I've been a University of Maryland athletics fan as long as I can remember and I'm graduate of a Big Ten school - Northwestern - so last week's announced move of Maryland from the Atlantic Coast Conference to the Big Ten ought to be a great marriage for me.
Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn't.
I suppose the relative benefits for all concerned - myself included - remain to be seen, but there's no reason to be especially shocked by this development, which almost everyone attributes to the pursuit of mo' money.
Tradition has been thrown to the winds in college athletics, anyway, so I suppose there's no allegiances left to pine over. After all, the Big Ten hasn't been a "10" since Penn State joined in 1990 (more about that later), and the planned hook-up with Maryland and Rutgers in 2014 will expand the conference to an SEC-like 14 teams. Grow to survive is the mantra that governs realignment in college athletics, but it will likely be many years before anyone knows if all this made any sense, period.
I come by my Maryland support somewhat naturally, even if I didn't go to school there. In addition to being a resident of the Free State for 42 years and having immediate family members who are graduates, my mother's brother, who is probably the person most responsible for my love of sports, was a student at College Park in the early 1950s when the football program was routinely referred to in the national media as "Mighty Maryland." I can still remember him sending me a postcard from the 1952 Sugar Bowl when No. 3 Maryland poleaxed No. 1 Tennessee, 28-14. Basketball-wise, if you can't form an enduring love for a team like Maryland after the 1971 Jim O'Brien slowdown game against South Carolina, you need to follow the NBA.
Of course, my first allegiance today goes to my alma mater, which, despite a period from the late 1970s to the early 1990s we alums tend to call the "dark ages," has done fairly well in athletics over the past 20 years. Nothing special, mind you, but we're competitive in most sports in the conference, men's and women's, revenue and non-revenue - maybe with the exception of men's basketball, where we are truly inept.
Actually, I sometimes wonder if there's a coincidence between the arrival of Penn State in the conference and the overall improvement in Northwestern's athletics, even if we seldom beat them in either football or basketball. Was this a case of watering down like happens every time pro sports leagues expand? Or did it force Northwestern to spend more to keep from falling farther behind the rest of the league. Regardless, I do think Penn State's history in the Big Ten should be a cautionary tale for Maryland.
In almost 22 years, the Penn State football team has won a single conference football championship and appeared in one Rose Bowl and I think two other BCS bowls. One of the points Penn State people raised when they joined was that the school's profile would be raised in basketball, the other major revenue sport after football. That clearly hasn't happened. I can't speak as well to non-revenue sports, although I can't recall seeing any dominance displayed by other Penn State teams.
Will there be benefits to Maryland when it joins the Big Ten? Both men's and women's basketball teams have the ability to dominate the conference, in my opinion. The whacking Maryland's men put on Northwestern Tuesday night is just a prelude of things to come. (OK, I realize the last time the Wildcats finished as high as fourth in the conference was in my junior year – 1968!)
The one danger of dominance on the hardwood, however, is that Maryland could quickly become the Kentucky of the Big Ten, which in turn means the football team will suck year in and year out. But Maryland's two basketball teams should genuinely raise the quality and profile of Big Ten hoops to where the conference could very well leave the ACC in the dust.
A number of people who don't like Maryland leaving the ACC have pointed to the adverse impact it will have on the school's lacrosse program, particularly men's lacrosse. It's a legitimate concern, as three Big Ten schools play men's lacrosse and not very well. The women's lacrosse program and Northwestern already have a natural rivalry because of the Kelly Amonte-Hiller connection, but there's no Big Ten women's lacrosse league, either, and I don't think anyone confuses the American Lacrosse League that NU plays in with the ACC.
Most non-revenue sports are very competitive within in the Big Ten - baseball and softball, men's and women's soccer, field hockey, wrestling, golf, tennis. I hope Maryland will use its anticipated financial windfall from Big Ten membership to revive the track and field program, and there's no reason with its tradition of past excellence that it can't become a dominant program.
Less certain is the prospect of Maryland raising the profile of its football program. When you have to compete with the likes of Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan, true national programs, and with other perennial successful programs like Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State, for talent and attention, it's a tough nut to crack. Northwestern has done it in recent years, but most of us Wildcat fans tend to view the start of each season with notion that any wins over six is playing with house money. Of course, the way Maryland has played the past two years, any wins over three might be considered cause to what we call "lake the posts!"
So, welcome to the Big Ten, Terps fans! I'm clearly prejudiced, but top to bottom and sport by sport, it's the best there is in college athletics. Just don't get your hopes too high. The money may indeed be better, but so will be most of the competition.
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