Michael Wilbon on Maryland and the Big Ten


(Ethan Hyman / The News & Observer / AP Photo)

As Prewitt nostalgically noted, Monday night was the final regular season men’s basketball meeting between Maryland and N.C. State as ACC rivals. And while a huge portion of the “we’ll miss the ACC!” nostalgia ’round these parts has focused on Duke, older heads will miss a whole crop of additional basketball rivalries, including the one with the Wolfpack.

After ESPN 980′s Kevin Sheehan talked about that rivalry at length Monday afternoon, Michael Wilbon called into the station to offer his own thoughts. And whatever you think of Wilbon, his opinions on this issue are particularly germane: He was the beat writer for the Terps at this newspaper, and he’s a pretty well-known fan of the Big Ten. (And also sits on the Board of Trustees of Northwestern, a Big Ten school.) He gets it, like all the rest of us, but he’s sad, like all the rest of us, is the executive summary.

“Every one of these games to me is like a tombstone, if you will,” Wilbon said. “I hate this thing, that Maryland’s going to the Big Ten.  And I get it. I understand it financially. Trust me. As a trustee of a Big Ten university, I really understand it, because I know what the discussions have been privately as well. I understand why they had to do it. But emotionally, it’s just so awful. As a resident of Maryland. I don’t want to see Purdue — and even, if you will, Northwestern — come to town. I’m not excited about that, to go out to College Park and watch it.

“And when I’m sitting in Chicago, I’m not excited to see Maryland come to Iowa or Minnesota, and I know people here wouldn’t be excited about that [matchup]. This had better be a windfall, as you said. Because if it’s not, it just destroys the tradition and the history of rivalries, and the competition, and just says, ‘Okay, let’s pimp ourselves out, we’re going to go for the money.’ ”

Wilbon further agreed with Sheehan that preserving the passion around the Maryland basketball program could be even harder in the future.

“Look, the Big Ten in basketball is more often than not lately really, really good,” Wilbon said. “Maryland’s not gonna come into the Big Ten next year and just sort of crack the top few teams in the Big Ten. They’re not, because they’re not good enough to do that. … And so you’re asking some difficult things of your basketball program.

“And yes, keeping the passion, keeping the interest level is one thing. But let’s face it, all of these schools in what have been known as the BCS conferences, all of those schools vote football,” he went on. “They vote football, they care football first, their priorities are football. All of them. And so these moves are made essentially for football, and basketball gets dragged along. And for Maryland – having covered Maryland for years – look, the basketball interest there has been so much greater, for good reason, traditionally than football. But yet you would think, if you listened to some of the official things coming out of the school, that Maryland was a football school, that Maryland was Auburn or Alabama, and that’s not the case. There’s sort of a confusion of identity, if you will.”

Furthermore, as Wilbon pointed out, for Big Ten powers, Maryland is one out-of-area hiccup on a mostly traditional league slate. For Terps fans, it’s the reverse.

“I think Maryland fans, from an emotional standpoint, are getting the worst of this,” he said. “If you’re in a Big Ten city, you get interrupted, and you’ve got to see Rutgers or Maryland in the middle of your Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State run. But if you’re here, in College Park, you get a slate of road games that includes Minnesota, Iowa, Northwestern, Purdue. Really? That means something to you? I live here, and these are my schools, and I’m not sure I want to go [to Comcast Center] to watch them play, because the setting seems wrong. It seems out of context, even as a Big Ten alum. So it’s just a downer all the way around, and it better be a financial boom.

“I think it will be, from all the indications,” Wilbon went on. “You listen to what happens in these meetings, you know what the Big Ten Network produces. It better be, because if not, man, it’s just like ‘Okay, what else is there for me?’ … And let me be fair about this, and I’ve talked to Kevin Anderson and others. I understand the non-revenue sports which can be kept in play. And if I’m a parent of one of those children, I am thrilled, and I’d say, ‘What do you mean you’re not going to take this money from the Big Ten, which essentially amounts to a subsidy.’ I understand it intellectually. But emotionally, as somebody who’s been to ACC tournaments, and been to these huge games year after year after year for a long time …

It’s a basketball school,” Sheehan chimed in. “It’s a basketball-first school, and football really and truly is a distant second. Some would argue that it’s a closer second, but it depends on how they’re doing. Here’s the deal: If Randy Edsall doesn’t make a bowl game, it’s not a big deal. If Maryland misses the tournament for the fourth straight year, it’s going to be a major deal, okay?”

“It’s a basketball town,” Wilbon agreed. “And I lived here a long time, and I sat and watched so many games in Cole Field House in my life. I watched more games probably in Cole Field House than any arena, and it may stay that way for me, because I don’t go to as many games anymore. It’s hard to imagine Maryland making a regularly scheduled stop in Minnesota or Iowa City or Wisconsin. It’s difficult for me.”

Dan Steinberg writes about all things DC sports at the DC Sports Bog.
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