Maryland moves to Big Ten out of desperation, instead of deliberation

Mike Wise
Columnist November 19, 2012

This is not a sappy plea to reconsider, to reminisce about Lefty and Gary and all the Tobacco Road memories their teams made. In 10 years, Maryland moving to the Big Ten may indeed be seen as the right thing, yielding a TV windfall that enabled the Terrapins to become a monster revenue football school instead of a casualty of the college realignment wars.

But consider, for a moment, that the university’s stunning announcement might also one day be viewed as nothing more than an impulsive cash grab, a move born of fear of pending irrelevance instead of the conviction and strength a university of Maryland’s stature should have.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

The problem is, we don’t know.

There was no impact study, no open discussion. At the state’s largest public institution of higher learning, there was no genuine process of deliberation. Three educational careerists — University President Wallace Loh, Athletic Director Kevin Anderson and Chancellor William E. “Brit” Kirwan — went into a star chamber, played God and mocked self-governance.

“This is a real bad omen for college sports,” Tom McMillen said.

The former all-American off Lefty Driesell’s early 1970s Terrapins teams, who became a Rhodes Scholar and a three-time Democratic congressman, was apparently the lone voice of dissent among the Board of Regents on Monday, when the vote was held to move to the Big Ten.

McMillen didn’t oppose the move as much as the process, which he called “terrible.”

“When there is no time for deliberation, when commissioners flush with dollars from their conference are dictating to college presidents — when student-athletes and coaches aren’t even brought into the conversation and traditions are thrown away like dirty laundry — there is a recipe for something all right,” he said. “In my view, how this was handled will have long-term detrimental effects on college sports.

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t do this. I’m saying they wanted us two years ago. They will want us in two more years. To totally disregard the athletes and have this crammed down everyone’s throat over a weekend is just awful.

“This is the kind of thing that can be the tipping point for uncompensated athletes in money-making sports, who are left without any say and are basically becoming indentured servants to big schools.”

More insulting was the news conference announcing the decision, where Loh and Kirwan actually leaned hard on the reasoning that leaving the ACC would strengthen Maryland academically, because who wouldn’t want to be part of that Big Ten’s swell consortium of research schools?

Stop already. Maryland didn’t partner with Stanford, Harvard and M.I.T. on deficit-reduction education.

There was this unbecoming defiance from Loh and the others during the news conference. The university president spoke passionately about the pain of having to tell athletes in tennis and swimming and diving — three of the seven sports that Maryland cut for budgetary reasons last year — that the university no longer could fund their programs. The move to the Big Ten, he assured, would result in the restitution of those sports and their scholarships.

Well, kind of. As questions became more specific, Loh’s and Anderson’s responses became murkier. You wanted to save everyone time and just blurt out, “Guys, it’s really okay, tell them: This was about football and TV money, not the survival of competitive cheerleading.”

After Loh mentioned “self-sustaining” for about the eighth time, it wasn’t clear whether he was speaking of Maryland athletics or a near-extinct species of salmon. Detractors and nostalgic saps who longed for the days of Len Bias dunking on North Carolina at Cole Field House were told about a new paradigm shift in college athletics.

Again, it might work. But the process and the spin cycle afterward were insulting to anyone who ever attended an ACC basketball tournament or Duke-Maryland dust-up.

Like many regents, McMillen heard the rumors late Thursday and early Friday. The regents were essentially force-fed one question to mull over the next 72 hours: What sane soul wouldn’t sever a 59-year relationship with the ACC and its member schools if it meant another $9 million a year off the top and untold millions when the Big Ten TV deal is renegotiated?

“We had two days to swallow this and we only heard from one side,” McMillen said. “We didn’t have anyone from the ACC come in and tell us why we shouldn’t leave. We didn’t talk to the athletes or the coaches and hear their concerns on both ends.

“If you’re a freshman athlete, you should be allowed to move schools based on the fact that no one said you were going to be catching plane rides to Lincoln, Nebraska, and Iowa City, Iowa, when they recruited you. I feel for them. We’re doing this in a vacuum.

“Frankly, Gary Williams and some other employees of the athletic department got out there and sold this before anyone could even form another opinion. Nobody was on the opposition side.”

Either way, as the news conference wound down, it didn’t feel like Maryland was joining the most profitable of America’s power sports conferences; the more Loh and the suits spoke, it felt as if they had been a recipient of a Big Ten financial bailout, saved by the grace of Commissioner Jim Delany and those benevolent conference presidents in the Midwest.

“Maybe some people Fear the Turtle; we embrace the Turtle,” Delany cutely quipped.

Who wouldn’t embrace the turtle? Maryland, for all its baggage, its insecurities about being a second-class citizen to Duke and North Carolina, is still the lion of the Washington-Baltimore college jungle. Its proximity to the nation’s capital, one of the country’s top 10 broadcast markets, and its rich history make it a real catch for any conference — not just the Big Ten.

By jumping so fast, without real discussion, Maryland devalued itself. It looked desperate, needy, not wanting to be left home from the prom. And for anyone to make this about the student-athletes, well, that’s comical.

No, it’s about the financial coffers. “It’s about the money, that’s it,” McMillen said.

“And it’s going to come back to bite college sports. You can’t have these unelected commissioners with big dollars dictating to higher institutions. You just can’t.”

For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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