletic department and our university financial stability. We have done so much with so little for so long.” So far, that wish has not come to fruition. Maryland is still not a full financial member of the conference, causing the athletic department to borrow funds from the central campus coffers, issue bonds for new constructions and upgrades (see Cole Field House) and borrow from the Big Ten Network.

Ticket sales are an important component for increasing revenues. And since joining the Big Ten, the Terps have averaged well under 40,000 in a stadium that seats 57,000. In the first two games in 2019, Maryland drew 32,000 versus Howard and 33,000 versus Syracuse. Remember, there are three Big Ten teams that regularly draw over 100,000: Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.

Maryland has had five head football coaches since joining the Big Ten. Their total severance packages were $7.8 million. In addition, Head Coach Locksley was signed to a 5-year, $2.5 million contract with significant incentives.

Maryland's coach Mike Locksley talks about the 79-0 win over the Howard Bison's in College Park, Maryland.

A surprising statistic appeared in the USA Today database on college athletics revenues in May 2019. Maryland received a total of $57 million from the Big Ten Conference, higher than any other conference school. Great, right? Except $31 million was an additional loan from the conference to offset the annual debt payments, external reviews and contract buyouts. The actual television money was $26.1 million. The total loan balance from the Big Ten Conference alone through mid-2019? $66 million.

While it might seem like the Terps’ troubles from the horrific death of Jordan McNair are in the rearview mirror, serious financial challenges are facing the university. Maryland’s President, Wallace Loh, commissioned two reviews in 2018 — one that reviewed athletic medicine policies and procedures, and a second that looked into the football program’s culture. The changes recommended were not one-off fixes. All will require sustained financial investment. And this does not include the potential wrongful death lawsuit and/or settlement that President Loh appeared to promise to the McNair family last summer.

The transition from the ACC to the Big Ten has been a steep climb for Maryland’s athletic program. Even when the university achieves full financial membership in 2021, the heavy debt load will remain for decades. How the university gets out from underneath this without asking the taxpayers for a bailout will be something to keep an eye on. State subsidies should not be given to offset poor decision making.

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Karen Weaver (kew62@drexel.edu) is an associate clinical professor at Drexel University. She spent 14 years in the Big Ten Conference as a head coach and athletics administrator.

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