Goal in sight

ncaa tournament

As UM feels relieved, Morgan feels renewed

March 19, 2009|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,childs.walker@baltsun.com

Maryland and Morgan State will both play basketball games in Kansas City, Mo., today.

Beyond that basic similarity, however, the implications of those NCAA tournament contests are strikingly different for the respective institutions.

At Maryland, coach Gary Williams faces intense second-guessing every time his team fails to make the tournament. So this year's appearance is exciting but also brings a sense of relief to players and fans who see March Madness as their birthright.

"I think that because the team had some very disappointing losses and knew they were in danger of missing the tournament, there was some extra satisfaction," Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow said.

At Morgan, the men's basketball team posted only one winning record between 1980 and 2007, so this year's tournament bid feels like manna from heaven. It has Morgan officials dreaming of a higher national profile, increased sponsorships and a coattail effect for the rest of the school's athletic programs.

"It shows that Morgan is a place where success can happen if you're committed," university president Earl S. Richardson said. "It's special for us, and we hope this is just the beginning of something much bigger."

Richardson drove to Belvedere Square to get soup Monday and a stranger quickly approached him to say: "This must be a great day at Morgan."

"You bet it is," he replied, relishing the chance to brag on a school he has led for 25 years.

The spotlight feels fresh to those who love Morgan, less so to those at Maryland.

The Terps represent a campus of 37,000 students. The 17,950-seat Comcast Center often sells out for home games, and Williams makes $1.8 million a year with bonuses that can push that past $2 million.

The Bears represent about 7,000 students. Hill Field House holds 4,250, rarely filled to capacity over the years. Coach Todd Bozeman drove his own car, separate from the team, to Morgan's conference tournament.

The institutions were not always so far apart in their athletic fortunes.

In the 1970s, Lefty Driesell made the Terps an NCAA contender with his folksy, relentless recruiting. Meanwhile, Marvin "The Human Eraser" Webster patrolled the middle for Morgan State, setting school records for points, rebounds and blocks and leading the Bears to the Division II championship in 1974.

As major programs integrated across the country, however, traditionally black colleges such as Morgan lost their allure to elite athletes. The athletic budget remained stagnant, and the school's facilities fell into disrepair. As the 1980s dawned, Morgan's basketball program became one of the least successful in the country, a consistent loser in a consistently overlooked conference.

Maryland endured a dark period after Len Bias' cocaine overdose in 1986, but, even so, the Terps rarely fell too far from the elite ranks. In the same 28-year period when Morgan posted one winning season, the Terps had 24 winning records and made the NCAA tournament 19 times.

Williams' teams made 11 straight tournaments but had missed three of the past four entering this season. For the first time, the man who revived Terps basketball after the Bias crisis faced serious questions about his job security. With Maryland back in the field, the critics have quieted, at least for now.

"It's always incredibly energizing to see your name go up on the board," Yow said.

She fielded scores of congratulatory phone calls and e-mails in the 24 hours after the bid was announced.

"They're so proud," she said of the school's boosters and alumni. "It's that feeling of 'We're in the group.' It's simple but profound, similar to when the football team goes to a bowl game. It's a very emotional time of year. You walk around our offices and everyone is just happy."

Yow said she has never seen any empirical data linking tournament bids directly to a rise in donations.

"But there's no question there's a correlation between people's generosity and our success" in sports, she added.

With students on spring break, the College Park campus did not erupt with excitement after the tournament news broke. But the quiet shouldn't be mistaken for apathy, said junior Chris Luensman, who noticed a surge of excited text messages and Facebook posts after the Terps appeared in the bracket.

"People were changing their Facebook status to, 'I've got my dancing shoes on,' " he said. "I think there is a special feeling about this one because we feel like ... things are headed in the right direction."

Morgan students expressed similar sentiments about their Bears and said it is extra sweet because they've come so far so fast.

"It's been such a big turnaround the last few seasons," junior Justin Green said. "People are a little wary because of who we're playing, but we also have faith in our team. Every game I've been to this year, [the atmosphere] has been live."

Green said several of his cousins attended Morgan during the long stretch of losing.

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