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C. Fraser Smith: All aboard Big Ten train

The late Robert Novak, conservative newspaper columnist and rabid Maryland fan, loved the annual basketball invasions of Tobacco Road where his Terps played Carolina, N.C. State and Duke.

“Everything was against you,” he said. “All those people shaking their fingers at you, cursing at you. … I thought it was something like the Polish cavalry charging the Nazi tanks and winning.”

One year, Novak and his booster friends went to all these games on the road and the Terps beat every rival school. On Sunday morning, back home by then, they bought all the newspapers so they could read about the sweep “real slow.”

He was not alone in those memories. But that’s what they are now — memories, not expectations of renewing well-nurtured rivalries.

After the university announced this week that it would leave the Atlantic Coast Conference after 59 years, memories will be pretty much all that’s left.

In pursuit of financial stability, Maryland officials decided to join the Big Ten Conference as of 2014. The promise: tens of millions of additional dollars a year by 2020. UM would benefit as well academically and as a research university, school officials said.

Taking a risk

Whether it will lose Novak-like fans is a risk, but one that had to be taken. A deep irony here: Usually in college sports, it’s the athletes who are disregarded in the race to please the fans and fill the stadiums. Here, the fans are being sacrificed.

It seems certain that the Terrapin Club, of which Novak was a zealous member, signed off on the move. The club made generous contributions to the school’s athletic program, but they were not enough to make up for lagging revenue in the marquee sports of football and basketball.

Like Maryland’s recent decision to double down on gambling, the competitive realities of big-time college sports made the Big Ten opportunity difficult if not foolish to resist.

Some are suggesting that other ACC schools are considering similar moves. The entire Atlantic Coast Conference could be on the brink, meaning presumably a weaker bargaining position for TV revenue. Maryland could have been a big loser if it didn’t move quickly.

According to various estimates, the university would get about $24.6 million per year as a Big Ten member, compared with $17 million under the ACC television contract. Further expansion, which seems likely, could mean even more money. Rutgers University also will be added to the Big Ten.

University of Maryland President Wallace Loh called the move to the Big Ten a “watershed moment.” Among other things, he said, the new money may allow the university to bring back seven sports dropped to help close a budget gap.

“I support the move largely because of what it means to the university academically,” William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, told The Baltimore Sun. Kirwan was president at College Park before becoming president of Ohio State University, a Big Ten school.

“There’s nothing to match this level of academic collaboration in any other major conference,” Kirwan said of the Big Ten consortium.

Almost certainly, the powers that be in Maryland were on board for this dramatic shift.

Bringing synergy

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, perhaps Maryland’s most energetic booster, had pushed for a merger of the university’s Baltimore and College Park campuses — in part to create more research and fundraising synergy. Ironically, perhaps, sports will give Maryland some of the synergy Miller envisioned.

Absent from the discussion about the move was any observation on how it might affect the athletes. President Loh said the university would always be his primary concern, so perhaps that means an undiminished effort to improve the academic performance of the student-athletes, too few of whom have graduated.

The Big Ten move could indeed be a “watershed moment.” It will certainly be one for the Novak-like alumni who set their clock by the ACC basketball tournaments and by the high-drama confrontations with schools from the Carolinas and south of there.

Getting bigger and richer has not always brought happy times to Maryland or Ohio State or Penn State. But schools across the country, setting aside the perils of big-time sports, have grasped for the golden ring knowing the risks but feeling they have no choice.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record Fridays. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.