Moving to Big Ten, Maryland would toss away tradition for the possibility of more money

COLLEGE PARK — Just when you thought that the conference realignment frenzy had just about played itself out, there are rumblings that Maryland could end its long affiliation with the Atlantic Coast Conference and jump to the Big Ten.

It's an intriguing possibility, but it is only that at the moment. There have been whispers for a while about a possible Big Ten expansion involving Maryland and Rutgers, but now there is enough smoke — and enough anonymous confirmations that "serious" negotiations are taking place — to think that it just might happen.

The question, of course, is "Why?"

Why would Maryland trade its ACC football tradition to join a 14-team conference full of bruising midwestern teams with which it has little in common either historically or geographically? And, for that matter, why would the Terps sacrifice their big-time ACC basketball rivalries with Duke and North Carolina?

It's not that complicated, of course. When you hear this kind of speculation, you just do what the guy who blew the cover off the Watergate scandal famously advised — follow the money.

The Maryland athletic department has spent the past few years trying to figure out what to do about mediocre attendance and suite revenues at Terps football games, and there's little question that regular visits from some of the nationally popular Big Ten powers would fill up Byrd Stadium and justify all the money spent on renovating Tyser Tower.

There's also the potential for a major increase in shared revenue, considering the Big Ten schools each reportedly received nearly $25 million last year from conference media contracts, but the attempt to tap into that largesse might require Maryland to pay a $50 million exit fee to leave the ACC.

The one thing that's certain is that there are going to be a lot of angry Terps fans and former athletes if Maryland goes through with the conference switch, especially in the wake of the unpleasantness generated when university president Wallace Loh announced plans to eliminate seven smaller sports to help solve the athletic department's budget problems.

In other words, university officials could be playing a very dangerous game here, since they run the risk of alienating many of the school's athletic boosters by tampering with the Terp's athletic tradition.

Perhaps it would be an easier sell if it were presented as a way to strengthen the football program and also restore the smaller sports that were targeted for elimination, but nobody is revealing any specifics about the possible move yet.

There are all sorts of potential ramifications, including the likelihood that Byrd Stadium would eventually have to be expanded again.With a capacity of 54,000, it would be the fourth-smallest football facility in the Big Ten, which features mega-stadiums at Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State.

Of course, the case can be made that the current football model at Maryland just doesn't work. The Terps drew 35,244 for Saturday's senior day matchup against No. 10 Florida State, and that was considered a good crowd for a late-season game with Maryland already out of the hunt for a winning season.

The football program is already in transition under second-year coach Randy Edsall, who suffered through a rocky adjustment period and finished 2-10 in 2011 before having a potential turnaround season undermined by a string of injuries that decimated the skills positions this year.

Still, the Terrapins appear to be moving in the right direction, with a decent recruiting class and lot of good young talent returning for 2013.

There's no doubt that regular visits by big-name teams like Nebraska and Ohio State would generate some new interest in the football program, but it's difficult to predict how the move would affect the basketball program, which was a major player in the ACC under Gary Williams and appears to be ascendant under second-year coach Mark Turgeon.

Let's be honest: Maryland is a basketball school that has won both men's and women's national championships during the past decade in the sport's most storied conference. It's certainly fair to ask if it really make sense to trade that tradition for the chance to be a lesser light in a more prestigious football conference.

But it won't come down to that. It always comes down to the same thing.

Follow the money.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

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