When the Maryland football team began its home opener against Temple last Saturday, the Terrapins were undefeated, the skies in College Park were blue and temperatures were in the upper 70s. Yet areas of empty metal bleachers in the Maryland Stadium stands were just as common as clusters of fans wearing red.
The attendance was announced at 32,057, the program’s lowest figure for a home opener since 2012. As the Terps struggled on the field en route to a 35-14 loss, more seats emptied.
“To be honest with you, it was a s--- show,” said Ben Page, who has been a season-ticket holder since he graduated from Maryland 17 years ago. “It was like the wind was out of everybody’s sails that day. At the same time, that could because of the McNair situation. Who knows?”
Page referred to the university’s publicly acknowledged failures in treating 19-year-old offensive lineman Jordan McNair, who died in June of exertional heatstroke suffered during a team workout. The size of the crowd could have been at least in part due to the threat of storms forecast earlier in the week as a result of Hurricane Florence. But there is little doubt of a sense of deflation among fans heading into the Terrapins' Big Ten opener Saturday against visiting Minnesota.
Four weeks into the season, Coach DJ Durkin and two other athletic department staffers remain on administrative leave. Saturday’s game will be played less than 24 hours after the expected release Friday of an independent investigation into McNair’s death. A second external inquiry, which will evaluate the program’s culture, has no formal deadline, so the players and fan base could have to wait longer for answers regarding the future of the football program.
“It’s sort of like, ‘What’s going to happen? And why is it taking so long to make a decision?’ ” said A.J. Atmonavage, a longtime fan who attended the game against Temple. “I know that it’s a huge decision and you need to take your time, but it seems like it’s been an awful long period of time to decide the direction of the program.”
Athletic Director Damon Evans met with Maryland student government members Wednesday and faced probing questions regarding the death of McNair and choices made by the athletic department.
One student asked Evans whether there is video, taken by either the athletics department or security cameras, of the workout in which McNair suffered a heat stroke and if he had seen it. Evans did not directly answer either part of that question and only said the athletics department does not film conditioning drills. A student government representative asked about a Washington Post report that in 2017 university President Wallace D. Loh nixed a plan to implement an independent medical care model for athletes. Another student prefaced his question by saying that McNair “had dreams and aspirations, but the university’s football program killed him. That’s how I see it.”
Student body president Jonathan Allen said the student crowd at the home opener against Temple seemed to be a normal size, and he encouraged the freshman class to attend. However, some students have voiced concerns to the Student Government Association over paying a mandatory $406 fee to an athletics program that they say doesn’t align with their values.
Nonetheless, some older fans who attended Saturday’s game said their feelings of the team haven’t wavered much. They long for clarity, but they also feel obligated to support the players. Bill Van Dyke, a fan who said he has been to every home game since 1971, said he has “Go Terps!” written on his business cards and “nothing is going to change that.”
While Page and the people he interacts with are still loyal supporters of the team, he has seen comments from others that show an unwillingness to support the program after this summer’s events. Because of that, combined with how Maryland hasn’t had a winning record since 2014, Page said “the interest in coming to games has definitely waned.”
“This has been an ongoing problem over the years,” said Page, who created a nonprofit that sent 500 kids to the Temple game. “We're not creating that next generation of Terps fans.”
In 2005, Maryland averaged more than 52,000 fans per home game, the highest figure in program history. Since then, the number of fans who watch from the stadium has gradually declined. In each of the last two years, Maryland’s average home attendance has been just under 40,000 and ranked 12th in the 14-team Big Ten.
At Saturday’s game, Ryan Grant, a 2004 Maryland graduate whose family has had season tickets for more than 60 years, said he hardly encountered a line — not when he entered the stadium, passed through security or purchased lunch from concessions.
“You would have thought it was as the season goes on and it gets colder and we’re not winning games,” Grant said.
Anger over the death of McNair is the latest on the list of reasons Maryland fans might be reluctant to attend games. Other grievances — traffic, early kickoff times and subpar performances — have already taken a toll.
“What I see is apathy,” Page said. “That apathy is from the administration down to the fan base. … I don't think the fan base or the administration has done a very good job in selling the program.”
The fans worry about the future of the football program and the lasting ramifications of McNair’s death. The jobs of Durkin, Evans and Loh all seem to be in jeopardy, and a few said the current situation reminds them of the 1986 death by drug overdose of Maryland basketball star Len Bias, which led to the resignations of athletic director Dick Dull and head coach Lefty Driesell.
“That’s the fear,” said longtime fan Wylie Burgess, who was a student at Maryland during that time. “Similar to then, an event ended up with everyone being fired basically and sort of a de-emphasis of athletics, which meant 15 years of losing football and five years of basketball. … That hasn’t happened yet, but it seems like it could.”