COLLEGE PARK — — As they enter the 61st and final year of their partnership, Maryland and the Atlantic Coast Conference are like a newly divorced couple that is forced by circumstances to continue to live together and makes a halfhearted pledge to remain friends.
The conference and the university, which enters the Big Ten on July 1, 2014, have publicly committed to being cordial. But beneath the veneer lie bruised feelings and a pronounced disagreement about money — Maryland has challenged the legality of the $52 million exit fee — that can't help but color the relationship.
The strain was evident when ACC members were asked this week by The Baltimore Sun whether they would consider adding Maryland to their nonconference schedule — in any sport — after the Terps depart.
Their response? Plenty of silence.
Many seemed to gingerly sidestep the question, although none explicitly replied "no." Four — Clemson, Florida State Georgia Tech and Miami — said directly that they would consider scheduling the Terps as they would any other Big Ten team.
Virginia, a border-state rival that has played Maryland in football more than any other school, released a written statement from athletic director Craig Littlepage. "We have not made any scheduling decisions about future UVA-UMD competitions," it said.
Asked by The Sun if that meant Virginia could be open to playing Maryland, the school's athletic department replied in an email: "Craig's statement… sums up where we currently are."
Duke has been the most vocal of the ACC schools about Maryland's impending departure. When Maryland played at Duke in men's basketball last season, fans chanted "ACC" and held signs reading "Good Riddance" with a Maryland logo displayed.
"If [Duke-Maryland] was such a rivalry, they'd still be in the ACC," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters after the second Terps-Blue Devils game in College Park in February. "Obviously they don't think it's that important."
Asked this week about speculation that Duke might be unwilling to schedule Maryland in the future, the school answered without mentioning Maryland.
"There is one principle guiding Duke Athletics' scheduling philosophy," the school said. "The 26 varsity sports programs schedule according to what is in the best interest of the student-athletes, Duke University and the Atlantic Coast Conference." Duke officials declined to elaborate.
Dozens of universities are leaving conferences in 2013 or 2014.
"Lame-duck status is awkward," said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at USC's Marshall School of Business, "but less awkward than it used to be because the prospect of it has become commonplace throughout sports.
"Everywhere college fans have looked over the last decade they have seen substantial conference overhauls. The fact that you can't tell a conference without a scorecard suggests that once-strange bedfellows are now simply bedfellows."
Maryland publicly announced its Big Ten plans last November. The ACC recently added Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame and will add Louisville next year. Notre Dame will retain its independent status in football.
Before it could begin in the Big Ten, Maryland needed to provide notice to the ACC — it did so within the past few weeks — and endure an uncomfortable waiting period.
The Terps continue to compete in the conference even as the school and the league are entangled in legal battles in North Carolina and Maryland. In November, the ACC asked a North Carolina court to declare that Maryland is subject to the full exit fee — $52,266,342 — for leaving the conference. Maryland countered with its own suit alleging that the exit fee is anti-competitive and should not be enforced. Maryland's suit has been placed on hold while the first suit proceeds.
Among other allegations, Maryland said in court documents that the ACC "has systematically excluded the Maryland President and University representatives from ACC meetings, even though Maryland remains a full member of the Conference."
ACC spokesman Amy Yakola said Wednesday that Maryland has been invited to all the meetings. Several officials who have attended meetings said the exclusion applies when the subject is conference business involving the post-2013 period when Maryland will have left the ACC. At that point, the Maryland officials leave the meeting.
In addition to monitoring ACC developments, Maryland representatives have already begun attending Big Ten meetings on marketing and other topics.
This week, Maryland's mascot, Testudo, was invited by the ACC to participate in ceremonial events in New York City with the other conference mascots. The events marked the entry of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame to the conference.
In one photo taken aboard a boat, Testudo is depicted upside down with his head on the deck and his legs being held by the Duke Blue Devil and the Virginia Cavalier. Media pundits and fans wondered publicly if the mascots were trying to deliver some sort of message about Maryland's tenuous relationship with the ACC. "The ACC mascots are doing something really bad and weird to Testudo," joked the Washington Post's Dan Steinberg in a tweet.
Officials at the event said later that the mascots were having fun and weren't trying to send a message. But the photo generated lots of buzz.
In April, Maryland fans noticed that top draws Duke and North Carolina weren't scheduled by the ACC to visit Comcast Center in either men's and women's basketball in the upcoming season. Some fans on message boards speculated that the conference was using scheduling to punish Maryland.
The ACC office said in reply that it uses a least one independent consultant to help piece together schedules and that there are always a number of variables.
Conference realignment inevitably causes strain. "I think what Maryland is going through is not unlike what everybody else [leaving conferences] is going through," said Loyola athletic director Jim Paquette.
In the past year, Loyola had various teams competing in three conferences. It left them to join the Patriot League, effective this month.
Paquette said schools want their transitions to be as seamless as possible, but it is not easy.
"It's awkward," he said. "You go to your boss and resign, it's never not awkward. We wanted to do it in a respectful, dignified manner with all three of the conferences. You want to meet your obligations to the conference you are in."
Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson declined comment, citing the ongoing legal action.
Maryland coaches have said they hope for particularly strong performances in their final ACC seasons. The Terps' final regular-season football game is at North Carolina State on Nov. 30.
Paquette said Loyola's goal was "to win everything going out the door, to go out on a high note. We wanted to make sure our student athletes had an opportunity for conference championships."
Maryland has a 60-year history with the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Baltimore Sun asked ACC schools if they would consider scheduling Maryland as a nonconference opponent in any sport after Maryland departs for the Big Ten in July 2014. Queries were sent initially to sports information directors, who often forwarded them to athletic directors. Queries weren't sent to the ACC's newest members — Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Notre Dame — because they don't have a history with Maryland.
Here are the responses:
Boston College: No comment because athletic director was unavailable.
Clemson: "As we look at future football scheduling, we consider several options. With Maryland moving out of the ACC, we would evaluate them as we would any current member of the Big Ten."
Duke: "There is one principle guiding Duke Athletics' scheduling philosophy. The 26 varsity sports programs schedule according to what is in the best interest of the student-athletes, Duke University and the Atlantic Coast Conference."
Florida State: "Scheduling is on a team-by-team basis. There is no moratorium on scheduling Maryland."
Georgia Tech: "While it's not likely that Maryland will be a non-conference opponent in football or basketball in the immediate future, we are receptive and actively pursuing future scheduling partnerships with all BIG 10 conference members."
Miami: "We do not have any restrictions on scheduling Maryland and would gladly do so where it makes sense."
North Carolina: No immediate reply.
North Carolina State: "Most of our coaches schedule their nonconference games throughout the season prior to the year in which they plan to play. Since we have not yet begun the school year, it is not clear if various sports will desire to play in the DC area or not in 14-15 and beyond."
Virginia: "We have not made any scheduling decisions about future UVA-UMD competitions."