Move to Big Ten a defining one for University of Maryland president Wallace Loh

Despite criticism, observers say Loh demonstrated bold leadership, courage in pursuing conference shift

November 20, 2012|Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

In his first 2 1/2 years as president at the University of Maryland, Wallace Loh oversaw sweeping changes to the leadership of his athletic department and confronted the pain of cutting teams to patch gaping budget holes.

But he had never steered headlong into the kind of controversy that erupted Monday when the university broke a near-60-year relationship with the Atlantic Coast Conference in favor of the long-term television riches offered by the Big Ten.

The decision is so large — fundamentally changing the portal through which many alumni and donors interact with the university — that it seems likely to define Loh's presidency, for better or worse.

He harbors no illusions about the short-term reviews from students and fans, many of which have been scathing. But he has cast the decision as a test of leadership, one in which he had to focus on the long-term health of the university rather than immediate emotions about athletic rivalries with Duke and North Carolina.

"I want to leave a legacy where, for decades to come, long after I'm gone, presidents will not have to sit around wondering whether Maryland athletics as we know it can survive," he said.

In that light, Loh could not pass up the $45 million a year the university is expected to receive from the Big Ten by the end of the decade.

Observers gave Loh credit for moving boldly in the face of inevitable backlash.

"I think that's a sign of excellent leadership at an institution," said David Nevins, a former chairman of the university system's Board of Regents who also negotiated television deals with the ACC as former president of Comcast SportsNet. "Not every bold move is a great move, but I think this one could be. You have to give a leader credit for not always making the easiest decision."

"Believe me, it took enormous courage," said Loh's boss, university system chancellor William E. Kirwan. "There are a lot of people who are hurt and angry, pointing the finger at him. So in my opinion, it took both courage and vision. I also believe it will prove to be very wise."

Some criticism Monday focused on the rapidity of Loh's decision, with even state regents such as former Maryland basketball star Tom McMillen saying the university community never got a proper chance to weigh in.

Loh made it clear that he deliberately brought negotiations to a point of near completion before news of the possible move spread.

"Leadership on major public issues cannot be conducted in the public limelight," he said, indicating that he was never interested in a referendum on the subject.

Prior to Monday's announcement, however, he secured support from key donors, politicians and campus figures, at least to the extent that none blasted the move publicly. Loh described in an interview Tuesday how he gradually spread the news last week — first to his cabinet, then to athletic director Kevin Anderson, then to Kirwan and finally to a small circle of major donors, alumni leaders and elected officials. He said the group totaled 25-30 and that he would have backed out of negotiations if any segment refused to support the move.

"In every single case, the first time we discussed it, there was no buy-in whatsoever," Loh said. "They told me, 'You can't be serious Wallace.' … But you can't run a university solely on emotion, and they understood that. These are the heads of major corporations and major public officials. They understand how things work."

Kirwan confirmed Loh's description, saying, "I think with all of us, the first reaction was, 'This isn't going to happen.' But the more you think about it, the more sense it makes."

Loh's appeals to rationality gradually won the day as evidenced by the statements of support he received from key figures.

Under Armour founder Kevin Plank, for example, has downplayed his involvement in the decision and denied rumors that he will pay the university's $50 million exit fee from the ACC. But he endorsed the move in a statement released Tuesday, congratulating Loh and other university leaders: "The ACC has been a great partner to Maryland throughout the years, however joining the Big Ten now provides new and exciting opportunities for our beloved university. The positive financial impact of this move has been well-documented; however, enhancing the experiences for all of our student-athletes and our campus as a whole is the most important consideration. I look forward to this new chapter for Maryland and I am excited for our future."

Longtime regent Frank Kelly said he didn't hear about the possible move until Thursday and that his first reaction was: "What?"

But he credited Loh with delivering a strong pitch on the economic and academic benefits of the move. "The money was just so attractive," Kelly said. "Anybody looking at those numbers would have said that we didn't have a choice here."

Straightforward approach

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