HELLER: Terps’ once-great track program on last legs

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The University of Maryland’s decision to eliminate eight of 27 varsity sports hurts the athletes involved more than anybody else. But because three of the teams affected are indoor and outdoor track and cross country, I keep expecting to hear Jim Kehoe roar from somewhere in the great beyond.

Kehoe, who died last year at 91, is remembered mostly as the athletic director who hired Lefty Driesell in 1969 and Jerry Claiborne in 1971 to rescue the Terrapins’ dormant men’s basketball and football programs. Long before that, however, he was one of the nation’s best track coaches.

In Kehoe’s quarter-century with whistles and stopwatches, Maryland had a 219-30 record in track and cross country dual meets. His squads also bagged 15 of 16 championships in ACC meets, plus four IC4A titles. No other sports program in Terptown has ever been as consistently successful.

Although Maryland’s thinclads (as trackmen used to be called) haven’t dominated the conference in recent decades, Kehoe’s legacy remained strong — until now. University President Wallace D. Loh has accepted a commission’s recommendation to cut the eight sports in the face of a multimillion-dollar athletic department shortfall. Unless supporters of track and the other doomed sports can raise eight years’ worth of program costs by June 30, track at Maryland will be gone with the wind.

Surely that sound you hear in College Park is Kehoe spinning, at least figuratively.

“I don’t know if Coach Kehoe could even comprehend something like this,” said Frank Costello, an All-America high jumper at Maryland in the 1950s and currently an assistant coach. “Our track and field program goes back to 1903, but I guess that and cross country were easy to cut because the university is getting rid of three sports at one time.”

Costello, who was Maryland’s head track coach from 1975 to 1980 and returned as a volunteer aide to Andrew Valmon in 2004, says his reactions ranged from shock to depression after the school zapped his sport.

“It just meant so much to me personally,” he added. “I came to Maryland because of the program, and I have so many memories. It’s just a tragic loss.”

As every fan, coach and administrator knows, sports such as track rely on revenue from football and men’s basketball to cover expenses. When football profits drop, in particular, every other athletic activity suffers. And considering this fall’s ghastly 2-10 gridiron misadventure under first-year coach Randy Edsall, the athletic financial picture at Maryland could get worse before it gets better.

For every so-called student-athlete who is in school primarily — or only — to play football or basketball, there are perhaps 10 or 20 others who toil at “minor” sports with no hope of a fat professional contract and who manage to attend classes and graduate on time.

Excuse me, but this is what college sports is about — or should be. Call me old-fashioned, naive or anything else you care to, but I think being a student is more important than being an athlete for all but a chosen few.

Actually, the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive, as demonstrated by Maryland’s two basketball stars of the early 1970s. Tom McMillen become a Rhodes Scholar and a member of Congress. Len Elmore turned into a highly regarded sports lawyer and agent. So there.

Nobody is happy that Maryland is expected to purge those eight teams (the others are men’s and women’s swimming, women’s acrobatics/tumbling, men’s tennis and women’s water polo), least of all Loh and athletic director Kevin Anderson. But they’re not the people I feel sorry for.

For more of the author’s columns, go to dickheller.wordpress.com

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