As Damon Evans made the rounds on the field at Maryland Stadium during the Terrapins’ 66-3 loss to Penn State on Saturday, a fire was lit. Aside from the fact that it was the worst loss by the football program since the school joined the Big Ten in 2014, the interim athletic director couldn’t help but notice that the season-high 49,680 fans who had shown up for the Terrapins’ season finale in College Park were mostly wearing the blue and white of the visiting Nittany Lions.
“What this past Saturday showed was what our stadium could look like if the right colors were in there,” Evans said. “It adds fuel to the fire for me personally because I want it to drive us to say, ‘We don’t want Penn State, we don’t want Michigan, we don’t want whatever opposing team’s fans to dominate the capacity of our stadium.’ ”
As thousands of visiting fans filed out of the stadium, Evans made the athletic director’s customary appearance at DJ Durkin’s postgame news conference and greeted the second-year coach. The entire afternoon was an illustration of the most tenuous period facing Maryland athletics since the school changed conferences.
That move was celebrated as something of a panacea for an athletic department beset by financial troubles. While it has generated significantly more money in the Big Ten — Maryland pulled in more than $94 million in sports revenue in the 2015-16 school year, up more than $20 million from its final year in the ACC and enough to meet department expenses for the school year — signs of instability remain.
The school’s athletic director, Kevin Anderson, is on a six-month sabbatical announced Oct. 16 after weeks of public absence that went unexplained by the university and led to reports that he had been fired. It is widely assumed that Anderson is on his way out after serving seven years in the post and that Evans will succeed him permanently, though officials have not publicly addressed any potential transition. University President Wallace D. Loh declined an interview request made this week.
There remain concerns with the football program, a key revenue generator, particularly in a conference rooted in the sport. It has struggled to make up ground with the Big Ten’s deep-pocketed, traditional powerhouses, and its mediocre results are a major reason its attendance was third lowest in the conference this fall. Evans is also facing a steep challenge in fundraising for the Cole Field House renovation project, the price tag for which jumped by $41 million over the summer.
“I don’t think there was a lot of magical thinking [with the move to the Big Ten]. Everybody knew, all the people in charge knew, the challenges involved with running a 21st century athletic department. They’re still there,” said Nick Hadley, Maryland’s faculty athletics representative. “I don’t think anybody thought there would be some sort of magic wand you would wave and everything would suddenly be perfect.”
Though the overall structure of the athletic department has not changed, Evans, 47, who had been a top lieutenant of Anderson’s since 2014, said he has relied heavily on his executive staff to help with his transition to department head. That has included reassignments for staff members to help Evans maintain his long list of previous duties, including running department finances, negotiating coaching contracts and acting as the liaison to the football program.
“There’s some comfort level in that situation will be addressed within the next six months,” university regent Barry Gossett said. “The people I talk to in the athletic department are more comfortable in their jobs and what they’re doing and being focused on moving forward. Damon seems to have been a good person to have in this role at this point in time.”
Evans said Thursday he is confident that Durkin “is the individual that will lead us to greater heights in football” after a difficult second season that ended with a 4-8 record and sagging home attendance. The program has fallen from 10th in attendance in the 14-team Big Ten to 12th for each of the past three seasons; this year it was ahead of only Illinois and Northwestern. Maryland Stadium’s 54,000 seats were filled to just 76.5 percent capacity this past season, a number bolstered by visits from the massive fan bases of Michigan and Penn State over the final two home games.
“It’s a difficult market. If you’re at Nebraska, it’s the only game in town. Here, there’s a lot of competition,” said Tom McMillen, a former state senator and regent who leads the Division 1A Athletic Directors’ Association. “One of the challenges for the university and anyone taking a leadership role, for years, is it was a commuter school. Kids came and went. They literally didn’t have much attachment to the school. That complicates your fundraising.”
While Evans believes Durkin will continue to improve the product on the field through recruiting, one of his own priorities is improving the fan experience in the stadium. There has been incremental progress; Evans has sent out surveys to fans, and the school put in new ribbon-boards for advertising midway through the season. There has been talk of adding a new video board.
Such features, of course, probably require fundraising, an area Evans already has his hands full with the Cole Field House renovation, a multiphase project to transform the former basketball arena into a state-of-the-art facility for the football team as well as sports medicine and entrepreneurship programs. Maryland is about $30 million short of its fundraising goal of $90 million set when the project was announced in 2014. An additional $19 million was added to that shortfall when the total price of the project ballooned by 25 percent to $196 million.
“We still have a ways to go to raise the money that we need for the project,” said Frank Kelly, a former regent who helped get the project off the ground. “I think we were hopeful to raise it faster than we have.”
Evans said the department has reached out to several potential seven- or eight-figure donors and is confident of receiving more donations in the next few months, but it remains unclear how much of the deficit will remain when the second phase of the project is completed in 2018. Evans said there is a targeted deadline of 2021 to meet the private-funding goal.
“Are we where we want to be? I don’t think we’ll ever be where we want to be. Once you get to the top of the mountain, where do you go from there?” Gossett said. “It’s always the journey that is always more important, and that’s what this is. There’s no destination.”