University of Maryland Terrapin boosters put a full-court press on Samuel Lefrak when he visited College Park for commencement in May. They invited him to the home of the campus president for an intimate dinner with former governor Marvin Mandel, showed him plans for the $95 million renovation of the sports facilities and even arranged for him to tour the National Gallery of Art privately with its director.
Lefrak, 72, has been rushed as intently as any Terrapin recruit in years. The developer, once on Maryland's track team, has been seized upon as a potential savior for the floundering booster club.
Boosters haven't been able to raise enough to pay for athletic scholarships, and now they are faced with the daunting task of raising $35 million for the university's share of the sports complex renovation.
Although financial donors are needed now more than ever, according to Andrew O. "Sonny" Mothershead, president of the Terrapin Club, signing them up is not easy. About the only thing the Terrapin Club has to sell is bad news. As Mothershead canvasses the state in a drive for new members, he tells about the NCAA sanctions, the unfortunate hiring of former basketball coach Bob Wade, the mounting budget deficit.
"The thing we are harping on is we are the underdog, we have been stepped on," Mothershead said.
Terrapin Club membership has declined significantly, after swelling throughout the 1970s, a decade when Maryland was dominant in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Some boosters were driven away by the ouster of popular Lefty Driesell, a colorful basketball coach with a national following. Even more were upset by his successor, Wade, a high school coach hired by then-Chancellor John B. Slaughter without the customary input from a search committee.
Wade's tenure proved disastrous: He left behind a record of 36 wins and 50 losses and a string of NCAA violations.
There are other, longstanding reasons for the booster club's anemic giving. Until the 1950s, the club was mostly a social group that limited membership to 150, Mothershead said. It has opened its membership but retains the image, in the words of one member, of a "clannish old boy network."
Membership, which has slipped to 3,200 from a mid-'80s high of 3,700, is dwarfed by booster clubs at ACC schools such as Clemson, which boasts 18,000 contributors. Clemson donors typically give more than is needed to fund scholarships; the school has improved facilities with $25 million in surplus contributions.
One key to fund-raising, according to booster-club officials at other schools, is courting new graduates with free one-year memberships and other perks. No such efforts have been made by officials at College Park.
"They made a signifcant mistake in not going after the younger market," said John Brown, owner of R.J. Bentley's, a College Park restaurant.
But Brown and other boosters argue that Maryland has a tougher sell than many big-time sports schools. The campus is dominated by commuters and out-of-state students, a fact that some Terrapin Club members say limits loyalty. And College Park has long suffered an identity crisis in the state, never fully embraced by the state's two main business and cultural centers, Baltimore and Montgomery County.
There is also intense competition for fan attention from the Redskins, the Bullets, the Capitals, the Orioles and, on the collegiate level, the Georgetown Hoyas basketball team.