Reporting David Elfin
A sad milestone might have occurred in College Park on May 3. After 89 years and hundreds of athletes, Maryland men’s running program held what could well have been its final meet.
“We did well and we had a nice little crowd,” said captain Zack Ray, who noted that the Terps were competing in the shadow of the $7.2 million house that the university is building for Wallace Loh, the President who signed off on Athletic Director Kevin Anderson’s decision to balance the department budget by slashing eight sports. “Everyone tried desperately not to think about it maybe being our last home meet ever, but at the same time, I think everyone took a good look around because it might really have been the last time that we were together as a team. It was an emotional day for everyone, but the team did a very good job of setting that aside and handling their business on the track.”
Less than six months earlier, coach Andrew Valmon – who will also guide the U.S. men’s track team in the Olympics this summer in London – and his runners, jumpers, hurdlers and throwers – were informed that they would cease to exist as a unit come fall unless $4.182 million was raised to make the program self-sustaining.
Since then, influential alumni have prevailed upon Loh and Anderson to keep the program alive – but with only 10 performers on scholarship on a 14-man outdoor track squad with cross country and indoor track still being eliminated – if $3.75 million is raised by the end of 2013. About $330,000 of that total is needed between now and June 30.
But that slightly less harsh outcome was no salve for many of the current Terps. Standout miler Kyle Graves, a sophomore from Our Lady of Good Counsel in Olney, is transferring to Wake Forest because he doesn’t want to be a one-season athlete. And even Ray might move on for his final year of eligibility as a hurdler.
“It’s been a pretty tough year,” said kinesiology major Graves, who’ll lose nearly a third of his credits when he transfers. “We were all caught by surprise in November. We didn’t even think we were on the radar of teams that might be cut (five other programs are on the chopping block, too). It might be weird competing against Maryland if they save the program, but I have to do what’s best for me. I understand why they cut the team, but I think they should have allowed all of us to stay on scholarship for our four years and just not recruited anyone else.”
Ray is not nearly as understanding towards the powers that be.
“I’m extremely bitter with the administration,” Ray said. “Our student-athletes are paying for someone else’s mistakes. Track is not that expensive a sport. Our business majors have done a study. The administration counts the 69 men on cross country, indoor and outdoor as 69 athletes, but no one runs just one season. James Madison, Towson and Delaware have already eliminated their programs. It’s scary. It’s like our sport is slowly going away.”
Valmon’s athletes learned the news shortly after hosting recruits, but instead of thinking about the future of the program, each man had to begin considering what he was going to do.
“It was more panic than anger,” said Ray, who’s graduating this month with a degree in criminology and criminal justice but has deferred law school until after the extra year of competition he received via a medical red-shirt. “It was a race from then on to place (our juniors) in programs. It’s still a waiting game. They’re waiting to see if a scholarship opens up someplace.”
However, Ray said a majority of the younger athletes are staying put even though many will likely lose their scholarships.
“I’m a little surprised, but we have a lot of kids from Maryland and a lot of international student-athletes,” said the Huntingtown, Md. native. “Some of them are so invested in their studies here that they don’t want to risk credits not transferring. They’re determined to graduate with a Maryland degree.”
Ray pointed out that the only men’s teams that have won the on-campus competition for best grade point average are being eliminated while the mega-expensive (and usually revenue-producing) football and basketball programs remain the centerpieces despite their laggard classroom performances.
“I think it’s really sad that this is happening now,” said Ray, who won both hurdle races at last weekend’s prestigious IC4A meet at Princeton. “The state of Maryland has great high school (running) programs. We were just finally getting to the point where we could have a shot at bringing Maryland track and field back to its former glory (highlighted by 1965-68 All-American high jumper Frank Costello, who coached world-record hurdler Renaldo Nehemiah in College Park from 1977-81).”
While Graves is eager to put Maryland in his rear view mirror, Ray has very mixed emotions as he prepares for next weekend’s NCAA East Regional meet in Jacksonville.
“I’m always going to be proud to be a Terrapin,” Ray said. “I’ll always root for Maryland athletes, but it doesn’t feel like my Maryland anymore. It doesn’t feel like home anymore.”
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March.