SHREVEPORT, La. -- Why did the Maryland Terrapins come to the Poulan-Weed Eater Independence Bowl? Let's start by establishing the reasons they didn't come.
They didn't come to put money in the bank. It is, at best, a break-even proposition.
They didn't come for the exposure. Mizlou's syndicated broadcast offers but a drop in the bowling bucket.
They didn't come to relax. Some Terps took exams here. Others will return to them next week.
They didn't come to lie on the beach, as per bowling legend. The nearest beach is 400 miles away.
They didn't come for the local night life. (On the back cover of the "official visitor's guide," distributed by the Chamber of Commerce, is a picture of "Kim" and an advertisement for the Action Central Lounge's "All New Revue.")
They didn't come to collect free Weed Eaters. There is no promise that Poulan's people will pass out products pre-game. (Say that last sentence five times real fast and win a hand-held blower.)
So, you ask, if they didn't come for the money or exposure or beach or night life or free hand-held blowers, why did they come?
Yes, there is an answer. Yes, there is a reason. They came to make a statement.
"To say that the athletic department is rejoining the intercollegiate process," athletic director Andy Geiger said yesterday.
"That we are alive."
The football team. The entire athletic department. They are alive. Contrary to rumor.
"The feeling has been that the place was operating with a siege mentality, that it was basically a good place, but basically treading water," Geiger said. "But things are moving forward. Good things are happening. This [the bowl] is symbolic."
The Poulan-Weed Eater Independence Bowl will never be a powerful symbol (unless you're a lawn in need of care), but you have to understand Geiger's elemental reasoning: The Terps' appearance is something good as opposed to bad, and that is significant when you've had nothing but bad for some time. In his words, again, it demonstrates "we're alive."
The Terps are here because they hadn't had a winning season since 1985 and were picked to finish near the bottom of the ACC, and, given the shred of success that their 6-5 season represented, Geiger wanted their names in the newspaper for doing something right.
The Terps are here because the athletic department's name has been covered by mud since Len Bias died, one controversy after another, and Geiger, new on the job, saw this as a chance to begin throwing off some of the mud.
His agenda, from the first day, has been one of looking ahead, not behind. Not whining about NCAA sanctions. Not wallowing in the losing seasons and many defeats. Geiger has been on campus only a few months, but his openness and intelligence have had a considerable effect on the department. One staffer said, "The difference around here is unbelievable. So much more positive."
Coming to a bowl was a Geiger production entirely. He alone orchestrated it. Not coach Joe Krivak. Not anyone else. When other teams backed away from coming to Shreveport, Geiger was the one who worked the phones, moved aggressively and got the Terps a bid.
To him, it didn't matter that it was the smallest major college bowl, that the name was funny, that the Terps weren't nearly the first choice -- North Carolina, UCLA and Baylor turned the bowl down -- or that they probably weren't as deserving as a couple of other non-bowl teams. (North Carolina, Temple).
"Regardless of the circumstances," Geiger said, "the fact is that we were good enough to be under consideration in the first place. That alone represented progress. And, now, in the end, we're a bowl team. It's a fact. And an accomplishment."
He started to say that it didn't even matter if the Terps won tonight, that just their presence here was enough of a victory. But he caught himself. "Forgive me; it does matter," he said. And indeed, crazy as it sounds, there is something of a gamble in the decision to bring the Terps here.
If they win, they'd finish the season on a terrific upswing, having upset Virginia and won a bowl, rehired their head coach and landed several name recruits, among them a quarterback who is a junior college All-American.
But if they lose, some of that momentum is lost. They would finish with a 6-6 record and a loss to Louisiana Tech, which has been a Division I-A team for only three years. It won't sound nearly as appealing to recruits.
But Geiger recognized the possibility of a momentum-blunting defeat -- "you gamble on something every time you put on the uniforms" -- and it still didn't matter. The credits far outnumbered the debits on his ledger.
"It all comes together," he said. "We've rehired the coach. We put the [possibility of further] NCAA sanctions [on the basketball team] behind us this week. Everything we do from here on out is a building block. We're here. We're not defensive about what's happened. The bowl bid fits in. It's a building block. A reward. A reward for people who did a good job."