Maryland's conference call

Money talks and money walks as Maryland leaves the Atlantic Coast Conference.

November 20, 2012 

The old lefthander was his usual outspoken self upon hearing that the University of Maryland was leaving the Atlantic Coast Conference, of which it became a charter member in 1953. Lefty Driesell, who coached some memorable Terrapin basketball teams in the 1970s and 1980s, said the school was making a mistake to join the Big 10 conference.

He said, “This was done solely for money and that’s not what college athletics is about.”

The university’s action really confirms that sentiment. Though the university will have to pay a hefty fee for departing the ACC (up to $50 million, likely negotiated to a lower sum), Maryland’s President Wallace Loh cited finances in announcing a move decided in secret. The university will draw millions more dollars from TV revenue shared by the Big 10 than from the ACC. That will bolster a program burdened, as many are, by large expenses, including the use of revenue from men’s basketball and football to support other sports.

The secrecy of the decision is an issue unto itself, although it’s not unique. Notre Dame’s joining of the ACC by 2015 (minus football and hockey) also was a top-secret maneuver. Secrecy, particularly when it involves public universities, of which the ACC has several, is never good for the credibility of the decision itself.

But universities and conferences are prisoner to the dollar. TV networks call most of the shots. The ACC will have, as of 2015, 14 members. Other conferences are expanding as well.

There are side effects:

One, these mega conferences diminish the importance of backyard rivalries and confuse even the most ardent fans. Which division are schools in? How much longer will football and basketball seasons have to be, to see that conference members play each other as well as chosen outside opponents?

Two, the identities of conferences themselves are lost. “Atlantic Coast Conference” used to mean something in terms of the name defining geography and rivalry, and North Carolina schools were at the epicenter. The conference soon will include Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Notre Dame, schools not exactly on the Atlantic coast.

Three, the spread-out nature of the conference will mean more traveling time for athletes whose schedules already are stretched, at least at those universities that believe players also should be students.

Finally, the huge sums of money and the ever-expanding conferences make the structure of college athletics look more like the professional leagues. Are universities businesses or institutions of higher learning?

The secrecy, the immense superstructures of conferences, the bowing to the television networks (football teams that have 6-6 records are eligible for post-season bowls, which are supposed to reward excellence), the multimillion-dollar contracts for coaches with all sorts of side deals with apparel companies – all of it points to a system out of control, with no end, or even destination, in sight.

Not what college athletics is about. Yes, Coach Driesell had it right. Exactly right.

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