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Al Featherston: Goodbye Maryland

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Maryland faced a hostile crowd when the Terps lined up to tip off overtime in the semifinals of the 1958 ACC Tournament at Reynolds Coliseum.

Bud Milliken's Terps were matched up against Duke, the league's regular season champion and a team that Maryland had routed by 25 points in College Park, but lost to by nine later in Durham. That was not unusual in that era. Maryland always played the Big Four tough in College Park, but almost always lost on Tobacco Road.

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That season, Maryland had lost four times in four tries in North Carolina, blowing big leads on each occasion. So when the Terps blew a 53-38 lead over the last nine minutes of regulation against the Blue Devils in the tournament semifinals, it was a repeat of the same pattern.

As the teams lined up for the extra period, the crowd at Reynolds began to chant, "Choke! Coke! Choke!"

But Maryland didn't choke. Slender sophomore forward Charles McNeil and gangling young big man Al Bunge dominated the extra period and the Terps pulled out a 71-65 victory.

"They didn't choke when we came up on them," Duke's Bobby Joe Harris told reporters, sounding almost surprised that the Maryland team kept its poise.

One night later, Maryland rallied from a seven-point halftime deficit to beat North Carolina in the finals. McNeil hit five straight jumpers midway through the second half to turn a 56-50 deficit into a 60-56 lead and the Terps protected the lead down the stretch at the free throw line, beating the defending national champions 86-74.

As Milliken's team took the court for the trophy presentation, the Maryland players chanted to the stunned (mostly Tar Heel) fans, "The chokers didn't choke … the chokers didn't choke."

That would be Maryland's last ACC basketball championship until Lefty Driesell's Terps finally beat Duke in the finals in 1984 - more than a quarter century later.

My reason for bringing this up is that Maryland has always had a chip on their shoulders when it comes to the four North Carolina teams at the heart of the ACC.

"We'd go to Tobacco Road and battle them, but we usually lost," Bunge recalled more than a half-century later. "In those days, Maryland was an outsider. It was all Tobacco Road, Tobacco Road, Tobacco Road."

Maryland won't have to put up with Tobacco Road much longer. The Terps voted Monday to leave the ACC after 59 years (actually, the final departure will come after 60 years) and move on to the brighter pastures (and bigger bucks) of the Big Ten.

It's hard to clarify my feelings about Maryland's departure. On one hand, I'm disappointed to see the league I love lose a charter member. Maryland is so much a part of what the ACC is - from Jim Tatum's national championship football team in the ACC's first season to Milliken's breaking the ACC basketball color line to Driesell's long quest to win an ACC title (including a loss in the greatest game ever played) to the tragedy of Len Bias to "Sweat, Gary, sweat" Williams and his 2002 national title.

On the other hand, I remember all the irrational behavior by the Terps - not just the obscene, bottle-tossing fans but also the irrational players and bitter coaches. I remember Tom McMillen (ironically the one Maryland trustee to vote against leaving the ACC) arguing in 1974 that the Terps should leave the league because they'd never get a fair break on Tobacco Road. I remember Milliken railing against the ACC Tournament (he called it "the $60,000 farce"), a refrain picked up by Driesell, who complained about the tournament even in years when his Terps didn't win the regular season (It might have been unfair that No. 3 Maryland had to play No. 1 N.C. State in Greensboro in the 1974 finals, but Maryland finished three games behind the Pack in the standings - without the tournament that Driesell and his players hated, they still wouldn't have gotten an NCAA bid!). I remember the Terps long quest to get the tournament out of North Carolina, although to this day, Maryland's only three ACC titles have come on Tobacco Road.

Thinking about that - and the bottles thrown at Carlos Boozer's mother, the unprintable chants directed at J.J. Redick and the riots after most Duke-Maryland games (win or lose), I'm tempted to say, "Good riddance."

THE ACC'S LOSS

Part of the problem is to separate the specific event - in itself, losing Maryland is a very, VERY minor blow to the ACC's prestige - from what it may portend. Think about it - is ACC football any weaker today than it was at this time last week? Maryland has won six football games the last two years and has averaged just 5.5 wins a year over the last nine seasons. The Terps haven't finished in the AP top 10 since 1976 - and that was the only time since 1955. Overall, Maryland has been ranked just 15 times in 59 ACC seasons (and three of those were in the first three years of the league).

Clearly, the ACC can do without Maryland football.

But can the ACC survive the exit of Florida State? Of Clemson? Of Georgia Tech?

That's the question being debated in ACC athletic offices today. But there needs to be clear thinking about the issue. Losing Maryland is not going to make Florida State throw up its hands and scream that the ACC is no longer a viable football conference. Depending on which program is recruited to replace the Terps, it won't impact the league's TV contract with ESPN.

The real fear is that the Big Ten's quick strike to move to 14 teams might propel the SEC to expand as well. And make no mistake, if the SEC comes calling, any ACC school will listen.

There is probably more misinformation about expansion politics - both printed and in the Internet - than anything else in the sports world (even recruiting). Much of what is reported is wrong, often dead wrong. Back during the ACC's big expansion crisis in 2003, one Charlotte newspaperman refused to believe that the ACC was not courting Notre Dame and filled his paper with bogus stories, which were then picked up and spread by dozens of other outlets. Not long ago, an unsubstantiated post on a West Virginia website claimed that the ACC had called an emergency meeting to respond to the imminent departure of Florida State and Clemson to the Big 12.

The story was an absolute farce - there were NO negotiations between the two ACC schools and the Big 12 -- but for weeks, the story dominated headlines. It was perpetuated by some sloppy reporting about league payouts. A Tallahassee newspaper obtained a copy of the school's budget under that state's Freedom of Information Act and reported that the 'Noles faced a $2.4 million budget shortfall because the ACC distribution for the 2011-12 season was a mere $14 million. One FSU trustee, reading that news, threw fit - suggesting that FSU ought to explore the Big 12 because that league was paying substantially more than the ACC.

It turned out the newspaper did not understand that the ACC uses a different distribution system than most other conferences. That $14 million was just a "conservative" estimate of the payout, which is always substantially more than that. When athletic director Randy Spetman met with the Board of Trustees, he explained the true figures and the interest in the Big 12 died a quick death.

The Tallahassee paper, which had created the controversy, sheepishly admitted that the school had received a late check for $6,997,398.85 on June 1st - far more than the original estimate obtained by the newspaper.

My ACC sources insist that the ACC's total payout is equal to or more than the Big 12. Those two leagues rank a close fourth and fifth among conferences when it comes to financial status. The Big Ten, the SEC and the Pac 10 (in that order) are the most lucrative. The ACC and Big 12 (or maybe the Big 12 and ACC - it's that close) lead the Big East by a wide margin.

That's why the Big Ten can poach teams from the Big 12 (Nebraska), ACC (Maryland) and Big East (Rutgers). That's why the SEC can poach from the Big 12 (Texas A&M and Missouri). It's why the Big 12 and ACC can poach from the Big East (West Virginia to the Big 12; Syracuse and Pitt to the ACC).

Fans who live on message boards need to understand that unless there is a radical shift in the college football landscape, the ACC is not going to lure Penn State from the Big Ten or Kentucky or Vanderbilt or anybody else from the SEC. At the same time, the ACC is not going to lose teams to the Big 12 - unless this league does start to disintegrate and teams scramble for a safe haven.

The Big Ten has made its strike. Now everyone is waiting to see if the SEC makes a move.

But I'm told that there is a problem. Florida strongly objects to adding FSU to the SEC … South Carolina doesn't want to see Clemson in the league … and Georgia would object to adding Georgia Tech. Are those schools strong enough to block their in-state rivals? Maybe, since the only point for the SEC to expand is to increase its TV footprint - and adding a second Florida school, a second South Carolina school and/or a second Georgia school wouldn't do that.

It seems more likely - at the moment - that the SEC would move west (the University of Texas is still their dream school). Or they may make a run at a North Carolina school - this state is the nation's 10th most populous and would add a lot to the SEC TV audience.

ACC officials have concerns, but they are not panicking yet. My understanding is that they are very confident that Clemson is committed to the ACC (after all, the Tigers did vote for the increased buyout), but that FSU might be at risk. Remember, back in the early '90s, when the Seminoles were looking to join a conference, they had the choice of joining the ACC or SEC. A majority of those in the athletic department wanted to join the SEC, but the school's academic community was overwhelmingly in favor of joining the ACC.

Of course, the financial gap between the two leagues was not as big in those days.

Academic reputation is a factor that's often overlooked in the expansion debate. It's the reason the ACC rejected overtures from West Virginia and has (at least so far) rejected Louisville as a potential member. Academically, the ACC is regarded as the premier major conference - but just a bit ahead of the Big Ten. There is a big gap to the Big 12 and, especially, the SEC.

Maryland president Wallace Loh claimed that academics was one of the reasons he favored the move to the Big Ten. That statement incensed former ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan, who pointed out that the Big Ten was a (small) step down from the more prestigious (in academic terms) ACC.

Corrigan's explanation for the move was very simple.

"It's money, money, money," he told Doug Doughty of the Roanoke Times.

Let's talk about money.

Maryland has been in financial trouble in recent years, dropping seven sports in the last year in response to budget shortfalls.

Corrigan told the Baltimore Sun that the ACC has treated Maryland well from a financial standpoint, but argued that the Terps are in trouble "because they haven't done a good job raising funds themselves."

Loh suggested that the move to the Big Ten would eventually be worth $20 million a year to the school. Well, it's possible that the Big Ten Network will turn into a financial bonanza and payouts might eventually reach that level, but for now, the move will generate closer to $8 million a year more for the Terps.

But balanced against that increase is the $50 million buyout that the Terps will have to deal with. That will eat up at least six years of the increased benefits from moving to the Big Ten.

Loh blithely brushed off the buyout issue at his press conference, suggesting that the Terps would negotiate that figure down.

That's not going to happen - the ACC is not about the budge on that $50 million buyout. Why should they - especially with Florida State looking closely to see where the buyout is for real or a sham?

Now, Maryland may go to court to challenge the size of the buyout, but if Loh thinks the threat of litigation will scare the ACC, he's dead wrong. The ACC's lawyers were very much a part of drafting the buyout that was passed last summer by a vote of 10 of 12 members. By ACC bylaws - which Maryland helped draft and has abided by for 59 years - it requires a three-fourths vote of the membership to change the league's bylaws … and it doesn't take Nate Silver to figure out that 10 of 12 is more than three-fourths of the league's membership.

The ACC attitude is - "Let them sue … it will only add to the expense of leaving." As for the ACC, yeah, they'd rather not pay legal costs, but those costs will be nowhere near the difference between $50 million and the lower figure that the Terps hope to negotiate.

Of course, there is always Kevin Plank, the CEO of Under Armor, and a big booster of Maryland athletics. Many believe that if Maryland does get stuck with the $50 million exit fee, Plank will merely write a check to cover the expense.

My question is if Plank is so generous, how come he hasn't used his supposedly bottomless largess to help Maryland out of its financial hole? I mean, Boone Pickens has poured approximately $400 million into the Oklahoma State athletic program. Phil Knight has spent $300 on the University of Oregon.

If Plank had given Maryland even half the $50 million he's supposedly willing to spend to cover the Terps ACC buyout, Maryland wouldn't have been in the awful financial shape they were in.

THE COST OF LEAVING

The tragic thing about Maryland's departure - beyond what it may or may not do to the ACC - is that it is ALL about money. Aside from the financial benefits, everything about this move hurts the school - especially its athletes and its fans.

I'm sure than in a generation or two, Maryland fans will develop rivalries with somebody in the Big Ten. Football will actually be an easy transition, since Maryland will go from being one of the dregs of the ACC to being one of the dregs of the Big Ten. It's easy to suggest that Terp fans won't drive 15 hours to Iowa City … but they don't drive five hours to Duke or Wake Forest now. Not a big difference.

But while everything is about football financially, that doesn't mean that football is the only sport that matters to the athletes and fans. Maryland has a rich basketball history (better than its football history) and Mark Turgeon has the Terps on the verge of challenging the ACC's powers again. I'm sure that in a short time, Maryland will be challenging the best in the Big Ten on the hardwood.

But it's going to take a while to replace the passion that the ACC has generated over the last six decades.

Maybe one day in the distant future, the Terps will be as jazzed when Purdue or Wisconsin comes to town as they now are with UNC or Duke visits. Maybe they'll riot after beating Ohio State or curse a Northwestern star or throw water bottles at Tom Izzo's wife in the stands.

But I very much doubt they'll see any ACC teams come to Comcast in the foreseeable future. Duke's chant "Not our rivals" is now the indisputable truth.

Basketball is not going to be the only sport to suffer. Lacrosse is a big deal in Maryland and the Terps are leaving the strongest lacrosse league in the country.

"Does anyone in the Big Ten even play lacrosse?" Corrigan asked.

To answer, yes - but Maryland is leaving a league that currently has four of the top five teams in the NCAA rankings (counting future member Notre Dame) to join a league topped by No. 15 Penn State and No. 18 Ohio State.

Corrigan pointed out that the ACC is the nation's strongest league in women's soccer and field hockey. I'm not sure how valid his complaint is - after all, Maryland recent cut seven Olympic sports. Do the Terps care about anything beyond football … and maybe basketball?

Oh well, that's the Big Ten's problem now. Maryland can join South Carolina as a dusty page in the ACC history book. Personally, I think the ACC will do just fine without them.

But, I have to admit, I didn't see this coming, so I wouldn't bet on my opinion.

ODDS AND ENDS

-- I don't understand the anger from certain ACC fans. Isn't this exactly what the ACC has been doing to the Big East for the last decade.? We all laughed at the expressions of outrage and the futile lawsuits when the ACC stole Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College a few years ago. We laughed at the Big East pain when the ACC seduced Syracuse and Pitt.

Do we now have any right to whine about the Big Ten taking one of our toys?

And consider this - it's possible that the ACC brought this upon itself. I don't know this for a fact, but I've been told that the Big Ten stopped at 12 teams in the hope that Notre Dame would eventually join the league. Until the Irish acted, the Big Ten was not going to expand further. But the ACC gave Notre Dame a home and took them out of the Big Ten mix … leaving the Big Ten to pursue other expansion avenues.

-- I wonder about the law of unintended compromises. When the ACC first raided the Big East, many thought it would destroy the eastern league. Instead, the Big East responded by adding Louisville, Marquette and Cincinnati and becoming the best conference in college basketball, while the ACC slipped from that perch (not saying it was because of expansion, but the timing is awfully suspicious).

The Big Ten has severely diluted its on-field product - even if Rutgers is currently ranked in the AP poll (thanks, IMHO, to a woefully weak schedule). Seriously, is Big Ten football going to be stronger or weaker with Maryland and Rutgers? Is the league's TV package going to be as attractive when you replace matchups like Penn State-Michigan, Nebraska-Ohio State, Michigan State-Wisconsin with Michigan-Rutgers and Nebraska-Maryland?

On the other hand, what if the ACC adds UConn or Louisville? Both have been better on the football field in recent years and both are immeasurably better than the Terps in basketball. If the ACC avoids further defections, it is likely to emerge as stronger than ever.

-- Who will the ACC add as a 14th football member?

UConn is the logical choice. The school's president, Susan Herbst is a 1984 Duke graduate and academically, the Connecticut school fits the ACC profile. The football team isn't great, although the Huskies won at least eight games in four straight seasons between 2007 and 2010. They have slumped a bit over the last two years, although they did beat Maryland earlier this season (when the Terps still had their starting QB).

The problem is the basketball team. Although the Huskies have a very good overall academic standing as a school, the basketball program has been an academic disaster area - so much so that the school will not be eligible for the NCAA Tournament this season. There have been NCAA rules violations, criminal behavior … all under Jim Calhoun, who has recently retired.

Will UConn basketball clean up its act? If new coach Kevin Ollie can do that and maintain the school' phenomenal success rate on the court, the Huskies would be quite a plum for the basketball crazy ACC. Plus they offer a nice TV market - one that extends throughout New England and even into New York.

I've heard rumors that Boston College and/or Syracuse are adamantly opposed to adding UConn to the league. My ACC sources, for what they're worth, tell me that's not true. At the same time, they also say that it's no sure thing that the league will add UConn or anybody else.

Louisville offers an even better athletic package and would extend the ACC's footprint into Kentucky (although the Cards are definitely second-fiddle to Kentucky in that state). But Louisville is far below ACC standards academically.

Not long ago, I would have written that was enough to disqualify them as an ACC candidate. But I also believed - and for years I was told - that the ACC would never accept Notre Dame as a partial member. Now that the league has backed off that stance, I can't rule out the chance that the ACC might swallow its academic pride and pursue Louisville.

BTW, suggestions that the ACC go after South Florida or Cincinnati are silly. Both offer the same academic problems as Louisville without the athletic rewards. And South Florida is in the same TV market as Miami. What's the sense in that?

Obviously, the ideal situation would be to convince Notre Dame to join the league as a full member. But I can't see where the ACC has any leverage to convince the Irish to give up their football independence.

-- The best response to Maryland's departure was offered by N.C. State football coach Tom O'Brien, who has been in the league forever (starting as an assistant at Virginia in the early 1980s). He offered a brilliant suggestion that the ACC restructure its divisions into the "old guys" and the "new guys".

The "old guys" would be the seven oldest ACC members: Clemson, Georgia Tech, N.C. State, UNC, Virginia and Duke.

The "new guys" would be the league's most recent members: Florida State, Virginia Tech, Miami, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Boston College - plus the seventh team, when and if it's added.

The divisions look fairly balanced to me and would have the benefit of re-creating the old ACC that I grew up with. It probably won't happen, but I'd love to see it.

-- I just thought I'd address the ultimate worst-case scenario for Duke - the ACC does collapse (which I think is very unlikely) and we do end up with four 16-team football superconferences … and Duke is left out.

I believe that scenario would be devastating to David Cutcliffe's budding football program. Duke would have to find a landing spot in a secondary league and while that might result in some easier schedules, it would generate less attention, make it harder to recruit first-rate players and create some severe financial pressure that could impact the Olympic sports.

On the other hand, I believe that under that scenario, Duke basketball would be fine. Mike Krzyzewski has created a brand name in the sport and Duke hoops would remain a valuable TV property. Currently, there are a number of big-name programs that do very well without a major football team (Georgetown … Villanova for example). Duke is a bigger name than any of those.

Just to make clear, I don't for a moment believe this is about to happen. I'm just saying that even if it did, Duke basketball would survive as a national power. The difficulty of replacing Coach Krzyzewski in the reasonably near future is a much more realistic concern.