COLLEGE PARK, Md. – In the campus bookstore. In the student union. On the football field. All over the University of Maryland’s campus in suburban Washington there are signs of the impending move to the Big Ten.
The Terrapins were charter members of the Atlantic Coast Conference when the league was founded in 1953. But in the 24-month conference expansion sprint, Maryland aligned itself with the Big Ten, a national brand name and bank vault. An athletic department that’s in financial ruins made a power play and the Big Ten pushed eastward, gaining a foothold in Washington.
Initial reactions to the move in 2012 could best be described as mixed. The ACC’s venom towards Maryland’s decision helped spur fans’ thoughts in favor of the Big Ten. Football ticket sales have surged, thanks in part to a home schedule that features conference kingpins Ohio State and Michigan State.
From 2011 to 2014, football season ticket sales have risen by 11,000. There were 5,000 new orders for the upcoming season alone. The same rush in tickets is expected for men’s basketball, which also has a favorable home schedule.
On campus, students are enthusiastic about a new era that includes some of the top programs in college sports history. When the Terps defeated ACC champion Virginia in the basketball season finale, chants of “Big Ten” reverberated around the Comcast Center. The hash tag #ACCya also took over the College Park area.
“There’s a lot of excitement, especially for football,” said third-year economics major Matthew Zimmerman. “We’ve been lacking just filling out the stadium. This will help generate a passionate fanbase. Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State are all in our division. Seeing them, playing them will not only better the business side, the level of competition will play a big role. It will help open the Midwest for recruiting, and for the Big Ten, it opens them up to the East Coast.”
Spoken like an administrator instead of a student. Maryland head coach Randy Edsall believes the change in style and competition will lead to a summer filled with preparation. He compared it to preparing for a bowl game. In theory, Maryland’s 2014 schedule is 12 consecutive non-conference games. It can work in favor of the Terps and the opponent.
“It’s a win-win,” Edsall said. “I feel good because I’m going to a football conference, not a basketball conference. When you think about the Big Ten, you think about football and a toughness that goes with that that’s unbelievable.”
Edsall’s first two seasons were mired with poor play. There was also a lingering bitterness over former head coach Ralph Friedgen’s exit and Edsall’s own departure from Connecticut. Maryland was 2-10 in his first season and 4-8 in Year 2. The seat at his self-described dream job was suddenly becoming hot until a bowl trip last season.
The Terps started the season 5-1 before losing five of their final seven games. Still, they showed improvement with the Big Ten move looming.
“We fully expect to be able to compete in the Big Ten this year,” Edsall said. “We’re really looking forward to it. We know it’s an outstanding conference and we’re proud and excited to be a part of it. We know we have to work very, very hard to be the best we can be. But we have all intents and purpose of coming in and competing.”
And why not? Maryland has one of the most electrifying players in the conference in wide receiver Stefon Diggs, a local kid who stayed home instead of attending Ohio State. In all, 18 starters return. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t legions of doubters.
Maryland – and fellow Big Ten newcomer Rutgers – has been mocked and insulted by opposing fans. Edsall realizes there’s a sense of proving people wrong. It’s a position he faced as UConn’s head coach when the Huskies went from FCS to FBS. That journey culminated in a BCS berth. The Rose Bowl might be years down the road for Maryland, but it won’t stop the imagery.
“It really energizes you,” Edsall said. “It’ll open up new recruiting areas for us. The opportunity for our kids to play in the Rose Bowl and compete in some of the stadiums that made college football will be a wonderful opportunity.”
Perhaps no impact will be greater than the uptick in recruiting. Historically, Maryland’s never been a powerhouse in attracting high-level high school talent. In the past five recruiting cycles, the Terps’ highest ranked class is 33rd. They currently have nine players from Big Ten states – all from Pennsylvania.
Edsall wants Ohio, Detroit, Indianapolis and St. Louis to become focus areas, and he believes the exposure from the Big Ten will lead to more national recruiting on the West Coast and in Texas. Maryland spends less than every other school in the Big Ten when it comes to recruiting, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The Terps spent under $800,000 in 2013 when the Big Ten average was nearly $1.5 million. When it joined the Big Ten, Maryland was in the midst of cutting seven sports while operating $83 million in debt. It’ll get tens of millions annually in league payouts, and the next TV contract could net the conference as much as $200 million. (Maryland and the ACC are currently in a legal battle over an exit fee.)
“We’ve had big issues with budgets and cutting sports. In that instance, to get sports back, I think [joining the Big Ten] is a good idea,” Zimmerman said. “The tradition is the reason some people are resistant, because we helped found the ACC. Some people think we belong here and that we should stay here. But the business side wasn’t working out for us. I think the Big Ten is a superior conference. In the long run, I think it’s a good idea.”
Athletic directors and coaches are thrilled when counting their money. They even buddy up with rivals when the financial windfall comes in. For Maryland, that rival would be Penn State. The two schools, which share a state border, have played 37 times, with Maryland winning a grand total of once – in 1961.
From 1960-1993, Maryland and Penn State met 30 times. The rivalry will be renewed in State College on Nov. 1. When Edsall was hired in 2011, he was in favor of starting a series with Penn State. Now when talking about competing against the Nittany Lions – on the field and on the recruiting trail – he uses words like challenging and opportunity. Edsall believes it creates a sense of urgency.
“To be able to get a rivalry like that going – we have to beat them – but to have the opportunity to play them on a yearly basis is something that I think will do our university and our state a lot of good,” Edsall said.
Some might caution Maryland to be careful what it wishes for, but its athletic stock is on the rise.