Forlorn fans adjust to the Final Four

March 28, 2002|By Kevin Cowherd

TO FULLY appreciate this magical run of Maryland's men's basketball team, you have to understand the mentality of the average Terps fan.

The average Terps fan makes the average Chicago Cubs fan look like a wild optimist.

Basically, the philosophy of the average Terps fan can be summed up like this:

If it's a close game, we'll choke.

If it's a bad call, it'll go against us.

If we're playing Duke, we'll get shafted somehow.

Oh, yeah, Terps fans have a real sunny outlook on life.

Even when things are going swell for their team - and a 30-win season and second straight trip to the Final Four seems to fit the definition of swell - Terps fans will find something to complain about.

This is apparently hard-wired into their genetic makeup.

If you showed him the Mona Lisa, the average Terps fan would say: "I don't know ... doesn't she look a little heavy to you?"

If you took him to the Taj Mahal, he'd say: "Sure, wonderful architecture. But there's no place to eat."

If you took him to see Robin Williams do stand-up, he'd say: "Boy, he sure does sweat, doesn't he?"

You think I'm exaggerating about Terps fans? Oh, I'm not. Believe me, I have been around these people nearly 23 years. And every time I listen to one of them whine, it's all I can do not to push a bottle of Prozac in his hands and say: "Please, whatever the dosage is, double up."

Yet hard as it is to believe, there are signs that the old gloom-and-doom attitude of Terps fans is beginning to change.

In College Park the other day, on a gray, rainy morning, I ran into lots of fans who actually seemed upbeat about Maryland's chances to win a national championship in Atlanta this weekend.

The students were on spring break, which simply means that instead of slamming back Bud Lights and setting off the fire alarms in their dorms, they were doing it in cheap hotels in Daytona Beach or South Padre Island.

But at the Maryland Book Exchange on U.S. 1, fans were talking excitedly about Saturday night's game against Kansas and snapping up all kinds of Maryland memorabilia, everything from sweatshirts to car flags to 14 different kinds of Final Four T-shirts (at $18.99 a pop.)

"A lot of people are thinking this is Maryland's year" to win it all, said Ted Ankeney, the store's manager for the past 37 years and a member of the Terrapin Club boosters for 20 years.

Oh, no, I said, not a national title! What would that do to the image of the long-suffering Terrapins fan?

"We have been long-suffering," Ankeney laughed. "We've all been starved for so long there's this pent-up [need] for respect and recognition."

He was talking, of course, about the fact that Maryland's never won a national championship in basketball, about the school's checkered recent past in the NCAA tournament, about how it's always been overshadowed in the ACC by hotshots Duke and North Carolina.

But Ankeney said he began to sense a change in the attitude of Terps fans when Gary Williams' team went all the way to the Final Four last year before losing to, naturally, Duke.

Then when Ralph Friedgen's football team went to the Orange Bowl last season, business at his store spiked dramatically - from 5,000 customers in December of 2000 to 18,000 this past December - and the interest in Maryland athletics went through the roof.

Now, with the Terps back in the Final Four again, Ankeney said: "There's been a real pride among the alumni that they haven't been able to show for a long time."

And overall fan interest in Maryland sports, he added, "is more than I've ever seen, even going back to the Boomer Esiason years" of the early 1980s.

Maybe things are changing, I thought.

This conversation was turning out to be way more positive than I could stand, so I left and wandered down U.S. 1, in search of the jittery, the-sky-is-falling Terps fans I was used to dealing with. Maybe it was the rain, but I didn't find any.

Later I talked with John Brown, who owns RJ Bentley's, a popular restaurant and hang-out for Terps fans near the campus. Brown graduated from Maryland in '73 and is a 24-year member and past president of the Terrapin Club, as well as current chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority.

When I mentioned the snake-bitten attitude of many Maryland fans, he laughed knowingly.

Brown traces much of this back to the mid-'80s, when Len Bias finished an All-American career with the Terps, became the top draft choice of the Boston Celtics and celebrated one night with cocaine. The coke caused his heart to seize, and when he died, Maryland's basketball program seemed to die with him.

Lefty Driesell was forced out as coach, Bob Wade began a disastrous three-year reign as Lefty's successor, and the program, said Brown, "didn't just go downhill. It fell off a cliff." Gary Williams took over as coach in 1989 and from there, said Brown, "it was a long climb back from the ashes."

But some Maryland fans, I told Brown, don't seem to believe that the good times are finally here for Terps basketball.

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