- File photo by Al Drago
- Maryland fans during a women’s basketball game last spring
Conference expansion, it turns out, is a car than can turn in more than one direction.
The ACC last contracted in 1971, when founding member South Carolina left in a dispute over academic standards. Since then, the ACC has only gotten bigger: Georgia Tech joined in 1978, followed by Florida State in 1991, then Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College in 2005.
That last expansion was supposed to secure the league’s future, by allowing for a two-division, twelve team football league with a championship game at season’s end. The traditional home-and-home double round robin in basketball fell by the wayside.
But even that wasn’t enough to assure the ACC’s survival as a top-tier league, in the view of ACC Commissioner John Swofford. In 2011, Pittsburgh and Syracuse were accepted as new members, and just this fall, Notre Dame announced it will join in all sports except football.
Losing Maryland? That idea was surely not part of Swofford’s vision, and on the radar of very few people. Would an original member of the league, with long-standing rivalries with Virginia, North Carolina and Duke, located in the geographic center of the expanded league, really jump ship to play ball against the likes of Iowa and Michigan State?
The idea seemed unthinkable, but not to decision-makers at Maryland, who confirmed the move to the Big Ten today. Maryland will have to pony up a $50 million exit fee to leave the ACC. They will also have to leave behind six decades of history and memories.
On the hardwood, Maryland has been involved in many of the classic games in ACC history: the 1974 ACC Tournament Final against N.C. State, a triple overtime 109—108 win over State in the 1978 ACC Tournament, the controversial loss to Duke at the 2001 Final Four. The Terrapins cemented their place as one of the nation’s top programs by claiming the national title in 2002.
On the gridiron, Maryland twice completed a trifecta of three consecutive league titles—from 1974 to 1976 and 1983 to 1985. Most recently, Maryland won the league title in 2001, becoming the first team other than FSU to win the league outright since the Seminoles joined the conference.
Presumably football and the promise of gobs more money is driving Maryland’s move. On the face of it, it’s hard to see how longer travel times across time zones will benefit Maryland’s Olympic sport athletes. And it’s hard to believe that most Maryland fans would be willing to jettison a lifetime of rivalries and memories competing in the ACC. Will the Comcast Center be rocking for home games against… Northwestern?
ACC’s remaining members have every reason to be upset with Maryland for breaking the compact that held the original core together almost entirely intact for nearly 60 years. If Virginia, Duke, and Carolina in particular issue a refusal to play nonconference games against Maryland in any sport for a period of at least 10 years following the defection, that would hit the Terps where it hurts and be an appropriate payback for disloyalty.
Of course, some people will find ways to justify the move. Washington Post columnist John Feinstein says that tradition is dead and shouldn’t be a relevant concern in Maryland’s move. It’s also clear that the Maryland athletic program was unsustainable, a fact confirmed by the school’s cutting seven sports last summer. Don’t hold your breath for any of those sports to return when Maryland is in the Big Ten.
I think Feinstein is wrong. A world without tradition (and loyalty) is a world in which college sports lose their magic.
But the bigger picture is, the world that John Swofford helped create—a college sports landscape of inexorable “progress” towards mega-conferences—has now come to bite him, and his league, where it hurts. At the end of the day, the conference expansion insanity is about the NCAA’s refusal to properly regulate and organize a championship in college football. A FCS-style playoff system in which all eight-team leagues were guaranteed a slot would stop conference expansion in its tracks.
If there’s anything positive to come out of Maryland’s departure, it’s to illustrate the irrationality of the constant conference swapping and the need for the NCAA to regain control of its own landscape.