Conference membership these days has all the permanence of a piece of athletic tape stripped across the top of a locker, the occupant's name written in Sharpie. The situation is very fluid, if not gaseous. So Maryland's decision to bolt the ACC for the Big Ten, though it hits closer to home, is perfectly keeping with the current climate. In the new millennium, it's every school for itself.
And when that school's athletic budget is facing a projected shortfall of more than $17 million in 2017, as Maryland's is, college sports becomes, more than ever, All About the Buck. It doesn't matter that the Terps have been a member in good standing of the ACC since it was formed in 1953. It doesn't matter that generations of fans have been weaned on Maryland-Duke and Maryland-North Carolina basketball games. Athletics, as Maryland president Wallace D. Loh once said, are the "front porch" of a university, and when that porch is in danger of collapse you do what you have to do. If that means casting tradition and geography to the winds and clasping hands with a midwest conference — and its larger financial pie — so be it.
After all, there's no glory in cutting sports, and Terps athletic director Kevin Anderson had to shut down seven of them earlier this year when they couldn't make themselves self-sustaining. More deletions might have followed had Maryland stayed in the less lucrative ACC. In that respect, the school's decision is a no-brainer, especially with football at a low ebb and men's basketball yet to return to national prominence. The Terps "brand" has been slipping for the better part of a decade, to be honest. The infusion of millions of Big Ten dollars beginning in 2014 might help stop the bleeding ... or at least buy a new tourniquet.
As Loh said at Monday's news conference in College Park, he and Anderson "vowed [these cuts] would never happen again, not as long as we're here." The Big Ten deal will "enable us to guarantee the financial sustainability of Maryland athletics for a long, long time" and possibly even "to reinstate some of the teams we had to terminate."
It's a shock, sure. But it's not like we haven't been conditioned to this sort of thing. For years, college athletics has seemed in the grip of hysteria, with schools changing partners at a dizzying pace and conferences adopting a Wall Street-ish grow-or-die mentality. Throw in an uncertain economy, and you have all the conditions for the unimaginable: Maryland "unfriending" itself from the ACC and hooking up with the Big Ten.
But what has all this growth, all this furniture rearranging, really accomplished? The ACC thought it was making itself into a superconference when it added Florida State, Miami and the rest. Why, a couple of months ago, Notre Dame, the Moby Dick of college athletics, became a member in all sports except football. But if the conference was so super, Maryland wouldn't be leaving it. Let's face it, ACC football is no match for the SEC and some of the other major leagues — not with the Seminoles and Hurricanes having taken a step back — and men's basketball still is basically Duke, North Carolina and pray for rain. (Though that may change when Syracuse comes aboard next season.)
Besides, when a closely knit conference of eight becomes a sprawling, Boston-to-Miami, cheaper-by-the-dozen family of 15, there's less connectedness. The arrangement starts to feel more like a marriage of convenience — which, of course, it is. (Loh touched on this when he said that in the increasingly crowded ACC, Maryland would "play our traditional basketball rivals only once every two years" at Comcast Center.) Anyway, half of all marriages end in divorce, don't they? Well, chalk up another one. The Terps are packing their bags (and taking the turtle with them).
They might be moving to a wealthier neighborhood, but it's debatable whether it's a better one. Ohio State and Penn State, the top two teams this week in the Leaders Division, are on NCAA probation and bowl ineligible. In men's hoops, the Buckeyes, along with Michigan and Minnesota, have had to vacate Final Four appearances because of various indiscretions. Even Indiana, a bastion of propriety under Bob Knight, has run afoul of NCAA law.
Loh accentuated the "academic component" of the move, the chance for Maryland to align itself with esteemed research institutions — including the University of Chicago, which left the Big Ten in the 1940s because it thought big-time athletics was running amok. "It's not only about money," he said. "[But] somebody has to pay the bills."
You wonder, though, how Maryland will do in football against the likes of Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State, all of which have stadiums with 100,000-plus seats. You wonder, too, if Terps games at Byrd Stadium will become like Wizards games at Verizon Center, where the opposing fans sometimes drown out the locals.
You wonder, but not for long, because it doesn't do any good. This is just how it is on the runaway train of college sports. Loyalty? Here today, gone tomorrow.
What was that line of Nora Ephron's? Oh, yes: "You want monogamy? Marry a swan."
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