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The first time the University of Maryland switched athletic conferences more than a half century ago, it had little choice but to make the move. Maryland’s impending switch from the Atlantic Coast Conference to the Big Ten Conference seems equally as desperate, and just as sensible.
Maryland finished its 1951 football regular season with a 9-0 record and an invitation to the Sugar Bowl. It chose to play in the game, which it won, despite a vote by the Southern Conference to ban play in bowl games due to concerns that post-season play could lead to recruiting abuses. Maryland and Clemson defied the motion, and were forced out. For a year Maryland had a team without a conference. In 1953, the two schools helped form the ACC in part so they had some teams to compete against.
During its 59 years in the ACC, Maryland has struggled to secure rivalries in the two main revenue-producing sports, football and basketball, that matched the emotion, intensity and cultural symmetry of the four North Carolina schools that form the nucleus of the conference—-Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State, and Wake Forest—-all located within two hours of each other.
The ACC has southern roots. Before Boston College joined the conference in 2005, Maryland, as the most northern member, was a geographical and cultural outlier. Maryland students come mostly from the northeast and Mid-Atlantic. Its nearest geographical rival, Virginia, sits some three hours to the south. And so Maryland’s Yankee sensibilities always seemed to defy the southern culture that permeates its ACC peers.
Attempts to establish basketball rivalries with Duke or North Carolina seemed contrived, not organic. A football rivalry with Virginia felt superficial.
There’s little argument that financial issues forced Maryland to join the Big Ten. The higher payouts Maryland will receive from the conference television contract will help resolve its financial troubles in the long term.
Composed mostly of Midwestern schools, the Big Ten is a better fit for Maryland. Its more uptempo Midwestern mannerisms and cultural preferences, at least, feel more in tune with the Baltimore-D.C. region.
And Maryland has a history and a common bond with Pennsylvania State, which joined the Big Ten in 1990. Maryland played Penn State in football all but three years between 1960 to 1993, winning only once. That rivalry seemed more natural, in part due to the large number of Maryland students from Pennsylvania. For much of the 1970s and 1980s, the thought of a Maryland football win over Penn State provided more excitement than an actual win over Duke or North Carolina or Clemson.
Maryland and Penn State share another, less embraceable bond. Both schools claim ownership of two of the most significant college sports stories of the last half century: the death of Len Bias at Maryland in 1986 and the sexual abuse scandal that erupted at Penn State last year.
As conference rivals, they can refresh the rivalry and share laments and empathy as they try to recover from challenging periods in their rich athletic histories.
Dave Ungrady is the author of Tales From the Maryland Terrapins: A Collection of the Greatest Stories Ever Told, and Born Ready: The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias. He was captain of Maryland’s track team in 1980. Photo by Darrow Montgomery.
Due to a reporting error, the post originally incorrectly referred to Maryland’s 49 years in the ACC. It has been a member of the conference for 59.