Peter Schmuck: Athletes, parents fight to keep Maryland swimming and diving program alive

February 04, 2012|Peter Schmuck

COLLEGE PARK — — Even during a rebuilding season, men's basketball clearly is king at the University of Maryland, which is why Comcast Center was packed and ESPN was on hand for the Terps' scrappy, near-miss performance against No. 5 North Carolina on Saturday.

Just a few hundred yards away in the Eppley Recreation Center Natatorium, a much more intimate group of fans watched the Maryland swimming and diving team dominate Georgetown on Senior Day and went home wondering whether they would ever be back.

So goes the eternal tug-of-war between the big-revenue college sports that build glitzy arenas and the high-graduation programs that make a school proud but don't make it any money.

The women's swimming and diving team is ranked 22nd in the nation, and both the men and women performed impressively in very one-sided victories before gathering in the middle of the pool to sing a raucous version of the Maryland alma mater. They will compete in the Atlantic Coast Conference championships at Virginia Tech in a couple of weeks, and some of them will go further than that, but none of the underclassmen know whether they'll be here next year.

"It's already sad enough having to leave the team and possibly never being able to compete with them again," senior Andrew Relihan said, "but then facing the reality that there might not be a team next year, it's pretty sad and the uncertainty isn't much fun."

The administration announced in November that Maryland would eliminate eight of 27 varsity teams to address a ballooning budget deficit but later gave those programs until June 30 to meet new fundraising targets. The swimming and diving program needs to raise $11.6 million, a huge amount even in relation to the total support raised for all sports by the Terrapin Club last year.

That's why the victory Saturday and the ceremony honoring the seniors was — to put it mildly — bittersweet. The parents quickly put together a grassroots organization called "Save Maryland Swimming and Diving" and set about finding new sponsorship for the team, but there is no way they're going to raise that kind of money in a matter of a few months.

The June deadline coincides with the end of the fiscal year for the university, but the underclassmen really need to know something by March if they want to transfer to another program for the 2012-13 season. They may know more after the parents group meets with athletic director Kevin Anderson and the administration Monday to find out whether the early efforts of "Save Maryland Swimming and Diving" and some pressure from the Maryland legislature might buy them more time to keep the program alive.

"I think as a team, we're all thinking the same way, that this is going to be the last meet for the seniors but not for us," junior Megan Lafferty said. "We're just trying to think optimistically, and this is just another meet to get ready for ACCs and our Terp Invite NCAAs."

So far, the parents group has raised about $1.5 million and is lining up other donors, but there's little chance of raising an additional $10 million in the allotted timeframe. The hope is that a combination of new revenue and some bookkeeping changes could narrow the gap enough to convince the administration that the swimming and diving team — heavily populated with academic All-Americans — is worth saving.

"We're optimistic it won't be [the last season]," said John Tynan, president of the hastily formed but highly organized fundraising committee. "We don't think it has to be. We've actually developed a business plan. We have over a million dollars in donations. We've got 50 other key folks lined up that we know we can support the team for the next four years. We meet with the administration on Monday. Ultimately, it will be their call."

Though the short deadline prompted letters of protest from Maryland delegates Benjamin Kramer, a Democrat who represents Montgomery County, and Neal Parrott, a Hagerstown Republican, that were endorsed by dozens of other legislators in Annapolis, athletic department officials insist that Anderson and university president Wallace D. Loh are supportive of the efforts to maintain the discontinued programs.

Cheryl Harrison, one of two representatives of the Terrapin Club who have been assigned to help with the fundraising effort, says the administration is sincere in its desire to help the parents achieve their goals.

"Our charge is working with the parents and alumni volunteer groups to find major donors to help save these sports," Harrison said, but she didn't sound nearly as optimistic as the student-athletes that Maryland swimming and diving would survive.

"It's too early to tell," she said. "We're working hard to turn every stone we can to try and save every sport. I don't have any feel for how we end up."

No doubt, a lot of the parents noticed the huge lines forming outside Comcast Center as they left the pool Saturday afternoon. They insist that they harbor no resentment toward the college sports that get all the money and most of the attention.

"We don't feel that way," Tynan said. "We really look at it more broadly. We look at the concept of student-athletes. The last time I checked, all of these kids were here because they're students and they happen to be blessed with abilities beyond the classroom, so we have a great deal of respect for football, basketball and the other sports as well, but these are some of the highest-graduation-rate students in the school.

"But I wouldn't be completely truthful if I didn't say that there is a little bit of a concern about being treated fairly."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090AM) and wbal.com.

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