- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 12, 2005

They never had a chance. Out-hustled, outplayed, out of contention. In the aftermath of Maryland’s desultory loss to Clemson in the first round of the ACC tournament Thursday, one thing seems painfully obvious.

The school needs a new motto.

Let’s be frank. This Fear the Turtle thing just isn’t working out. The underachieving Terrapins are surfing the NCAA tournament bubble, probably bound for the NIT, three-time losers to a historically mediocre Tigers program that has never won the conference tournament. Not once.

Fear the Turtle? A platypus plush doll would be more intimidating.

“I saw some Maryland fans in ‘Testudo’s Troops’ T-shirts yesterday,” said Todd Merritt, 33, an N.C. State fan from Newton Grove, N.C. “I think they retreated. It’s hard to fear a team that loses three times to Clemson.”

The hope was Fear City, an entire town painted Terrapins red. The reality is sneering bemusement. Along Metro’s red line, commuters are greeted by FEAR THE TURTLE placards, an angry Testudo glaring forth. But as ACC fans disembarked at the Gallery Place-MCI Center stop yesterday, boot-quaking fright gave way to mocking disdain.

Fear the turtle? Whatever. Fear the turtle? Go home! “I got here early enough that I didn’t run into that problem [on the train],” said Kevin Quinn, 48, a Maryland fan from Frederick.

Quinn paused. On his wrist, he wore a red Fear the Turtle wristband; on his head, a Terps hat.

“Walking around with a Maryland hat outside, everyone figured I was trying to sell my tickets,” he said.

Quinn held onto his behind-the-baseline seat, stayed put for yesterday’s contest between Clemson and North Carolina. He was in the minority: bleachers once besotted with red now were awash in Tar Heels blue.

Back on the Metro escalator, the derision continued, rapid fire and from all sides.

“Look at that,” a woman said to her boyfriend, pointing to one of the signs. “Fear the turtle.”

“I see it,” said the boyfriend. “Heh. That doesn’t work unless they’re playing Duke.”

Nearby, an elderly man hobbled toward the exit, cane in hand. He turned to his companion.

“Fear the turtle no more,” he said with a wheezing snort.

Ouch! Aren’t grandparents supposed to be nice? Still, backlash should be expected when a marketing slogan trumps the simplicity of “Go Terps!” handing rival fans a full clip of unintended verbal ammunition.

Fear the Turtle? More like Jeer the Turtle.

“They need another slogan,” said Jerry Eason, a North Carolina fan from Chesapeake, Va. “You see them all around the Metro. Yeah, real intimidating with a turtle.”

Could it be scarier?

“Sure,” said Eason’s wife, Michelle, a 35-year-old Virginia fan. “Maybe if it was a ninja turtle.”

Don’t get the wrong idea. Branding is powerful. Maryland’s first major effort, the “Zoom” campaign, helped the school attract more applicants, double its annual donors and increase the average test scores of incoming freshmen.

As such, the university was smart to replace the kinder, gentler Testudo with a menacing, evil-eyed, possibly steroidal ur-turtle — the sort of butt-kicking, name-taking baste who wants to crush his enemies underfoot, then hear the lamentations of their women. And the slogan? Pure genius.

To put things another way: who wouldn’t fear a turtle that can stand on its hind legs and looks like Barry Bonds with a shell? So long as Maryland wins, the campaign makes sense. But when the football and basketball teams stumble, as was the case this school year, fans are left with a head scratcher.

Fear the Turtle? Dude, do turtles even have teeth?

“What kind of a mascot is a turtle?” Merritt asked. “I mean, a [N.C. State] Wolfpack, a [Clemson] Tiger, a [Duke] Blue Devil is scary. But a turtle?”

Last year the Maryland state legislature nixed plans for a Fear the Turtle license plate. Wise move. Though the school airs commercials starring a turtle that roars, the awful truth is this: The TV turtle’s real name is Patsy. As in a chump opponent.

Oh, and according to the Maryland student newspaper, producers elicited Patsy’s mock roar by tickling her feet while dangling escargots in front of her mouth. Talk about pampered. Pouty Terps point guard John Gilchrist needs less coaxing.

Fear the Turtle? Er, can we get a rewrite?

“Change the slogan? Nah,” said Mike Egan, 62, a Maryland fan from Brookville. “They’ll be back. Clemson is one of the lower teams in the ACC, but they’re still one of the better teams in the country.”

Egan may be on to something: Clemson nearly upset heavily favored North Carolina, making Maryland’s loss look slightly less egregious. Slightly.

“Next year,” Egan added, “you’re definitely going to fear them.”

Egan works as an aviation consultant. He gets paid to have his head in the clouds. In the meantime, the rest of the ACC has little to fear but fear itself. And possibly the Clemson Tiger, who presumably has a full set of teeth.

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