Ten days before the Sun Bowl, the game that would showcase the team that clobbered Clemson and mowed down Miami, University of Maryland Coach Bobby Ross had no idea how many football fans had plunked down $15 or $40 -- the price of tickets in El Paso -- to see the Terrapins take on Tennessee.
Oklahoma State will be taking 13,500 fans to Jacksonville for a clash with South Carolina at the Gator Bowl. And 16,000 Boston College fans are expected to fill seats at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas when their team meets the University of Houston.
El Paso would not lure the crush of fans that teams expect from the bigger Rose or Orange or Sugar Bowl bids, Ross reasoned. But surely this year's 8-3 squad, which had beaten three nationally ranked teams late in the season, would find a sizable number of fans willing to warm up to the Sun on Dec. 22.
But when the ticket office closed its window this week, the final tally showed just 750 tickets sold: five hundred $40 tickets and half as many $15 tickets. The university, with an enrollment of 38,000, had 1,250 tickets too many.
"It's a little disappointing," Ross said on hearing the figures. After a pause, he added: "But, you know, I think we have the capability and potential of creating something like the people in Texas have with the University of Texas . . . the feeling of being the state university."
That has been an elusive quality for this school at which more than two-thirds of the students commute to campus, no ready in-state rival exists, and which historically has found itself caught between the sports allegiances of Washington and Baltimore.
"Maryland's in a difficult spot, there's no question about that," said Ernie Williams, executive vice president of The Educational Foundation Inc. at the University of North Carolina, where 47,000 fans pack the stadium to sellout football games each year. "There's only so many recreation dollars to spend, and the way that Maryland is situated, there's a lot of ways to spend them."
The University of Maryland, the onetime military-agricultural academy built in a Prince George's County cornfield, long has looked for a football following -- a legion of fans to fill its seats and to bolster contributions -- that other state universities seem to have almost from their establishment.
Although it is the only publicly funded university in the state, Maryland has been unable to foster a reputation as a school for the entire state. Residents of Baltimore, responding to the school's location seven miles northeast of Washington and 30 miles south of Baltimore, often view it as a school tied to the Washington area. Sports fans in Washington, whose loyalties are split among professional football, hockey and basketball teams and a nationally ranked college basketball team from Georgetown, often see it as a Baltimore school.
It is no surprise to some that Maryland students, almost 50 percent of whom come from Montgomery and Prince George's counties, often see the school as just a place close to home where they can get a degree and move on.
"I don't think people think of this as a state school," said Carl Graziano, editor of the student newspaper, the Diamondback. "I think people look at it as a College Park school."
Two years ago, when Chancellor John B. Slaughter was recruited from his job as director of the National Science Foundation to the college, he began turning the school from its Washington orientation.
"I realized, because I worked in Washington, that by and large people there don't give a lot of attention to the school . . . and I always found it surprising that a school that large and of that quality had so little presence in its own state," Slaughter said.
Baltimore, the economic center of the state and the logical bank for the state university to draw upon for economic support, became Slaughter's focus. A year later, when the Colts packed their bags for Indianapolis, university football promoters saw a chance to score some points for their program.
Ross and members of the university's sports information staff addressed "Colt Corrals," fiercely loyal fan clubs that had denounced the move by the home team. Speaking engagements by Terrapin coaches quadrupled during the year.
University public relations representatives began calling Baltimore sports writers on a regular basis. Finally, the team played against Clemson in Memorial Stadium, a step that promoters called a "pump primer" intended to create enough excitement about Maryland football to draw Baltimore fans to the home field.
This year, the reviews were mixed. The Clemson game drew a record crowd of 60,545 to watch a Maryland team and prompted a promise by officials to try another game next year. Support for the athletic scholarship program known as the Maryland Educational Foundation, counted in dollars, grew $250,000 from $1,575,000 in 1983 to $1,750,000 in 1984.
But comparing the attendance the team drew in the previous year, when it sold out three of its six home games, overall attendance this season was down 8,000 -- a drop that coaches and sports observers attributed to a schedule that offered less exciting games than last year, rather than to an unattractive team.
Ross said that the key to creating the kind of support that will last through seasons, lean and lush, rests in showing that Maryland is a state school.
And that, he said, will come only the way that victories on the field do: with hard work and practice.
"Maybe we have to look a little bit harder in promoting football , not with gimmick-type stuff but just with presenting the program as it is," Ross said. "I think we'll be viewed as the state school when we can be regarded as one of the top 10 football teams in the country, and when we can sell out the stadium against any opponent."