For Maryland, ACC Allegiance Outweighed Big Ten Bucks
The siege of Maryland from the Big Ten appears to be over, for now -- or, more accurately, it appears never to have started. That comes as a tremendous relief to those connected with the school who feared that, in the wave of major-conference realignment, Maryland was going to be washed out of the league in which it is a charter member, and into one that would bring great unfamiliarity and inconvenience along with the likely massive infusion of cash.
Among the most prominent voices openly rooting for the status quo in College Park is basketball coach Gary Williams, who fully understands the cash-infusion aspect of realignment, but also has spent much of his basketball life pledging allegiance to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"For myself, having played at Maryland, I'm hoping we don't go to the Big Ten,'' Williams said. "We've been in the ACC from the beginning. We've built up rivalries for the past 50-60 years. I think people would miss that. If all of a sudden we stopped playing Duke and stopped playing North Carolina, people would really miss that.''
On the other hand, Williams added, "Basketball coaches, we're not part of the process. They really don't ask us ... The one thing to remember is that this is all football-driven.''
Williams was one of the outspoken opponents of the last big conference shakeups. Seven years ago, the ACC raided the Big East for three football powers so it could join other conferences in conducting a championship game, with the same Bowl Championship Series-generated dollar signs in their eyes that the Pac-10 and Big Ten had when the latest round of realignment began.
Williams and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski openly chafed at the idea, concerned that basketball would suffer, and their colleagues at the other longtime ACC members have not been shy about lamenting the drastic departure from long-held traditions, rivalries, the balanced conference schedule and the compact postseason tournament.
However, the speculated interest from the Big Ten, which has been bandied about since at least April, dwarfed that controversy, and it sparked anguished debate among the Maryland faithful, from alumni to students to fans, about whether the school was better off where it was or where it might end up. This went on even as athletic director Debbie Yow denied last weekend that the Big Ten had even contacted anyone at the school about joining up, including her and outgoing school president C.D. Mote.
Yow reiterated that this week -- along with her insistence that Maryland, one of the original eight members when the ACC was formed in 1953, was not interested in realigning with anyone else. History and tradition were among the reasons she cited, but she added geography: road trips to Madison, Wisc., or Lincoln, Neb., would be a tough sell on several fronts even in big-revenue sports like football and men's basketball.
"These 18-to-20-year-olds do need to go to class,'' Yow said. "The great thing about this conference is that the locations and geographies are so compact. There's something special about being able to make these short trips, to take bus rides, to go to Raleigh or Charlottesville or Chapel Hill or Durham, for their parents and for students to be able to go -- for all the athletes to have access to that.
"Why would we go anywhere?'' she added. "For money? I think we have less callous, bottom-line motivations than that.''
Some Maryland followers have taken to the social-network outlets and the message boards to advocate for a move, though, and not necessarily for financial reasons. Their beef with the ACC has roots in tradition, too: the league's seeming allegiance to, and favoritism for, Tobacco Road.
For decades, Maryland fans have stewed over the perception that the ACC is Duke-centric, North Carolina-centric, even N.C. State-centric during its basketball heydays; that the postseason tournament remains almost exclusively the domain of the state of North Carolina (it has been played elsewhere just four times since 1990, and will leave just once between now and 2015), and that such provincialism holds Maryland back. Ironically, even as Williams promotes staying in the ACC, he never has been shy about the Tobacco Road factor, and neither was Lefty Driesell, the other signature basketball coach at the school.
No less a figure than the president of one of Maryland's biggest athletic fundraising groups pointed to the North Carolina-heavy emphasis of the ACC in comments last week in the Baltimore Sun. "Maybe the rumors about Maryland going to the Big Ten will make the ACC appreciate that, for the ACC to be successful, Maryland needs to be successful because of the TV," said Rick Jaklitch, president of the Terrapin Club.
Then there were such postings as these on the Testudo Times website, which follows Maryland sports: "MD is a charter member of the ACC, [we're] not EVER [gonna] beat the BIG 4 in NC.'' And: "You can't hold your institution's destiny hostage to two basketball games vs. Duke.''
On the other hand, fans horrified at the idea of ditching the traditions of playing Duke and North Carolina -- and of pushing aside the interests of a sport that won a national championship within the past decade and has been an established national name for four decades -- are fighting back in the same forums. Those in alumni and fundraising groups are just as vocal; officials from some of Maryland's alumni groups have said recently that talk of a possible jump to the Big Ten have dominated their discussions, and the consensus has been that they would much rather stick with the ACC.
Part of the resistance has been the notion of both establishing new rivalries with schools in a completely different region -- and part has been that regardless of the relative annual strength of the Big Ten in basketball, it doesn't hold a candle to the ACC, at least by reputation. That remains a constant theme at post-expansion ACC basketball tournaments when one of the "football'' schools -- Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech -- face one of the old guard.
Still, even when separating emotion from it, the money is nothing to shrug off, particularly at Maryland, which has faced budget woes at the school overall and in the athletic department in the last two years.
The ACC has all but signed off on a new TV deal for football and basketball, shifting from FOX to ESPN, that would go into place in 2011-12 and more than doubles the current contract to a reported $155 million a year over 12 years. As much of an important bump as that is, it still doesn't put the ACC in the league of the Big Ten Network, the Southeastern Conference's deal or the television pact being put together that kept Texas in what was once the Big 12.
But it might be enough to temporarily fight off future raids, ACC officials have hinted, noting that the conference still has vulnerable spots -- because of market size, on-field success or both, the three recent football additions plus Florida State and Georgia Tech remain attractive to realignment-hungry leagues.
The ACC could still survive in its present state, though, as long as schools aren't out for straight cash grabs, as Yow indicated Maryland is not. "I hope the ACC stays fully intact,'' she said.
Yet, if the Big Ten does decide to go beyond its current 12-team alignment -- not as likely as before now that the super-conference plans of the Pac-10 have been scuttled by Texas' decision to stay put -- Maryland will remain an easy target, because of the allure of the Baltimore-Washington market and the proximity to one of the more distant members, Penn State (with which Maryland carried on a three-decade football rivalry through the 1990s and with whom it still fights recruiting battles).
And simple math compels any school, especially one like Maryland that has to fund 27 sports, to make football revenue the priority, since the money is distributed to fewer schools and, thus, in greater numbers, in BCS-level football than in Division I basketball.
But just as Texas' move (or lack thereof) cooled realignment talk all over the country for the time being, it appears to have eased tensions in and around Maryland's athletic programs. "The Big Ten's got their 12 teams; they can have their (football) championship game. That a pretty stable number,'' Williams said.
However, he added, "I think every conference is going to be ready and waiting from now on.''
Including the ACC, which may not have an urgent situation at Maryland anymore, but knows the alarm bells might go off again if the Big Ten gets expansion fever again.