Maryland is a Big Ten school; who will be its rival?


New Big Ten logos are being applied to the field and other locations at Byrd Stadium at the University of Maryland. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Months from now, when the Maryland football team begins its inaugural Big Ten season, Ryan Bowles envisions a tipping point for the fan base, when 61 years of tradition get shoved aside in favor of blinding, instant passion.

“All it takes is that first time you go to the Big House and you get a call against you and you start hating Michigan,” said the associate athletics director, who helped manage the athletic department’s transition into the new league.

In the Atlantic Coast Conference, which Maryland officially left Tuesday following six decades as a charter member, Terrapins faithful had no shortage of opponents to loathe. Proximity made Virginia a natural foe. In the early 2000s, fierce men’s basketball games with Duke commanded the nation’s attention. And with league offices located in Greensboro, N.C., and four member schools nearby, some at Maryland always felt excluded, a sentiment famously echoed by legendary basketball coach Gary Williams, who once said, “We might as well be in Siberia.”

But when the conference switch was announced back in November 2012, a visceral reaction permeated the fan base: “Shock and disbelief,” longtime radio announcer Johnny Holliday called it, at the perception that Maryland had traded its past — 61 years as a founding member — for a cut of the Big Ten Network’s lucrative revenue package to salvage an athletics department deep in the red.

“What are they doing?” Holliday recalled fans telling him. “This is the worst thing.”

“Buyer’s remorse,” Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said. “You sell a house, you wish you had it back. You had memories of the way things were when you were a kid. You go back, and it doesn’t quite look like the way you remember it. We’ve all had that experience in life.”

Bowles and his athletic department colleagues have scripted every detail of the realignment, from scrubbing the campus of ACC logos to reforming the drug-testing policy to conform to Big Ten standards. But the one lingering question is quite simple: Who will Maryland fans grow to hate?

“I don’t want to be pigeon-holed,” Athletics Director Kevin Anderson said. “As we move through our experience, this thing will kind of happen.”

Competition to contempt

In 2002, when Brenda Frese arrived at Maryland, fresh off a one-season stint at the University of Minnesota, the Terps women’s basketball team had no high-profile rivalries.

“We were 10-18 and Duke beat us by [49] points,” Frese said. “It was for men’s basketball, but we were able to create it into a rivalry because we got better. Once you can match and then beat the top opponents in the league, it becomes your rivalry.”

Maybe the answer lies here, hinged to the futures of Maryland’s most visible teams. Frese’s counterparts in the men’s basketball office slogged through an underwhelming 2013-14 season without hosting Duke, North Carolina or North Carolina State, an unprecedented scheduling quirk the ACC chalked up to happenstance but members of the athletic department viewed as a steel-toed boot out the door. Average attendance for men’s basketball has dropped 32 percent since the 2007-08 season, coinciding with the program’s struggles and lack of marquee opponents coming to College Park.

Maryland’s inaugural Big Ten men’s basketball schedule features five home games against 2014 NCAA tournament teams. Three — Michigan State, Nebraska and Wisconsin — are good bets to crack the preseason top 25. Among the others, Michigan reached the Final Four as recently as 2013, and Minnesota is a fast-rising program under second-year Coach Richard Pitino.

For a comparison, Anderson pointed to the Duke-Syracuse matchups this season, when the Orange won by two points in overtime at the Carrier Dome and the Blue Devils returned the favor at Cameron Indoor Stadium, highlighted by Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim’s late, profanity-laced charge onto the court that earned him an infamous ejection. The television ratings soared. Reporters dubbed it college basketball’s newest rivalry. In this, the Terps see opportunity.

“People talk about rivalries with Duke,” Holliday said. “Well, we’re not Duke’s rival. Duke’s rival is North Carolina. They talk about we’re not going to have the same great games against each other. Well, now we only play Duke and North Carolina once a year, and it was down there. Going in the Big Ten, the ranking they have, as the top conference in the country, that’s got to say something.”

Hardware in store

The battle of words began when first-year Penn State Coach James Franklin told boosters in early May that the Terps and Rutgers “might as well shut . . . down, because they don’t have a chance” to out-recruit the Nittany Lions in the fertile grounds of Maryland and New Jersey. Franklin later claimed the quote was taken out of context, but Terps Coach Randy Edsall fired back weeks later, telling reporters at a golf outing that, “Talk is cheap.”

Chest-puffing is standard procedure for summer engagements. It riles up fans in the safety of summer. But it offered an appetizer for what should become Maryland’s most immediate and enticing rivalry. The Terps and Nittany Lions met 31 times between 1960 and 1993, and though the history is lopsided — Penn State leads the series, 35-1-1 — the juxtaposition of the straight-edge Edsall with Franklin, the one-time Maryland coach-in-waiting who recently tweeted a picture of a lion superimposed onto his face, has already paid dividends.

In the Big Ten, Maryland will join a conference that loves tradition — and trophies. Twelve football matchups award hardware, such as the Old Oaken Bucket (Indiana-Purdue), Paul Bunyan’s Axe (Minnesota-Wisconsin) and a wooden turtle called the Illibuck (Illinois-Ohio State). The Terps have already entered conversations with Rutgers and Penn State to create new trophies, several athletic department officials said.

“That’s school to school,” Delany said. “It develops more organically. I’m not saying you can’t create a trophy. I think these rivalries will happen quite naturally based on a bad officiating call, a great individual performance, an upset, securing a championship. That’s really the stuff of memories. Memories translate into traditions.”

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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