No simple matter to go bowling with Terps

Maryland fans sacrifice time, money for pleasure of being there with team

College Football

December 30, 2003|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

The ad campaign has been asking would-be Maryland football fans a question since before the season. And the inquiry has continued in radio ads pitching tickets for Thursday's Gator Bowl: "Are you in or are you out?"

If only it were that simple.

No doubt many holders of the approximately 15,000 tickets the school has sold for the New Year's Day game have found time and money a scant consideration in supporting the team.

However, time can be a problem, as Matt Wolnitzek of Pasadena found last year. To his chagrin, the 43-year-old information technology analyst missed the Peach Bowl, thwarted by responsibility for a computer system due to begin operating at the beginning of the year. But he'll make the trip this year to Jacksonville, Fla.

Wolnitzek has long been familiar with the collision between Terps-based yearnings and normal agendas. After all, he had been on the school's pep committee during his years as a student from 1978 to 1983 - inflating balloons and posting signs at the stadium - and has attended Maryland's last 11 NCAA appearances in men's basketball, including the Final Four.

And he and a group of friends made the Orange Bowl trip two years ago.

For Wolnitzek, the casualty of his winter bowl trips has been his second love, skiing. When the Terps were going bowl-less, trips to Vermont in January became a tradition.

Before that hiatus, Wolnitzek was definitely out, with a two-word explanation: "No money." These days, he's definitely in, if he can manage it, and forget the skiing.

"As I get older, I can't ski as much," he said. "So it's easier to go to a bowl game."

For some, like the Spranklin family of Columbia, it requires a greater degree of shrewdness to witness the action in person as the school's bowl trips have become more routine.

Rick and Carole Spranklin, 54 and 51, will accompany their three sons - Maryland students Brent, 21, and Scott, 19, and middle-schooler Paul, 14 - to Jacksonville this week, just as they had done in following Maryland's teams to the Peach Bowl meeting with Tennessee last year and to the Orange Bowl for the game against Florida two years ago.

As Gold Members of the Terrapin Club and also members of the Maryland Gridiron Network, a football booster club, the Spranklins are willing and also fortunate enough to be able budget $1,100 at the outset for lodging, plane tickets and game tickets (the face value of the bowl tickets is $60.)

But this will not be a high roller-type of trip for the family. The oldest sons will make the journey by car, while their parents and Paul will fly discount-airline AirTran tomorrow, at a cost of roughly $170 each. Auto expenses and food for everyone will add to the costs.

The family will be staying about five miles from where the teams will play, at a Super 8 Motel where two rooms will cost a total of $90 per night until they leave Friday.

"We don't do the big hotels," said Rick, who graduated from College Park in 1972; Carole graduated in 1974. "We have a [tour] book for AAA, and it works well. Then, we have a book of Best Westerns and Days Inns."

Carole, a teacher, generally is off this time of year , and Rick is able to get time off from his job as a commercial salesman for DuPont Corian.

"It depends on the year, and we'll plan around Maryland," he said. "We would have gone [even] if it was the Tangerine Bowl."

Expectations that the team would have a postseason game are in contrast to the outlook before the 2001 season, in which Maryland came out of nowhere to break an 11-year postseason drought by winning the Atlantic Coast Conference football title.

For what seemed to be a singular event, fans went to great lengths to be a part of it.

"Most people decided to go first-rate all the way," said John Marcario, 52, of Vienna, Va., who travels with a group of roughly 20 people, including Wolnitzek, on the package trips suggested by the school. "But the people burned you."

Since then, fans have taken two routes. One is to stay home, as evidenced by the dropoff from the figure of 22,000 tickets sold by Maryland for the Orange Bowl (a product of pent-up demand and the attraction of a major bowl) to roughly 15,000 for the Peach Bowl in Atlanta last year to the 15,000 sold so far for the Gator Bowl.

The other is to scale back to a style similar to the Spranklins' or to simply avoid getting gouged, as Marcario and his group said they were on some of their package trips. Since then, a rule of thumb has been to not stay at a team-affiliated hotel unless a reasonable rate is assured.

According to Marcario, a room at the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island - about 40 minutes from the stadium - will run $150 per night, "whereas you could have stayed at a dumpy [hotel] downtown for $300."

The Spranklins notwithstanding, a major factor in affordability is the size of the family. Barb Hartley, 58, of Columbia, is a retired restaurateur who will join her husband, Buck, 61, in following the Terps to their bowl for the third straight year, and will follow Maryland's men's basketball team to Italy for its summer trip in August.

None of this would have been possible three decades ago, when children were in the house and money was less plentiful.

"Now that we don't have children, we have the time to travel," said Hartley, who said that her son, Tim, is now a father who can't make the trip. "He can't afford it and we're not paying."

Or, as Marcario said, "I was fortunate that the 15 years Maryland stunk, my son grew up."

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