Across the College Park campus, it seems that every professor and administrator who knows Gerry Gurney admires the man and his mission: helping Maryland athletes get an education.
But inside Cole Field House -- well, that's another story.
Since arriving nearly three years ago as the associate athletic director in charge of "academic support," Gurney has had his differences with players, an athletic director and several coaches.
"I need to articulate the academic conscience of the university," he said during an interview in his small office, where two posters of Albert Einstein hang on the wall. "From time to time, that has not been met with open arms. I'm not here to be loved. I'm here to implement changes, and to be successful at it."
Gurney came to College Park after holding similar jobs at Iowa State and Southern Methodist universities, and is considered an expert nationally at creating programs to offer athletes counseling and academic help.
He also is known as single-minded in his "academics first" beliefs.
"He's highly opinionated -- no question about that," said Gayle Hopkins, president-elect of the National Association of Athletic Academic Advisors.
But Gurney's hard line was appealing to Maryland administrators, eager to rebound from a period in which many athletes had embarrassingly low grades.
At College Park, he has refashioned a haphazard system of academic support in which individual coaches controlled their team's academic counselors and tutors. Now there is a program of counseling, tutoring, health education and professional advice.
Every athlete must undergo a five-night orientation, academic tests and a health-education class. "I think we have the strongest and the best counseling staff in the country," he said.
Gurney also has installed himself as a fulcrum of power; he has a role in nearly every important academic decision affecting an athlete. But the athletic department wants to replace Gurney in the additional role as the school's NCAA compliance officer, at a time the school is on three-year probation.
If a coach wants the undergraduate admissions director, Linda Clement, to accept a recruit with marginal grades, Gurney decides whether the athlete is worth fighting for.
If a player is on the brink of being ineligible, Gurney decides whether to appeal the case before the athletic council.
Gurney is arguably the most knowledgeable person on campus about how athletes are doing in school. His desk-top computer has records of all players' high school credentials and college grades. Under his desk, he keeps the transcripts of all 515 athletes.
And since coaches were forbidden, until last month, to confer with professors and the admissions office, Gurney and his staff were the main conduits to the athletic department.
Gurney's policies have at times created conflicts with coaches, who say players need more help acclimating to university life, especially as freshmen. He irked former basketball coach Bob Wade, sources said, by refusing to let tutors take notes for players in class.
Gurney also found himself at odds last year with football coach Joe Krivak and recently departed athletic director Lew Perkins, who both sought more flexibility in admitting athletes with scores and marks below Maryland's normal entrance requirements.
"I don't think there's any doubt about it. . . . Not everybody felt comfortable dealing with the academic office," said basketball coach Gary Williams. "Those players have got to feel they can go over there and it'll help them."
Andy Geiger, the new athletic director at Maryland, said he thinks Gurney has been too influential. "We've gone from one extreme to the other," said Geiger, who recently relaxed a three-year rule that kept coaches apart from their academic colleagues. "All the information shouldn't be funneled through one or two sources, but should be spread around."
Gurney acknowledges that not everything he tries has worked. He has had uneven success, for instance, with a career program that matched seniors with mentors, because some basketball players lost interest and quit.
"If I were to imagine the best possible world for student-athletes to operate in," he said, "I would like athletes to go to class for every single class. . . . I would like all student athletes to graduate. . . . I would like all student-athletes to come here with an orientation to the importance of their education that is stronger than playing basketball or throwing a football.
"But I also recognize," he said, "that doesn't always happen."