The Washington Times - July 19, 2011, 06:07PM

Maryland campus president Wallace D. Loh announced Tuesday the formation of a commission to study the financial conundrums facing the school’s athletic department.

The step is the latest development in the department’s financial woes. The commission will be asked to make recommendations and submit a report to Loh by Nov. 15.

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In a letter posted on the university’s website, Loh said he will announce his decisions by the end of the year.

It is possible this is an initial step in paring down the school’s 27-sport athletic department – a process that invariably would take into account financial issues as well as legal (i.e. Title IX) and political concerns.

In response to a question of whether the commission would considering cutting any of Maryland’s sports, a school spokesman replied via e-mail, “We have asked the Commission to consider all manners of revenue enhancement and expense reduction. Final determinations on new measures will be made by President Loh and Athletic Director Kevin Anderson after consultations with the University Athletic Council.”

An athletic department spokesman said Anderson was on vacation and unavailable for comment.

The existence of financial problems is hardly a revelation at Maryland. The economic downturn, combined with an inability to come close to selling out the luxury suites that opened in Byrd Stadium in 2009 and the loan approved in 2006 to pay for that project, have severely limited the athletic department’s financial flexibility.

Football season ticket sales have sagged for several years and average attendance at Byrd Stadium dipped below 40,000 last year. Byrd’s listed capacity is 54,000.

Still, one acknowledgment stands out. Loh said in his letter the athletic department dipped into its accumulated fund balance (also called reserves) for “the past several years” to balance budgets.

“Reserves are normally used for purposes such as these transfers,” Loh wrote. “However, the reserves are now depleted.”

The school spokesman said the reserves were exhausted during the fiscal year that ended June 30.

It is just the latest jolt to Maryland’s athletic department. In the last 13 months, athletic director Debbie Yow left for N.C. State; Loh was hired to replace the retiring C.D. Mote Jr.; Anderson was hired just before Labor Day to replace Yow; football coach Ralph Friedgen  was fired after a 10-year tenure and replaced with Randy Edsall; the football program was hit by the NCAA with scholarship reductions for poor academic performance and later self-reported NCAA violations for excessive practice time; men’s basketball coach Gary Williams retired; and Mark Turgeon was hired as Williams’ replacement.

The spokesman said Loh “has been considering athletic department finances since November,” or shortly after he took over. Loh’s commission, which includes 17 people, is expected to meet for the first time within the next two or three weeks. How many times they meet is still to be determined, but their task is clear – if not particularly easy.

The commission to make recommendations that provide for both “greater excellence in academics and athletics” and “financial sustainability.” The group’s report will then be forwarded to Anderson and the university’s athletic council. According to Loh’s timeline, Anderson will respond by Dec. 1, with the council following suit by mid-December before Loh makes a decision.

While Maryland has pursued some new forms of revenue generation under Anderson – notably, the decision to move football games against West Virginia (2013) and Virginia Tech (2014) to Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium – cost-cutting measures (such as eliminating sports) might be required if the athletic department is to support itself in the future.

Maryland’s total of 27 varsity sports is large by ACC standards; only Boston College (31) and North Carolina (28) field more.

Patrick Stevens