Maryland’s Defection: An Outsider’s Perspective

Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, on December 14, 2012
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Editor’s Note: This article appears on both TechSideline.com and InsideTheACC.com.

I read a fascinating article yesterday in the Washington Post that detailed Maryland’s decision to move to the Big Ten Conference. The details in the article paint a picture of some of the forces that are at work in conference realignment, and though the circumstances are particular to one school, I think that every college sports fan who follows conference realignment can learn something from the Maryland situation.

Don’t click on that link and read the article yet. Save it for later. It’s a long article, and the purpose of my article is to pull some things from the Washington Post article and comment on them. You know … the typical blogger’s technique of piggybacking on someone else’s work. But bear with me.

Full disclosure: I’m a Virginia Tech guy, born and bred, a latecomer to the ACC, and mostly ignorant of Maryland’s athletic history and culture. Having said that, I also do not share the disdain many Hokie fans have for Maryland, their athletic department, and their fans. The only time I’ve been to Maryland for a sporting event was the 2005 Virginia Tech-Maryland football game. I didn’t have a single unpleasant encounter with a Maryland fan, and didn’t come away thinking any more or any less of their fan base.

That’s why the article is titled like it is. It’s an outsider’s perspective on what went down at Maryland. Treat it as such.

Here are the basic financial facts you need to know before proceeding, all of them from the linked WP article:

  • Maryland’s athletic department ran almost $5 million in the red in fiscal 2012, and was projected to triple that deficit by 2017, had they stayed in the ACC.
  • The Big Ten, via its Big Ten Network and more lucrative ABC/ESPN TV deal and bowl deals, is projected by Sports Illustrated to pay out $32 million to Maryland in 2014-15, versus $20 million Maryland would have gotten from the ACC.
  • The Big Ten projected that in 2017, Maryland would receive $43 million from the Big Ten, versus a $24 million projected payout from the ACC.

So the financial incentives were strong.

But what’s interesting to me is the players who were the decision makers in Maryland’s move to the Big Ten, most notably school president Wallace Loh.

Rule #1 of conference realignment is this: Athletic directors and coaches don’t make the decision. The school president and board of visitors (in Maryland’s case, a Board of Regents) make the decision. That’s a lot of people, who may or may not care about athletics, who are making the decision. Only one person on the athletic side, the athletic director, gets any input, but doesn’t get a vote.

The Players for Maryland

Maryland’s president is Wallace D. Loh, who took the position on Nov. 1, 2010, just two years ago. From the WP the article (all quotes in this article are from the WP article):

Born in China and raised in Peru with degrees from Cornell, Michigan and Yale, Loh was an outsider to the ACC. A psychologist and lawyer by training, he wasn’t particularly obsessed with college athletics.

“Wasn’t particularly obsessed with college athletics”, indeed.  More on that later.

Not mentioned is that Loh was the provost at Iowa from 2008-2010, prior to becoming Maryland’s president, and at Iowa, he “oversaw budgets and personnel for the state university’s eleven colleges”, per another Washington Post article.

Loh can be summed up thus: born in China, educated in the U.S. with a 30-year career in academic administration, most recently with a focus on budgets (money).

Soon after becoming president at Maryland, Loh attended a meeting of the Association of American Universities.

Shortly after accepting his post [at Maryland], Loh attended a meeting of officials from schools belonging to the Association of American Universities, a consortium of research universities that included, at that time, all the Big Ten schools. Loh had not yet delved into the finances of his own athletic department, and wasn’t terribly familiar with the landscape of college sports. But the topic of conference expansion — a popular point of discussion among university leaders, given the constant shift over the previous decade — came up.

“If you guys are ever interested in expanding,” Loh remembers telling them, “I would be interested in hearing what you have to say.”

That offhand comment, by a guy who knew very little about college athletics and didn’t yet know the dire financial condition of his own athletic department, laid the groundwork for the Big Ten to court Loh.

Loh later found out about Maryland’s athletic department running deeply in the red, and he and athletic director Kevin Anderson (whom Loh hired) together decided to cut seven sports.

Time passed. In October of 2012, just a couple months ago, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney called Loh and suggested they meet and talk. Loh agreed, but when he told Anderson that he was going to meet with the Big Ten, Anderson warned Loh.

When Loh told his athletic director, Anderson responded, “Wallace, you are not serious? You realize this is such a hot issue with our fans. You don’t want to go that direction.”

Loh did anyway. He took Anderson and two other athletic department employees to meet with Delaney and other Big Ten officials in Chicago on October 12th.

Delaney laid out the details of the Big Ten: its structure, its financials (including the Big Ten Network, TV deals, and bowl deals), its revenue sharing, and Delaney’s vision for its future.

The next quote from the Post article is a jaw-dropper.

“I mean, I was totally stunned,” Loh said. “Remember, all that I know about the Big Ten and the ACC at this time is that there are games. .?.?. It really opened my eyes because I’ve never been involved with the details of a conference.”

And there you have it. 30 years as a career academic administrator at the collegiate level, and Loh admits to knowing almost nothing about athletic conferences, other than “there are games.” And he’s the driving force behind moving Maryland to the Big Ten.

Still, if Loh was to drive Maryland into a new conference, he had a sell job at every turn. The following week, he met with his cabinet — and told the members he had spoken with the Big Ten.

“Their first reaction was, ‘You must be kidding,’ ” Loh said. But Loh passed on the financial information the Big Ten had given him. Provost Mary Ann Rankin, Loh’s second-in-command on the academic side, provided key support. Rankin grew up in the Midwest and was weaned on Big Ten football. During her time at the University of Texas, Rankin had heard of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, an academic and research partnership among Big Ten schools and the University of Chicago.

The more digging Rankin did, the more impressed she became. It was clear that while the CIC didn’t need to be a driving force for a potential move, it could be an attractive academic element for faculty.

Again, there you have it. Loh’s partner in crime, so to speak, was provost Mary Ann Rankin, who was hired at Maryland on October 1st, 2012. “Weaned on Big Ten football”, she had been in College Park for all of eleven days when Loh met with Delaney in Chicago. Loh “passed on the financial information” to her, and after some investigation, Rankin thought moving to the Big Ten and joining the CIC “could be an attractive academic element for faculty.”

Notice what’s missing from the discussion? Athletics. Rivalries. Tradition. Competitiveness. Geography. History.

Wallace Loh and Mary Ann Rankin don’t come from Maryland roots. They don’t know anything about Maryland athletics or the Terps’ athletic history. In all likelihood, neither one of them will be at Maryland five years from now. (Loh is 66 years old, and Rankin received her doctorate in physiology and behavior from Iowa in 1972, which would put her in her early 60s at the youngest.)

And yet, they were the major forces behind Maryland’s move to the Big Ten.

Pushing Through the Change … Quickly and Secretly

After Loh got Rankin on board, they went to the Maryland Board of Regents, some of whom are longtime Maryland boosters, fans, and alums. They are people who “get it” when it comes to the history of Maryland and the ACC. But Loh was persuasive and persistent, and things proceeded rapidly with the Big Ten.

Maryland and the Big Ten got to down to decision time, but the fact that more people were involved means the rumors got out and started circulating on blogs and the beat writers.

Delany felt comfortable, as did others. But the main sticking point in Loh’s mind — public opposition — bubbled up. He received hundreds of angry e-mails, and the news hadn’t even been widely reported.

Meantime, ACC Commissioner John Swofford called both Loh and Anderson on Friday, hoping to find out their intentions. He called again Saturday. Neither returned Swofford’s calls, according to an ACC official. The silence told them Maryland’s intentions.

The speed and secrecy with which Loh and other Maryland officials moved, and the “hundreds of angry emails” they received despite that secrecy, proves what Anderson told Loh when Loh first brought it up: You realize this is such a hot issue with our fans. You don’t want to go that direction.

The fact that Loh and Anderson wouldn’t answer John Swofford’s phone call speaks to the complete lack of loyalty that Loh and Anderson have to the ACC. (Anderson graduated from San Francisco State and served in athletic administration at Cal, Oregon State and Army before coming to Maryland in 2010.) They had extensive, secret discussions with the Big Ten, but never said boo to the ACC and never gave John Swofford a chance to make his pitch.

Loh certainly did his research on the Big Ten. I wonder if he did his research on the ACC?

On the morning of Monday, November 19th, the Maryland Board of Regents voted to make the move.

On Monday morning, the regents gathered in secret and without going through the normal formalities — which they have since admitted violated the state’s open meetings act — and voted to endorse the move.

Tom McMillen, a former Maryland basketball player and U.S. congressman, cast the lone dissenting vote.

The board’s willful violation of the state’s open meetings act sums up the whole situation: a president who is ignorant of college athletics (Loh), a provost from the Midwest who had been on the job for mere weeks (Rankin), an athletic director from the other side of the country (Anderson), negotiations conducted in secret with the Big Ten while not allowing the ACC to respond, and a Board of Regents that rushed the vote through in a private meeting held in violation of a state statute … that’s how Maryland fans were ripped from their conference home of nearly 60 years.

Maryland will now play football games against the likes of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Purdue, Northwestern, and yes, Rutgers, all teams with which Maryland fans have little history and probably less interest. Resuming their long-dormant (since 1993) series with Penn State will probably be a boost, but the Terps have never played Nebraska or Ohio State, and haven’t played Michigan since 1990 or Michigan State since 1950.

North Carolina, Duke, and Virginia will no longer make trips to the Comcast Center. I doubt that playing against Big Ten teams will make the typical Maryland basketball fan’s skirt fly up.

Wallace Loh never saw Lefty Driesell prowl the sidelines at Cole Field House. I’ll bet Mary Ann Rankin’s never heard of the classic 103-100 overtime thriller between NC State and Maryland in the 1974 ACC Tournament Championship game. I’ll bet neither one of them paid attention when Len Bias died. And if you mention the names Jerry Claiborne, Bobby Ross, and Boomer Esiason to them, I’m sure you’d get a blank stare.

But these are the people who were responsible for moving Maryland from the ACC to the Big Ten.

I get it. I’m not stupid or naïve. I know that money rules the world, and a $19 million gap in payouts is a huge amount of money that can’t be ignored. I also know that Loh, Anderson and Rankin didn’t act alone; their Board of Regents approved this (albeit secretly).

But what happened at Maryland should be a lesson to the average college sports fan that things like athletic tradition and history don’t matter, and the decision makers can be completely disconnected from the desires of the average fan. Money and, yes, academics were the drivers behind Maryland’s move, and even as an outsider, I know what the Maryland fans have lost in the process.

Loh said in the press conference to announce Big Ten membership:

The world of ACC as we have known it is in the midst of change. And the job of a president is not just to look at the past or the present, but also to look to the future … it’s to be ahead of change, instead of having change overwhelm us.

A Hokie’s View

From a Virginia Tech perspective, the situations are completely different, in every way.

For one, the Virginia Tech fan base doesn’t have the long-term history with the ACC that Maryland does. Hokie fans are used to being conference nomads, from the Southern Conference to the Metro to the Atlantic 10 to the Big East to the ACC. If things do change in the future, the reaction from the Virginia Tech fan base will likely not be one of outrage. They’ll just have to get used to another schedule full of new schools. They’ve done it before.

Unlike Maryland newcomer Wallace Loh, Virginia Tech president Charles Steger graduated from Virginia Tech in 1969 and has been at the university ever since. He’s a Hokie through and through, knows all about Virginia Tech’s athletic history, and is no stranger to the ACC. He knows about college athletics, too; he is currently serving as the chair of the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee, and as such was heavily involved in the recent implementation of a playoff in Division 1A football.

Charles Steger knows more than “there are games.”

Virginia Tech’s athletic department runs solidly in the black, unlike Maryland’s, thanks to the stewardship of longtime (since 1997) athletic director Jim Weaver.

The entire power structure at Virginia Tech and in Virginia Tech athletics is stocked with longtime Virginia Tech people, people who appreciate the ACC and know all about the ACC, and are loyal to the ACC.

But that could change. Steger and Weaver are both closing in on retirement. Once there’s a new power structure in place, there’s no telling what the viewpoint of a new school president and athletic director will be, and how they’ll influence others. Hokies should take note of the Maryland tale to realize how quickly things can change.

 

Editor’s Note: We recommend the Washington Post article highly. It contains a lot more detail than the article you just read, including how the Big Ten front-loaded Maryland’s revenue-sharing to entice the Terps to switch. It’s excellent work and compelling reading.

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