Through a speakerphone at the center of the table came the voice of Jim Delany, the longtime commissioner of the Big Ten Conference. During on-again, off-again negotiations over the previous seven weeks, Delany had wooed Maryland with promises of millions more dollars than the school was earning by belonging to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
By this point, the move seemed to Loh like a “no-brainer.” The athletic department has struggled to attract fans, resulting in deficit problems so severe that, earlier in the year, Loh cut seven varsity sports, a decision he then called one of the most painful of his career. The new revenue could potentially turn around the department’s finances, and therefore its future.
And as jarring as a move from the ACC
might be for Maryland, changing conferences had become the norm in college athletics. For the past decade, the regional rivalries that traditionally defined the parameters of and passion for college athletics have been shifting.
In order for Maryland to be part of the shift, Loh knew he would have to convince the school’s influential donors and devoted fans. After all, Maryland helped found the ACC in the 1950s. Along with deep-rooted tradition, it could cost U-Md. as much as $52 million to the leave the league. Loh was already dodging phone calls from the ACC commissioner.
“It’s money versus tradition,” Loh said in an interview. “Everybody knows there would be an outcry and we would have to deal with that. And, do we want to go through that outcry?”
Sitting in the kitchen that Saturday morning, less than two hours before kickoff, Loh decided it was worth the risk. He told Delany they had a deal.
A shifting landscape
In 2003, the ACC convinced three members of the Big East to leave and join its ranks, a move that shook up the landscape of college athletics. Alliances founded on geographic proximity and bolstered by competitive history were cast as relics secondary to television market share. Following the ACC’s bold stroke, other moves were not just probable, but inevitable.
“For years and years and years, this area was somewhat dormant,” Delany said in an interview at his Park Ridge, Ill., office, home to conference headquarters. “The tectonic plates underneath intercollegiate athletics are very warm, as evidenced by all the changes that have happened in the major conferences over the past decade.”