Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

A conflicted rebirth

In Best of CDH, Football on September 7, 2011 at 11:22 am

Thunder… Da Na Na Nana Na Na… Thunder… Da Na Nana Na Na

The opening chords of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck are among the most overused in major sports, fast becoming as nauseating as the wave. Angus Young’s opening guitar riff permeates a filling stadium or arena, giving way to his staccato vocals and a booming bass line. Any intended drama is dwarfed by its pervasiveness.

Thunder… Da Na Na Nana Na Na… Thunder… Da Na Nana Na Na

Except Monday night. With a national television audience peering in on a sold out and rocking Byrd Stadium, the Maryland Terrapins managed to create a visual and sensory experience so overwhelming, so irresistible that it managed to penetrate even today’s schizophrenic media climate. Maryland’s 2011 debut had the entire sports world talking, often not in the positive, but since when has that mattered? The evening served as the climax of a complete and total rebranding of the sports program, one intended to make the Terps into a cultural and on-field powerhouse with national recognition. But along the way, could that force fans to come to terms with the very ethos that defines their institution?

Thunder… Da Na Na Nana Na Na… Thunder… Da Na Nana Na Na

Maryland fans are defined by a constant and encompassing inferiority complex. A good school with a lengthy history of distinguished graduates, its academics are dwarfed by nearby Georgetown, William and Mary, and the University of Virginia. Possessive of championship sports teams in a host of non-revenue programs and a strong legacy in football and basketball, it is perennially overshadowed by elite conference rivals. Maryland basketball reached 11 straight NCAA tournaments between 1993 and 2004 punctuated by back to back Final Four appearances and a National Title in 2002. It still couldn’t emerge from Duke or North Carolina’s shadow. Maryland football has a national championship and the third most ACC championships of all time. It gave the world Bear Bryant. You wouldn’t know it.

The psyche of the program is embodied by the legendary and just-retired Gary Williams—pugnacious, defiant, ever searching for a slight to avenge. Gary was consistently tilting at windmills, fighting the giants of the ACC sling in hand. Often he won, sometimes he lost. He loved scrappy, under the radar players who received little respect from the major recruitniks. He abhorred the rule-breaking of the modern recruiting game, and declined to pursue any high school player remotely linked to shadiness—in this day and age, nearly all the most talented kids. Perhaps the best pure basketball coach of his generation, he was shackled by his morality. No coach not named Joe Gibbs will ever be more beloved in the state of Maryland.

But with a new administration, the retirement of Williams and the indelicate removal of football coach Ralph Friedgen, Maryland suddenly had the opportunity to become more. Nestled in one of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the country, the school had a chance to supersede its star-crossed past and fulfill the potential long attributed to it.

A process that began nine months ago was unveiled to the world Monday night. The public face of the transition: create a brand that will be instantly recognizable to fans and recruits alike, throwing aside decades of tradition for exposure. From that, came the uniforms.

Thirty two combinations of jersey tops, bottoms, and helmets were made public last month—modern, trendy creations designed to grab attention that would stick. But few were ready for the statement that was unleashed Monday night. As Thunderstruck blared, out came the Terps. The visuals were garish, striking, and got everybody talking about Maryland. Aimed at a young demographic, they are best described in that generation’s words. Awesome. Badass. Nasty. The players were amped. The fans were pumped. The Twitterverse exploded.

But suddenly the duality of the transition became evident. The helmets, jerseys, cleats and gloves were not manufactured, corporate patterns designed merely for exposure. It was not Boise State’s blue turf, or Oregon’s ever-changing threads. They had meaning. To a Marylander, the state flag is instantly recognizable, subtly interwoven into the tableau of neighborhood front porches, Baltimore office buildings, and the State House alike. Here it was, proudly thrust into the nation’s consciousness. Crass became sentiment, corporate advertising became pride. Suddenly, the Terps’ rebranding did not seem quite so alterative.

Long before the program became swathed in colors initally created as some form of Elizabethan swag, the initial and far greater shock to the system had come with the retirement of Williams. The news hit suddenly, shockingly, devastatingly. In one minute, an icon was gone.

In came a new coach, who embraced recruiters that Williams would never have suffered in his presence. Maryland became intricately linked with the AAU circuit it had so long avoided. It paid an assistant a $300,000 salary unheard of in College Park. Again, change had trumped legacy, flair was the new tradition.

But that change too, perhaps, became superficial with time. Both basketball coach Mark Turgeon and Friedgen’s replacement Randy Edsall are coaches coaches, men who turn overlooked strivers into playmakers. While the hype surrounding them is intoxicating, it is not redolent of the internal attitudes they have instilled. Discipline and repetition, not style, is the order of the day. It is telling that Turgeon’s first recruit was a nearly anonymous two-guard from an uncelebrated school in Virginia.

News leaked this week that Athletic Director Kevin Anderson’s pursuit of Sean Miller, a young hotshot recruiter who was the top choice to replace Williams may have stalled not due to Anderson’s shortcomings as previously thought. According to the Washington Post’s Mike Wise, the AD balked over a demand for special admission privileges for basketball recruits. We don’t do that at Maryland, was Anderson’s effective reply. Sounds like something Gary would have said.

Yet the far greater threat to the Terrapin disposition may come not from a perceived cultural shift. New uniforms and unending publicity might not change the ceaseless determination long a hallmark to Maryland’s underdog core. But winning might.

To the majority of Terp fans, winning would solve everything. It is unquestionable that a consistent upward trend in Maryland football and basketball—a return to the glory days of the early 2000s—would fill Byrd Stadium to its brim and replenish the fading coffers of the university. But to the true supporter, the one that internalizes and celebrates the attitudes of Gary and Juan and Greivis—the ability to overcome adversity and shatter preconceived expectations—will it truly be as satisfying?

Turgeon and Edsall and Kevin Anderson seem like exemplary men, determined to build programs the right way. But will consistent wins and conference titles, unframed against the backdrop of adversity, be as meaningful? In a quest for the desired result, the journey could be thrown to the wayside.

An embattled Gary Williams emerges from the Comcast Center tunnel and defiantly pumps his fist to the crowd before watching Greivis Vasquez drop a triple double on no. 1 North Carolina as the students rush the court after three overtimes. That same Maryland point guard, both of them, rejoices in a sea of red after a floater magically kissed off the rim to seal a win over Duke that would deliver a shared ACC title. After years of obscurity, Maryland blows out archrival West Virginia in a Gator Bowl that fulfilled a decade’s worth of frustrations. These are not singular triumphs; they are as much derived from their histories as their moments. Frustration turns to suspense which turns to ineclipsable joy.

No sane Maryland fan is anything less than brimming with optimism at the era that possibly awaits. But without the journey that took us there, it might not be as satisfying as we think.

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  1. Really great piece of writing. Very well done,

  2. Best article in a long time.

  3. Good piece, and I think there’s an endgame to all this as well: Big Ten membership. With the college athletics landscape rapidly changing and 16-team “superconferences” becoming inevitable, the University of Maryland wants to make sure it lands in the proper spot. The ACC, with its negligible football brand, isn’t it; the Big Ten, which has plenty of alums in the D.C. metropolitan area and has football prestige, not to mention land-grant schools similar to College Park and a research consortium that would vault Maryland among the top tier of university flagship campuses, definitely is. Joining the Big Ten would end the red ink currently plaguing the athletic department and might require further expansion of Byrd Stadium. And whether the basketball people like it or not, football drives the bus.

    In an ideal world, Maryland would join the Big Ten in a bloc with its three closest rivals, Virginia, North Carolina and Duke, schools that also would offer plenty to that conference in both athletics and academics, but if Maryland has to go there without them, it will do so.

  4. That is one toughtful piece of work. Great perspective.

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