On the third Saturday in November, more than 100 of the University of Maryland’s most generous donors and ardent supporters were invited to the president’s newly constructed, multimillion-dollar home. The breakfast tailgate party preceded that afternoon’s game against nationally ranked Florida State. But as the guests nibbled on finger foods and wandered through the new home, the school’s top leaders — mainstays at such an event — were nowhere in sight.
Six of those officials — President Wallace D. Loh, his spokesman and his chief of staff; Athletic Director Kevin Anderson and one of his deputies; and the vice president for university relations — gathered around the kitchen table in Loh’s private residence. They were negotiating a deal they knew would, at first blush, anger and upset many devoted Terrapins fans, including many who were just down the hall.
Through a speakerphone at the center of the table came the voice of Jim Delany, the longtime commissioner of the Big Ten Conference. During on-again, off-again negotiations over the previous seven weeks, Delany had wooed Maryland with promises of millions more dollars than the school was earning by belonging to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
By this point, the move seemed to Loh like a “no-brainer.” The athletic department has struggled to attract fans, resulting in deficit problems so severe that, earlier in the year, Loh cut seven varsity sports, a decision he then called one of the most painful of his career. The new revenue could potentially turn around the department’s finances, and therefore its future.
And as jarring as a move from the ACCmight be for Maryland, changing conferences had become the norm in college athletics. For the past decade, the regional rivalries that traditionally defined the parameters of and passion for college athletics have been shifting.
In order for Maryland to be part of the shift, Loh knew he would have to convince the school’s influential donors and devoted fans. After all, Maryland helped found the ACC in the 1950s. Along with deep-rooted tradition, it could cost U-Md. as much as $52 million to the leave the league. Loh was already dodging phone calls from the ACC commissioner.
“It’s money versus tradition,” Loh said in an interview. “Everybody knows there would be an outcry and we would have to deal with that. And, do we want to go through that outcry?”
Sitting in the kitchen that Saturday morning, less than two hours before kickoff, Loh decided it was worth the risk. He told Delany they had a deal.
A shifting landscape
In 2003, the ACC convinced three members of the Big East to leave and join its ranks, a move that shook up the landscape of college athletics. Alliances founded on geographic proximity and bolstered by competitive history were cast as relics secondary to television market share. Following the ACC’s bold stroke, other moves were not just probable, but inevitable.
“For years and years and years, this area was somewhat dormant,” Delany said in an interview at his Park Ridge, Ill., office, home to conference headquarters. “The tectonic plates underneath intercollegiate athletics are very warm, as evidenced by all the changes that have happened in the major conferences over the past decade.”
In 2010, the Big Ten lured Nebraska from the neighboring Big 12. But Delany had his eye on the eastern seaboard for years, two Big Ten athletic directors said. He said he regretted not setting up an East Coast office when Penn State came on board in 1990, a lost opportunity to expand the conference’s brand and influence to major commercial and media markets. So for the past five years, whenever the conference’s athletic directors discussed potential expansion — which was often — Maryland was always among the potential targets.
“I remember Maryland coming up as a topic of conversation going back to when I started,” said Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon, the former CEO of Domino’s Pizza, who took his job at the start of 2010.
That summer, Loh, who had been the provost at the University of Iowa, a Big Ten school, was named the president at Maryland. Shortly after accepting his post, 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.”