UM hoops victories restore fun, but in proper place

March 24, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

COLLEGE PARK -- When Wilson Elkins arrived here 40 years ago, he formally declared the death of all fun. Fraternity pranks and panty raids? Piffle, he said. The great football and basketball teams? Strictly an afterthought, he asserted. He wanted a university where a tenured English professor could feel at least as important as a kid with a decent jump shot.

So what happens last week? Elkins dies, and two days later, almost as if thumbing its collective nose at his departing spirit, the basketball team wins its biggest game in the memory of practically everybody. For a moment on this University of Maryland campus, fun is back in season.

Defying every lurking oddsmaker, Maryland knocked off the heralded University of Massachusetts last Saturday, and tomorrow night in Dallas, they'll play Michigan in the Midwest Regionals of the NCAA championship tournament.

Who would have imagined it? Certainly not Elkins. He lived long enough -- including a quarter-century as president of this university -- to turn Maryland from a party school with marvelous sports teams and indifferent academic departments into one of the better state universities in the country. In short, he made this school grow up.

Gary Williams can attest to some of this. Williams is the Maryland basketball coach now, but when he searches his memory bank, he'll remember a moment long ago, when he was an 18-year old freshman here and first laid eyes on Wilson Elkins.

Everyone back then went through the ritual: All over campus, they'd fill classrooms with nervous freshmen. And then, on a closed-circuit television screen, Elkins would deliver a welcoming speech that included this never-to-be-forgotten warning:

"Look at the student on your left. Now look at the student on your right. Look closely because, by the end of this year, one of them won't be here."

It was Elkins' way of putting fear in everybody's bones, of telling them that the University of Maryland they'd heard about back in high school, the university where panty raids were considered an art form and athletes were more valued than "A" students, no longer existed.

One little historic irony of such a transition was Gary Williams. Despite marginal basketball skills, he was a three-year starter for the simple reason that nobody better showed up. Elkins had clamped down on the football and basketball programs. The basketball coach, Bud Millikan, had a series of high school All-Americans ready to play for him, until Elkins' aides looked at their academic records and turned them away. This opened the door for Williams, who couldn't hit a jump shot but was splendid on his SATs.

Thus we come to the question of the day: Post-Elkins, can scholars and athletes co-exist? This school has some remarkable basketball players here now, and some respected academic departments, too. You can take pride if your kid goes here even if you're not a sports fan, and when Elkins died last week, it reminded people of a time when that wasn't the case.

When he arrived in 1954, the school had just won a national football championship, but it was denied academic accreditation. The pro football scouts came here to drool, but the Phi Beta Kappa honorary society turned up its nose and refused to establish a chapter here. Standards were so slipshod that virtually any state resident who applied for entrance was automatically accepted.

By the time Elkins left, Phi Beta Kappa was thrilled to be here, FTC and Maryland was formally acknowledged as one of the nation's major research universities. There were new programs for social work and architecture, and a new library, and a lot of kids who had loafed through high school found the university no longer felt inclined to accept them.

On the other hand, the football program fell into periods of decay, brief rebirth and then disrepair, and the basketball program went from mediocrity to acclaim to utter shame. Wilson Elkins wasn't around for the last 15 years, but the school clearly carries his legacy: academics first, and if the athletics happen to work out, it's a nice plus.

In such an atmosphere, Gary Williams has turned a disaster into a dream. If his kids win tomorrow night, everyone here will be thrilled. Fun has returned. But somebody should remember Wilson Elkins, too, who always remembered that basketball's only a game.

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