President Obama, Michelle Obama’s visit to test logistics at Maryland basketball game

Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post - The First Family’s visit will test Maryland’s events-operations staff.

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They gussied up Towson Center with a fresh coat of paint, because the president was coming to town. The men’s basketball game between the Tigers and visiting Oregon State was scheduled for 2 p.m. on the Saturday before Thanksgiving in 2011, but for security reasons fans needed to be seated by 12:45. Outside, on the lacrosse field, a giant “X” was painted, and atop it two helicopters called Marine One and Marine Two found their landing spots.

“I probably still have some grass seed in my scalp from the backdraft,” said Mike Waddell, then Towson’s athletic director.

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Two years ago, Waddell and his staff tackled the same logistical challenges now facing the University of Maryland, as President Obama and his family plan to attend the Terrapins’ game against Oregon State on Sunday evening. White House press secretary Jay Carney announced the president’s plans on Friday, and shortly after the school’s athletic department issued an advisory that asked fans to arrive “as early as possible” for the 6 p.m. tip-off against Oregon State at Comcast Center.

“I think it would be pretty cool for everybody, for their team and for our team,” said Coach Mark Turgeon, who often hosted former president George H. W. Bush during games and practices when he was the head coach at Texas A&M. “Hopefully it’ll make the teams play even harder than they were going to play.”

The Beavers (1-1) are coached by Craig Robinson, brother of First Lady Michelle Obama, and Sunday’s game marks the team’s fifth trip to the Washington-Baltimore area since 2008. By scheduling these East Coast swings, Robinson can take his players to the White House and let them meet the president and his family.

When Towson originally scheduled Oregon State, its men’s basketball team was after 15 straight losing seasons, had recently hired a new coach and desperately wanted positive national attention. “We needed a breath of life into the program, the only way we were going to do that was to pull off a little circus,” Waddell said.

This meant hosting members of the Secret Service, who walked into the arena, shut the doors behind them and swept the place in private. It meant performing test runs with communication lines, bulletproof cars and helicopters and accepting restrictions, like prohibiting fans from uploading photographs onto social media.

The Terps welcome Obama under slightly less dire circumstances than the Tigers did — they are 1-1 and harbor legitimate NCAA tournament hopes — but still anticipate encountering everything Waddell and his staff did two years ago, like long lines and armed security personnel stalking the rafters.

“I’m sure they weren’t up there with super soakers,” said Waddell, now the senior associate athletic director at Arkansas.

Towson never officially learned Obama would actually attend until the morning of the game. Other local schools have dealt with the same nerve-wracking uncertainty, knowing full well that emergency presidential duties could call Obama away from a leisurely afternoon of basketball. Under Robinson, Oregon State has faced Howard in 2008 and 2010 and George Washington in 2009.

“I’m sure there will be Secret Service everywhere,” Maryland forward John Auslander said. “I’m wondering where he’s going to be sitting. Maybe courtside? It’ll be pretty cool playing a game and there’s President Obama sitting there watching.”

At Towson, the event went perfectly. A capacity crowd filled the arena, and actor Bill Murray, whose son, Luke, was an assistant coach at Towson, also attended. At halftime, Obama took photographs with the Tigers football team. But there was still one request Waddell kept receiving, something Maryland officials may soon start hearing as well.

“No,” Waddell would reply. “I can’t get you into the Oval Office.”

 
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