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Maryland's Big Ten move speaks to influence of dollars, not tradition

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There's a pivotal question now facing the Maryland Terrapins: Are they legends or are they leaders?

Lefty Driesell led Maryland to ACC titles in 1975 and 1980. Photo: Associated Press

We can certainly pigeon-hole that off-hand question into which division the fledgling Terps football program will be placed once they join the Big Ten on July 1, 2014, as President Wallace Loh announced Monday.

However, it's definitely apropos to debate whether or not the university wanted all along to make this kind of move, or if the strains of constant realignment and dollar signs compelled it.

"Membership in the Big Ten is in the strategic interest of the University of Maryland," Loh said in front of his athletic director and a swath of coaches. "When I came here, (athletic director) Kevin Anderson and I were faced unexpectedly with budget deficits.

"Membership in the Big Ten does enable us to truly guarantee the financial sustainability of Maryland athletics for a long, long, long time."

In reality, when it comes to the University of Maryland’s (and, for that matter, Rutgers’ and Notre Dame’s and Pittsburgh’s and Syracuse’s) move to a new conference, it’s par for the course as it pertains to college sports over the past two academic calendars.

Rivalries come second to the wallet with conference moves

Money talks. Tradition doesn’t. If tradition dictated all, the presidents and athletic directors at Duke and North Carolina would be on the phone with Loh and Anderson immediately, pleading with their counterparts to stick around.

Ah, tradition. Lefty Driesell walking onto the court at Cole Field House amid “Hail to the Chief.” Dean Smith smirking. Gary Williams fist-pumping Tradition, indeed.

Maryland men’s basketball program defines Maryland’s sports identity, and the man who made that possible is none too happy about this move. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Duke, Carolina, Wake Forest and everyone else. And then along came Lefty.

Then along came the “UCLA of the East,” promise in the 1970s. Moses Malone? For a second. No matter. Got a lot of headlines. The ACC suddenly had new national platform, courtesy of the ‘hander.

What followed were great things in College Park, providing a path for coach Gary Williams’ national title squad. And now? An identify forever changed both for the conference and the school. So says Lefty.

“I think it’s ludicrous,” Driesell, 80, told ABC7 when contacted Monday afternoon at his Virginia Beach home. “Tell me one thing that’s good about it. Tell me one thing.”

Well, Coach, there’s a lot more money with the Big Ten Network’s per-school payout.

“So there you go,” Driesell said. “It’s all about the money. College athletics didn’t used to be so big-business oriented. And I’ll tell you this. For Maryland kids, the student fans, Iowa and Michigan State is gonna be a tough sell. And the travel? Think about the where the Big Ten schools are.

“I’ll probably get in some kind of trouble for saying this, you know. I don’t know but I don’t care. This is a huge mistake.”

 Dollars trump tradition in today's NCAA

Forget that, though. According to ESPN’s Brian Bennett, the Big Ten is splitting up $284 million worth of TV and NCAA Tournament revenue in 2012. The league’s 11 members sans Nebraska, who joined the league 2011, each received nearly $25 million as part of the league’s revenue sharing.

Much of that came from the immense success the league has seen since launching the Big Ten Network, it’s 24/7 premium TV channel devoted to every piece of minutiae the conference spits out.

On Monday, in comments to The Diamondback, the school’s campus newspaper, Loh made no bones about the main reason this move was made.

"I did it to guarantee the long-term future of Maryland athletics," Loh said, less than a year after financial constraints forced the school to whack seven intercollegiate Olympic sports.

Impact reaches well beyond big-money football, basketball

That’s no consolation to the dozens of swimmers, runners, field athletes, divers and water polo players who have already seen their athletic careers in College Park cut short, but if this new infusion of capital really does go toward ensuring the “future of Maryland athletics,” one would think that reinstating those sports should at least be considered.

Loh did, in fact, say that the university was already looking into reinstituting some of those sports. The Big Ten can't fix the hurt that those cuts caused the students they impacted already, though.

Monday’s announcement is also no consolation to at least four other strong programs who are leaving the ACC. Maryland’s competitive stature in men’s soccer and women's field hockey likely stands to likely take a step backwards in the Big Ten, where those sports aren’t nearly as strong as they are in the ACC.

Don’t get Terrapin lacrosse players started on moving to a conference that doesn’t even sponsor their sport, either. SB Nation’s College Crosse blog calls the programs at Maryland, last year's national runner-up, and Rutgers “functional ronin(s) roaming the countryside,” at least until the Big Ten starts sponsoring a lacrosse league.

Pack up the truck - teams just keep moving

But no, as always, this seemingly perpetual shell game of conference realignment is driven by the desire to up the ante in big money football; a game that Maryland hasn’t won a conference title in since 2001. It’s a whirlwind that has picked up Nebraska and plopped them in the Big Ten, saw Colorado and Utah flee to the breezy confines of the Pac-12 and the Big East soon to become a complete misnomer in itself once it welcomes Boise State and San Diego State.

The moral here is that this is nothing new, and just when you think it's over, the dollars start blowing and teams start moving again. Yes, the academic benefits are there, and yes, the new influx of capital, if allocated correctly, can do wonders for the institution in College Park, both athletically and academically.

It doesn't make them unique in the grand scheme of this era of athletics, though.

So when it comes down to it, we ask again: are the Maryland Terrapins legends or leaders? The fact of the matter is that they’re neither; through no fault of their own, they’re like every other college program.

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