Maryland men's soccer coach Sasho Cirovski has seen more than a dozen of his players leave school early to pursue professional careers. The departures have often left Cirovski to wonder whether his former athletes would eventually come back to finish their undergraduate degrees.
With a new program announced Tuesday by Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson, athletes in all of the school's sports will be able to return with their scholarships intact as long as they left the university in good academic and social standing.
Another component of the "The Maryland Way Guarantee" will allow athletes who are unable to continue their college careers because of injury to remain on scholarship, as can those who left teams because of family emergencies or for other reasons.
The program, which will go into effect in November, makes Maryland among the first Division I schools in the country to give what Anderson called a "lifetime" scholarship to its athletes.
Previously, scholarships have only been guaranteed on a year-to-year basis.
"If you go away and come back 20 years from now, we'll put you on a program so you can get your degree," Anderson said Tuesday.
The program comes as the Terps embark on their first season in the Big Ten Conference. Fellow Big Ten member Indiana announced a similar program — one that also includes enhanced medical coverage and other benefits — in June. Anderson said he is working with Maryland's medical school to figure out what can be done to help athletes in that regard.
The scholarship program will officially begin with student-athletes entering Maryland this fall, but it will affect ones like Rodney Elliott, who expects to finish his degree this summer or fall — 18 years after he left school "about nine to 12" credits short. Elliott went on to play professionally for more than 10 years, mostly in Europe, after leaving Maryland.
"I think [the new program] is awesome," said Elliott, a former Dunbar star who now coaches at the Mount Zion Academy prep school in Baltimore. "It gives each student-athlete a chance to come back and fulfill their dream [of getting a degree]."
Anderson said the school still has some leeway to help former athletes who have returned the past few years in order to graduate, as well as current athletes who will not have the benefit of being officially in the scholarship program.
"Since I've been here, I know we've accommodated anyone who's shown a desire to come back and get their degree," said Anderson, who has been at Maryland for four years. "We've made it work one way or the other. Now we'll have direct funding and a program that addresses this, so it won't be going on an individual case, but we'll look at the entire student-athlete population."
Scholarship money will continue to be raised by the Terrapin Club Scholarship Fund, which seeks private donations to cover the costs of athletes' educations.
Though many athletes who leave to play professionally may have financial means to pay for their remaining credits, Cirovski said the new program will give his former players an incentive to return to College Park rather than to finish their studies elsewhere.
"I would rather see them get their degrees from the University of Maryland than from another school," he said.
Men's basketball coach Mark Turgeon said he has always had an unofficial policy of allowing his players "five years [on scholarship] to play four," but he noted that this program will put families more at ease.
"Our goal is still to graduate the kids in four years," Turgeon said.
Anderson said the new program should give Maryland's coaches "an advantage" in recruiting.
"They can go in to a home of a potential student-athlete and look the parents in the eye and say, 'We are going to offer you a lifetime scholarship,'" Anderson said.
Though they won't be directly a part of the new program, Turgeon said he has been in communication with former Terps such as John Gilchrist, Byron Mouton and Elliott about finishing their respective degrees and "this helps us do that."
Previously, those types of arrangements have been what Cirovski described as more of a gentleman's agreement between coach and athlete. Now, it's going to be documented and will be offered regardless of whether the athlete plays a revenue or Olympic sport.
"In most situations, it's an unwritten rule that scholarships are good for your entire career as long as you're in good academic standing. It's not very clear," Cirovski said. "What I really love about this initiative of The Maryland Way Guarantee is that it's a very real promise that when you commit to Maryland, we're going to be committed to you forever. It adds an exclamation point that you're a Terp for life. ...
"It puts on a hard document, basically, that as long as you represent the university in good fashion you're not going to be worried about renewal every year."