Like many in College Park, longtime Maryland men's soccer coach Sasho Cirovski was surprised when university president Wallace D. Loh announced in November 2012 that the Terps would be moving to the Big Ten Conference in 2014. And like many of his coaching colleagues and the school's fans, Cirovski was skeptical.
Coming from a league with national soccer powers, Cirovski feared that leaving the Atlantic Coast Conference after 61 years might hurt his program. The Big Ten had only one traditional soccer powerhouse, Indiana, and the second half of the conference schedule featured games in increasingly colder weather.
That seems so long ago. As Wednesday's anniversary of Maryland's switch to the Big Ten approaches, Cirovski's initial fears — and those of most skeptics — are gone, replaced by a collective confidence that the Terps have benefited financially and flourished competitively since the move.
"We went from one nice neighborhood to another great neighborhood," Cirovski said recently. "I can tell you nobody has been talking about the ACC around here for a while. You look at the success across the board, and it was just fantastic. Right now, everyone is extremely excited about the Big Ten."
That excitement stems from Maryland's league-best seven regular-season and conference tournament championships; three final four appearances; and, in women's lacrosse, a national championship, the program's second straight.
Perhaps even more important is the success of the Terps' marquee sports, men's basketball and football, which had better-than-expected inaugural seasons in the league and helped generate much of the department's $15 million in ticket sales and spur the largest increase in attendance (14 percent) in the Big Ten.
Three years after eliminating seven sports to reduce a reported $21 million deficit, athletic director Kevin Anderson said the athletic program is "meeting our projections" for the current fiscal year and is starting to near the day when it will be "totally solvent."
"From the very beginning, we didn't go into the Big Ten thinking we were going to be good years out. We talked about being competitive right away," Anderson said during a Maryland Pride Tour event for boosters in Baltimore last month. "Winning 200 conference championships in the ACC, we had no doubt that we would be competitive immediately in the Big Ten.
"It wasn't a surprise to me. It was one of our goals that we thought we could do it, and now we've proven we can do it. Now the biggest challenge for us as an athletic department is to be consistent and to do it at the level that we did. I'm confident that we can do it."
Dollars and sense
Maryland's budget projections won't be available until next month, but they have been helped by a front-loaded deal with the Big Ten.
The Baltimore Sun reported in 2013 that the conference had agreed to give Maryland a subsidy worth between $20 million and $30 million to help defray travel expenses, estimated to be as much as double the $3 million teams spent in 2012-13.
Sports Illustrated reported that the Big Ten had projected Maryland would make $32 million in 2014-15 and $43 million in 2017, when the league renews its TV contract. In August 2014, the school settled its lawsuit with the ACC by allowing the league to keep more than $31 million in television revenue it had withheld.
Anderson said he expects the department's deficit to be gone "by 2018 or 2019, and we can move forward from there." In 2017, the first phase of a $155 million project to convert Cole Field House into an indoor practice facility for football is expected to be completed.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who helped the league gain a financially significant foothold on the East Coast with its addition of Maryland and Rutgers, said in an interview with The Sun last month that he expected Maryland to be competitive across the board, though he acknowledged that he was "pleasantly surprised" by the football team's .500 record in the Big Ten's East Division.
"My view is that you expand to bring quality and to grow the conference brand, and nothing succeeds like a little bit of success, especially early on," Delany said. "I know of Maryland's history, traditions, success.
"I'm happy for them. What happens on the field is a function of how good your players are and how good your coaches are and what happens in any particular year. They've got good players and they've got good coaches."
Some of those who were initially critical of the move have softened, or completely changed, their stance.
Former men's basketball star Tom McMillen, the only member of the university system's Board of Regents to vote against the move, said his biggest objection had to do with the secretive nature of the process.
"As I look back on it, this has been a positive decision," McMillen said in a recent interview. "The revenue side is so compelling, I think if they would have showed us in a little greater deliberation, I think it would have put away a lot of concerns right away."
McMillen said most of his objections concerned how the move was decided on without public discussion — "We didn't have enough information; we had very preliminary information" — and added that he is still concerned about the extra money and time spent on travel.
"Can we keep the costs from escalating? That's going to be a challenge," McMillen said. "The revenue is clearly a big win, but can you keep the costs under control? You don't want to be in the same place five years from now.
"These kids have to travel enormous amount of distances. I think the most important thing is that these kids get an education."
Matt Dunn (Loyola Blakefield), a rising senior defenseman on the men's lacrosse team, said last week that the transition to the Big Ten was not as challenging academically as some might suspect. (According to an athletic department spokesman, 295 Maryland athletes were Academic All-Big Ten selections, compared with 224 the previous year in the ACC.)
"It was different, but not extraordinarily different," Dunn said. "It was different going to different areas. My sophomore year, we bused up to Syracuse. We bused to Hartford [in Connecticut] my freshman year. We're used to traveling. Nothing in the Big Ten was that far away. It was pretty normal in terms of the logistics."
Dunn said the on-field competition, meanwhile, was tougher than anticipated.
"The ACC has just really developed that tradition of being a strong conference," Dunn said. "The way lacrosse is expanding, there's so many good teams in the [Big Ten] that even though they're not ranked nationally, it's not an easy game. That was something we really learned this year. I think the competition was just as strong as it was anywhere else."
Football coach Randy Edsall said he believes the performance of his team and others helped make the transition easier for fans.
"I would say yes, people were surprised [by] the overall success that all of our teams had in the Big Ten," Edsall said. "It didn't surprise me because of the kind of student-athletes and the kind of coaches we have. Again, I think it was the right move for all the right reasons."
The Big Ten Network has made it easier, too. Coaches and players have raved about the added exposure Maryland teams, particularly those playing Olympic sports, have received on the cable channel.
In all, Maryland teams have appeared 117 times on the Big Ten Network or one of its properties — and that's not including replays of men's basketball and football games.
"That was one thing that I thought was really cool, whether it was our game or being able to watch other games," Dunn said. "I did have people that I knew that didn't live around here and weren't coming to a lot of games [who would] email me saying, 'Great game, I got to catch a game on the Big Ten Network.' That was something different because we weren't on a lot when we were in the ACC."
According to a Maryland spokesman, the school's number of Twitter followers has grown 89 percent in the past year, while its number of Facebook fans has increased 25 percent. A video of the flash mob from the men's basketball team's February game against Wisconsin has nearly 3.7 million views.
"If you take a look at the exposure that we've gotten because of the Big Ten Network, we've become more of a national school because of the Big Ten Network. We didn't have that before," Edsall said. "People from California to Texas to the Midwest, South, East — everybody sees it. What you've done is that you've branded yourself to more people."
"The coverage the Olympic sports have gotten is tremendous, which you didn't have before. When you look at the totality of everything that the Big Ten has brought to Maryland, people realize what a great move it was. Then you see the success teams had, and it makes it even that much better."
Even women's basketball coach Brenda Frese, who previously coached in the Big Ten at Minnesota, didn't fully understand the reach of the Big Ten Network.
"I had no idea," Frese said of the network, which launched in 2007. "After the first game we played on the Big Ten Network, I felt the Big Ten Network's presence nationally. It wasn't just regionally. We didn't have that effect in the past. Consistently through the season, that exposure, I thought, opened up so many doors."
Men's basketball coach Mark Turgeon acknowledged that his biggest recruiting coup to date might not have come without the move to the Big Ten. In signing 6-foot-10 center Diamond Stone, a five-star prospect from Milwaukee considered one of the best high school players in the country, the Terps beat out the home-state Badgers. In the months since Stone's March commitment, Maryland has sold 1,600 new season-ticket packages and garnered buzz as potentially the nation's top-ranked team entering next season.
Cirovski has seen similar results: According to a number of publications, Maryland has the No. 1 incoming recruiting class in the country, "and that's with every one of these players knowing we're in the Big Ten," Cirovski said.
Even more important to the future of the program is the fact that after years of empty promises, Cirovski believes his team will someday play in a new soccer-specific stadium — or, at the least, a significantly renovated Ludwig Field.
"We're in the process" of raising funds, he said. "Things are looking brighter than they ever have in my years here."
The same might be said about Maryland athletics as a whole, Cirovski said: "There's general excitement on campus. We have the Cole Field House project moving forward. It definitely had a different feel. I think Maryland rose to the occasion. This year really could not have gone any better."