College athletics have been expanding their footprint for many years; the additional coverage of all collegiate sports, along with the added coverage of high school sports, has created a bigger market for college athletics. Added to this is the focus of branding and reaching new markets. We hear it often: teams and conferences are looking to expand their brand by playing in different parts of the country/other countries (Notre Dame), wearing different jerseys (Oregon), and gaining big television deals (B1G expansion). Miami has been mediocre for years, yet you still hear people talking about “Da U” like it was yesterday. That’s branding.
One of the better branding and marketing ideas has been “Maryland Pride”. Credit the Maryland Athletic Department and Under Armour CEO, Kevin Plank, on putting together a brilliant campaign. The University of Maryland is the largest school in the state, it has the most prominent athletics program, and almost all of the sports have a rich history of success. Maryland loves its state flag, and using it as the centerpiece of the movement was a great way of creating unity within Maryland Athletics while also bringing in fans from across the state.
Maryland Pride isn’t just about everyone wearing awesome jerseys, its also about making Maryland the premiere destination for athletes in and around the state of Maryland. This starts with recruiting, where coaches are hoping to keep the best players in state.
We can all list the various players from Maryland who have gone on to win National Championships elsewhere and become great professional players. When I started these what-if pieces, discussing it with my friends, players like Durant, Gay, and Beasley were mentioned. Sure, they could have each had their own what-if, but it would have been too boring to write and even more boring to read.
What if (Kevin Durant/Rudy Gay/Michael Beasley/Ty Lawson) go to Maryland? Coach Gary Williams wins a National Championship, fires blaze on Frat Row, someone throws a brick through Shanghai Cafe, and Maryland is known as the greatest athletic school ever.
Alright, I would have elaborated more than that, but you get the point. My friends understood this as well. Which is how we got to the Maryland Pride movement. One of by buddies proposed the idea of using the Maryland Pride movement to condense it all together. What if, after winning the 2002 National Championship, University of Maryland focuses their attention on recruiting the state of Maryland?
From 2003 to 2010 there have been 31 high school players from Maryland or who played in Maryland that were ranked in the Rivals Top 100. Of those 31 players, seven of them were in the top 10 of their class. Only four players out of the thirty one went on to play at Maryland, with the highest ranked player being #46 Greivis Vasquez.
Overall, it is a strange ‘what if’. Just because University of Maryland athletes have started wearing the Maryland flag on everything doesn’t mean that players in the area will instantly flock to College Park. And yet, far too often there were highly ranked players who the university was not pursuing, or not going after as much as us fans would like (which, if anything, was the bigger problem). As fans we can only ask for so much, but it’s disappointing when it appears that the effort is half-hearted and only excuses are given.
Following the 2002 National Championship, with an alumni coaching the team, it would have been the ideal time to roll out the Maryland Pride campaign. The nearly 18,000 person Comcast Center would be just opening up on campus. Baltimore native Juan Dixon had just stunned many coaches throughout the country by leading Maryland to the National Championship; the football team was having success at the time as well; Maryland pride was at an all time high in the area. The Athletic Department was in a prime position to use the success of the basketball and football team to benefit the other sports on campus.
However, University of Maryland went the opposite way with recruiting and made a push at a more national level. The Athletic Department used the success from football and basketball to expand its athletic brand across all 27 Division 1 sports. Despite having success on the recruiting trail, many of the top ranked players weren’t reaching the expectations their ranking had set. While at the same time, many of the nations top programs were snatching players from Maryland’s backyard. Syracuse, Connecticut, and Pittsburgh from the Big East along with ACC rivals Duke, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, and even Florida State got into the mix as well. Most notably, Big 12 teams Texas and Kansas State came from the midwest to snatch two of the area’s best players: Kevin Durant and Michael Beasley.
As great as this movement would have been, it would have required some major changes for Gary Williams. Flashy jerseys from up and coming company called Under Armour wouldn’t have been enough. Gary Williams would have needed to add a staff member with ties to the biggest high school teams in Maryland. Recruiting is a fickle game that sometimes leads to coaches bending the rules to get the guys they want. Given where the university was when Gary took over, this was something he intended to avoid at all costs. A push to get the top tier kids in the state might have forced Gary to play this game more, especially if he had to make adjustments to the staff to gain an edge.
Let’s say the University of Maryland had gone down the route of keeping top recruits in state, where would that leave us today? If Gary had focused his attention on this, pairing a university-wide campaign promoting Maryland pride with the hiring of an assistant with local ties, the odds would be in favor of Maryland landing a top propsect early on. Grabbing Linas Kleiza in 2003 or Rudy Gay in 2004 would have given Maryland the top players in the area. With the other recruits that the university was signing, the basketball program would have been able to maintain momentum as a top team in the ACC and in the country.
The Maryland Athletic Department received great financial benefits when the basketball team made it to two Final Four’s (2001 and 2002) and the football team making the Orange and Peach Bowls during that timespan. But when both teams took a downward turn shortly after, it hurt Maryland’s ability to maintain the level of financial spending they had once enjoyed.
Had Gary Williams secured the commitment of some of the area’s top prospects, keeping the basketball team nationally relevant, the athletic department would have continued to prosper financially. Not to the levels of 2002, but it might have held off the eventual state of the current athletic department.
Gary Williams will always be remembered as a legend in College Park, however with a different set of events, the 2003-2010 stretch that we now view as Williams’ decline would have instead been a continuation of his prime. Maryland was on a stretch of making the NCAA Tournament every year, which peaked with the National Championship, but then never reached a level anywhere near that again. Racking up Maryland’s top talent would have kept the Terrapins in the elite level of teams that annually make the Sweet 16 and Elite 8.
The success of Athletic Director Debbie Yow’s legacy would have also been tied to the success of the basketball team; but when the basketball team began to decline, losing financial resources, that was when the University’s Athletic Department found itself in financial trouble. Yow’s legacy became tarnished as a result of the state of the Athletic Departments budget when she left. A men’s basketball team reaching the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 on an annual base would have sold out season tickets and also secured nationally televised games, creating significant financial gains for the department.
If football was able to maintain a consistent bowl appearance, this would have added to the budget as well. With her personal ties to the situation at North Carolina State and her family’s location in the state, she would have most likely still left College Park in 2010. But instead of leaving as a villain, she would have been a hero. It also wouldn’t have left Maryland in the position to join the Big Ten to get back on track financially.
As great as the Maryland Pride movement would have been following the 2002 National Championship, it wouldn’t have been able to work. Under Armour still hadn’t developed basketball gear, let alone soccer, field hockey, baseball and the other Division 1 sports. With all of the sports except for football under the Nike umbrella, Maryland sports wouldn’t have been able to get the unity needed to really launch the Maryland Pride movement. What makes Maryland Pride so special, is that it spans the entire athletic department and includes everyone; it is something unique to Maryland. It’s a homegrown phenomenon that is gaining national attention.
Then there is the issue of the energy required to recruit at a high level. Re-branding can only do so much; the coaches must be proactive in doing the rest. Gary Williams was never known as high level recruiter, and to get the caliber of players that were in the state of Maryland, he would have needed to increase his energy on the trail.
For example, look at the effort Mark Turgeon and his staff have been putting into recruiting the DMV: there are daily reports about Turgeon’s staff attending games of top prospects or bringing these players to campus early in their recruitment. Gary did things his way and it worked at the time, but with the changes in high school athletics, he wasn’t able to keep up without making adjustments to his approach.
Coaches like Randy Edsall and Mark Turgeon are the caliber of coaches needed to start a movement like Maryland Pride. In combination with the vast growth of Kevin Plank and Under Armour, the fan base and teams have a united front. As fans, we knew that for our university’s athletics to be successful, coaches would need to begin locking down the surrounding area. Surprisingly, it took two coaches with no ties to Maryland to come in and change the culture; this shows what the rest of the country thinks of the state of Maryland. It was no secret that the new coaches at University of Maryland would need to lock down the DMV, and they both hit the ground running.
Maryland Pride no longer just symbolizes a fan base’ pride in their school, it now symbolizes a state wide movement to take pride in your homestate. No other state has this level of pride in their state school, and this is what Maryland should be working to capitalize on. So far it’s been successful. It took a few years, but now the movement is supported by players like Stefon Diggs, Roddy Peters, and Dion Wiley. Maryland Pride is starting to pick up followers.
It’s better late than never to start a revolution, and these brave players are the ones who will be remembered for its beginning.