Sports

Game of High Stakes Maneuvering Puts Fans & Athletes Second

by Chris Lingebach
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Maryland Announces Move to Big Ten Conference
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As Maryland fans struggle to ascertain that they’ll be rooting for their Terps in a new conference come 2014, Mark Turgeon and Randy Edsall are elated and believe an invite to the Big Ten is an invite to better everything.

Mixed reviews seem to be the reaction of most fans.

The Terrapins legion in Washington, D.C. is a well-informed fan base, so upon hearing the news of UMD exiting the ACC conference 59 years after becoming a founding member, they directed pointed questions about how the move will affect their beloved programs.

The notion that it was strictly financial seems to be gaining momentum, and was only further validated when school president, Wallace Loh told reporters Monday that Maryland athletics have been living “paycheck to paycheck.”

The economic strain on Maryland athletics is no surprise – Maryland eliminated seven sports programs earlier this year due to lack of funding – and the move to the Big Ten could bring upwards to $8 million to the department, from revenue share alone.

“The academic side will benefit the professors … the non-student athletes benefit,” head football coach Randy Edsall said Monday. “But then also it benefits the athletic department to ensure the financial stability they were looking for.”

Second-year head basketball coach, Mark Turgeon agrees, adding that he expects to see a much better budget from the move.

Another important question yields two important degrees of focus: How will recruiting be affected by the move?

The two aspects to look at as you answer this question will be reflected in the reaction of players currently being recruited and by those who will be in the future.

Maryland has long struggled to reel in talent from its own backyard, often losing blue chip recruits to schools hours to the north and south, in Penn State and Virginia Tech.

Joining the Big Ten right away gives Maryland the competitive recruiting edge it’s been missing – perhaps even the opportunity to make up some ground on a Nittany Lions program that’s still reeling from the Sandusky scandal.

Having games broadcast on the Big Ten Network alone should give Maryland the national exposure it’s been longing for, and help the football and basketball programs demonstrate the marked improvement required to justify the conference jump.

“Now you’re going to be in over 30 countries. You’re going to be all over the United States. It’s going to open up some new areas for us in recruiting,” Edsall said. “I think that this exposure will aid us in recruiting and open up some areas that maybe we couldn’t get into before.”

Edsall said he’s already discussed with his staff the need to take care of the home base first, and then move into areas like Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis and Kansas City – cities where successful recruiting campaigns have never been a viable option for Maryland.

While Maryland may gain an immediate advantage in future recruiting, Edsall’s and Turgeon’s more immediate concern should be their incoming recruits – kids who committed to come to College Park knowing they’d be traveling to North Carolina and Miami, not Ohio and Iowa.

But the coaches of both sports downplayed their concern for this issue.

“We’re on our way and we don’t expect this to slow us down in any way,” Turgeon said.

College football is big business, a realization that should lend itself to the idea that football was the real motivating factor behind this move. The Terrapins struggles on the field have led to accompanying troubles to fill Byrd Stadium, and opening their door to teams with fertile D.C. fan bases – like Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State – will most assuredly help alleviate the issue.

But healing one solution could cause another. If Maryland is struggling to draw its own fans now, then bringing stiffer competition in may not help the home field advantage, especially if it cannot out-draw the opposing teams’ fans, and this leads us to the next major area of concern for Terps faithful.

How will Maryland compete?

Edsall is excited about the prospect of running his boys into prestigious stadiums like The Big House in Ann Arbor and The Horseshoe in Columbus, on a regular basis, a sentiment he says his players shared when he informed them of the news Monday morning.

“That excites me. I’m all for it,” Edsall said. “And again, it gives you other opportunities. These kids now will have a chance to play in the Rose Bowl, which is the granddaddy of them all and to be able to compete amongst the other institutions in the Big Ten will be very challenging, but one we look forward to.”

There’s no telling if any current players on the football or basketball teams are upset enough with the decision to consider transferring, but this is an issue that will reveal itself soon enough.

Perhaps the toughest loss for fans to take is something financial decisions rarely compensate for, and that’s tradition. Also, this may be the one aspect of this deal where the effects are felt greater on the basketball court.

While the rivalry between Duke and Maryland may always have been more important to the Terps – as many Terps fans would reluctantly admit – it is, nevertheless, a big time college basketball rivalry, as much as it is any time the Carolina Tar Heels storm into the Comcast Center. And it is as much a part of the history of Maryland basketball as winning the National Championship in 2002 – the season before Duke ousted Maryland in the Final Four.

“I think those are two great teams,” Turgeon said. “But you’re adding Michigan State and Indiana and some really good schools too, so it’s going to take time for all of us to digest it, but there’s no turning back. We’re going to be a Big Ten member.”

Turgeon lamented the loss of these rivalries but reminded everyone they’ve got a couple more years to enjoy them.

And in the vein of college football being the main driving force behind Maryland’s decision to move, the sport is no stranger to having to say goodbye to historic rivalries in exchange for more lucrative television deals.

Nebraska’s move to the Big Ten in 2011 put an end to one of the nation’s most coveted rivalries, in losing a biennial competition between the Cornhuskers and Oklahoma – two teams that aren’t scheduled to face each other again until at least 2020.

The death of long-standing football rivalries holds true east of the Mississippi as well. The Backyard Brawl – annually pitting West Virginia and Pittsburgh against one another – dates back to 1895, but was disrupted when the Panthers and Mountaineers, in traditional rival fashion, each announced they’d be departing the Big East last year. 2012 marked the first year since 1942 the two didn’t meet on the football field – the last disruption to the rivalry came during World War II.

There are ways to avoid the end of these historic rivalries though, which are threatened by modern conference realignment. In 1952, the South Carolina General Assembly passed a law requiring South Carolina and Clemson to play each other in football once per season; a law that’s still enforced today.

The real shame in these financially inspired decisions for programs to realign is that they put the feelings of their student-athletes in the rear view. The players aren’t given an opportunity to voice their opinion on the matter before a school uproots their own plans for their athletic career, which only further exacerbates the thinning line between college and professional athletes.

Players’ futures are being dictated solely based on financial gain, and tradition – the one thing that’s always seemed to separate college football from the NFL … NCAA hoops from the NBA – is now an afterthought.

It’s only a matter of time before hypothetical conversations about college athletes getting paid transition into very real conversations, backed by Congressional legislation.

But for now Maryland fans, as Mark Turgeon said, “there’s no turning back.”

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