U-Md. president: Big Ten move deliberate

Correction: The article misstated the date of a meeting between the university’s president, Wallace D. Loh, and conference officials. Based on information from Loh, the article said the meeting was Nov. 8; it actually took place Nov. 4. This version has been corrected.

November 26, 2012

University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh said his decision to move the school to the Big Ten Conference came after nearly two months of research and input from more than two dozen school officials, politicians, prominent alumni and donors, challenging critics who have characterized the move as hasty and cloaked in secrecy.

Loh said a team of consultants, attorneys and financial analysts fully vetted projected revenue data that Big Ten officials provided. Loh said there were several times that he thought the deal would fall through, and he said he was always willing to walk away.

But there was an ever-growing list of reasons why Loh wanted it to work. At the top of the list: Joining the Big Ten would likely bring millions of extra dollars to the school’s struggling athletic department, which has been operating at a deficit and this year announced it would cut entire sports from the program.

In an interview in College Park on Monday, Loh said he has always known that a conference jump would upset fans who were loyal to the Atlantic Coast Conference, a league that U-Md. helped create nearly 60 years ago.

“The ACC is a strong conference. We are a proud member,” said Loh, who was previously provost at the University of Iowa, a Big Ten school. “There is no reason for us to leave. So if we are going to consider, seriously, leaving, it has got to be worth our while.”

When news of the move became official last week, many students, coaches, faculty, alumni and others were stunned, and some questioned why they were not consulted. The president said he involved as many constituencies as allowed under a strict Big Ten confidentiality agreement he signed at the outset of discussions in early October.

University System of Maryland Regent C. Thomas McMillen, who cast the lone vote against endorsing the school’s Big Ten application, has publicly challenged the way in which the decision was made.

The Big Ten “wanted Maryland two years ago, and it will want Maryland tomorrow,” McMillen wrote in an opinion piece published in The Washington Post on Sunday. “The real problem is that commissioners of athletic conferences can dictate terms to universities that effectively hijack the possibility of debate, and that is just plain wrong.”

Loh said neither he nor the Big Ten ever imposed a deadline, but as information began to leak out about a possible deal in mid-November, he and Big Ten officials decided it was best to forge ahead quickly.

“I believe this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” Loh said. “If we don’t join now, I don’t think Maryland will ever join in my lifetime.”

It all started in early October, when Loh said Big Ten officials asked to meet. Loh and two top athletic department officials flew to Chicago for a presentation. Loh said he was “stunned” by the historically Midwestern league’s projected revenues and plans to expand beyond its current 12 schools.

Back in College Park, Loh shared what he learned with senior staff members — nearly all of whom Loh said were “absolutely incredulous” about the idea. But after a week of thinking about it, Loh said they began to see how it could benefit the university.

“I said: ‘If we can negotiate something that will guarantee the future of Maryland athletics for at least an entire generation, for 50 years, then we should consider it seriously,’ ” Loh said.

Loh also won the support of his predecessor, William E. “Brit” Kirwan, who is now the chancellor of the University System of Maryland.

A team of consultants, financial analysts and lawyers “scrubbed” the Big Ten’s projected numbers, Loh said. He also built a “coalition” of major donors, politicians and famous alumni, earning their blessings. Loh also called up presidents at other schools, especially those who had recently changed conferences. What Loh said he repeatedly heard: These changes happen quickly and quietly, and the blowback from fans could be brutal.

After a month passed with no word back from the Big Ten, officials called and requested another meeting. On Nov. 4, Loh and other university officials met with Big Ten officials at a Washington hotel for seven hours without reaching agreement, he said.

Loh estimates that by mid-November, a few hundred people connected to the Big Ten and U-Md. had some inkling of the negotiations. He said each side became worried when news of a potential deal began to appear on the Internet. Things sped up.

“I knew these rumors could kill the deal,” Loh said. “It could kill it before we even reach a deal.”

By Nov. 16, Loh didn’t think they would ever reach an agreement. The next morning, Loh hosted a Saturday pregame event at his home before the Terrapins hosted ACC foe Florida State at Byrd Stadium. During the party, Loh and a few other officials spoke by phone with the Big Ten. At 10:45 a.m. they reached an agreement.

The next day, Loh signed the paperwork, with the provision that it would only become official with the endorsement of the university’s governing board. The board voted to approve the move on Monday morning, in a secret meeting in Baltimore. The Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors unanimously followed suit, and the move was announced in College Park later that day.

Sure enough, there was emotional blowback, as Loh had been warned. But he hopes it is something that will subside over time.

“Your typical fan is looking at it only in terms of today and the game with Duke in January,” Loh said. “It’s not their job to look at the broader picture of where the university is going over the next 10 to 20 years. That is my job.”

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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