Before I begin, I just wanted to say that I graduated from the University of Maryland and that I do love the place. Please do not take this as Maryland bashing. Thank you for your understanding.
Kevin Durant, Ty Lawson, Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert, Carmelo Anthony, Kendall Marshall, Austin Freeman, Chris Wright, Josh Selby, Sam Young, Linas Kleiza, Rudy Gay, Scottie Reynolds, Dante Cunningham, Quinn Cook.
All players who played in the D.C. and Baltimore areas who chose to not attend the University of Maryland less than 20 miles away. Why not stay local?
Since the Terps won the championship in 2002, they have been mostly mired in mediocrity. Neverthless, most thought a big name coach would take over when Gary Williams retired this past spring. Yet the Terps were left with Mark Turgeon after bigger names such as Arizona’s Sean Miller spurned them. Why? The Terps have won a championship in the past decade, are in the ACC, and are surrounded by two areas known for producing incredible basketball talent. Why is this not a more prestigious job? Why aren’t the Terps annual contenders for an NCAA title?
The answer to this riddle lies in one of the most affluent counties in the entire country. Montgomery County, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., is home to the DC area’s most powerful and prominent members. It’s schools (both public and private) are some of the best of in the country and one of its many Country Clubs has recently hosted the US Open.
So what does any of this have to do with the University of Maryland? In places such as North Carolina, Texas, Florida, California, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan,etc.; the Flagship University’s academic and athletic reputations have created generations of affluent alumni who feel proud of their school. Kids in these states dream of attending Texas or Ohio State.
Although Maryland is respected and has a sizeable alumni base in many parts of the state, including the well-to-do suburbs of Baltimore and Annapolis, it has never been considered a prominent institution in the uppercrust of Montgomery County. Many parents in Montgomery County consider sending a kid to Maryland (unless it’s an athletic scholarship) a wasted investment of years of private schools or expensive property taxes. Until recently, this was the case even at elite public high schools in the county. Maryland is an incredibly small state and Montgomery County is its richest and largest county. I think you can begin to see where there is a problem.
For many generations, Maryland was a backup school. There was nothing inherently wrong with that. It was a school for blue collar kids, many of whom were the first generation in their family to go to college. Although there was not necessarily a correlation, the school also became known as a bit of a party school. They perception in more affluent areas of the state was that academics were not considered a priority at Maryland.
Things began to change when Gary Williams started taking unheralded basketball players and leading them to new heights. After Maryland won the 2002 NCAA championship the applicant pool for the school grew to unprecedented levels (for those that like to dismiss the importance of college athletics, see how one pass turned BC from a laughingstock commuter school into one of the most respected schools in the nation). As Maryland received more applicants, its academic programs improved dramatically. Maryland’s business school is one of the most respected in the country and its Engineering program now recruits globally.
Trying to capitalize on Williams’ success, Maryland began to completely revamp its athletic facilities. Obviously, the thinking was that improved facilities would lead to better recruits. Better recruits, more winning. More winning, more money and, almost as important, more respect. The culmination of this was the Comcast Center which opened its doors in October 2002 for Midnight Madness, just a few months removed from the national championship. No one would know it then, but that night was the beginning of the end of Maryland basketball greatness.
Any school can have a flash in the pan moment of success that triggers broad support and alumni backing (see Rutgers football, Ray Rice years). The key to sustained success is a combination of resources and tradition. Simply put, people for years went to Maryland because it was a place they could afford, or a place that they could actually get into. Although times have changed, this legacy is evident in the surrounding community. Route One in College Park (the street of UMD’s main entrance and also College Park’s business district) is a rather dismal place. The food choices on Route One are mostly chains such as Chipotle. The nicest sit-down restaurant is probably an Applebees. There are essentially no retail stores and the bar scene? Well, as of now there are currently only two. The building up of a college town doesn’t happen over-night, bits and pieces are added over time.
Maryland has only been known for its academics for about a decade and is becoming more respected. But although you can catch lightning in a bottle, you cannot catch or really create a culture. This has an effect on in-state recruitng. Take a look at where the recruits Maryland lost have gone. For example, take a look at Kevin Durant who went all the way to Texas. Yes, I’m sure Rick Barnes is a lovely man, but Austin is also a tremendous city and the pride Texans have for UT is inescapable. If you look at other recruits Maryland has lost, such as Kendell Marshall and Ty Lawson to UNC, I guarantee that you will find similar circumstances.
According to the Washington Post, the Athletic Department at the University of Maryland has a budget deficit of 83 million dollars. There are many reasons for this but the main one, the Post reports, is that alumni donations were not what they expected them to be after UMD built the Comcast Center among other building projects. I would like to know why they were surprised. Those in the state that do have money, mostly in Montgomery County, either did not go there because of its previously poor academic reputation, or are indifferent because it was not their “First- choice” school. As a result, without a strong and affluent alumni base, during a slow economy or poor athletic performance the necessary dollars will not be collected. There really isn’t a tradition of the “Terrapin Family” at the school. Not yet, at least.
Maryland, despite its periodical success, is a middling program in the college basketball landscape. And, without strong financial backing from the economic power center of the state, Montgomery County, that is not going to change anytime soon. Gary Williams could succeed at the school because he went there and he knew the state better than anyone. He was MAryland tradition. He succeeded because he knew he had to win in spite of Maryland’s financial support rather than because of it. He understood that it was necessary to know where to look in Maryland for the Juan Dixons, Lonny Baxters, or a Steve Francis because, if given the option, most elite in-state recruits wouldn’t give Maryland a second look. They knew about the Maryland apathy, and Gary knew that rich Montgomery County alums, such as Redskins owner Dan Snyder, would never pony up the cash to provide the blue-chippers with a “He Got Game” like recruiting trip to compensate for that.
Some may be angered by this column. Perhaps I did go to far. But my argument is not wrong. A prime example of this reality is the Rutgers basketball program. Rutgers is a bit of an extreme example because Maryland has ALOT more tradition than the State College of New Jersey, but the argument still holds up. IF there is so much money and basketball talent in the state of New Jersey, why does Rutgers not have a better basketball program? A lack of money and tradition. Maryland is not Rutgers but, because of Montgomery County, it will never be UNC or “UCLA East.” Good luck Mark Turgeon.