Dark clouds gathering over College Park

Eric McErlain Sports Blogger
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While the football team at the University of Maryland is getting a lot of attention for a set of new uniforms reminiscent of the uniforms that the Oakland A’s wore in the 1970s, all of those crazy color schemes might be covering up a harsh reality in College Park. Maryland’s football and men’s basketball teams need to get better and get better in a hurry. Simply put, the school can’t afford it to be any other way.

Why do I say that? The school’s athletic department has been running a deficit for several years now, a deficit that has been swelling as costs have increased even as the performance of those two critical teams has been on the wane. The result: The school is staring at a current budget deficit of about $1 million per year and is running out of time to devise ways to close the gap without cutting any of the other 50 varsity teams that the school sponsors.

But as much as the school might need the help, it doesn’t look like there’s much immediate relief on the horizon. Sure, the football team did beat Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) rival Miami in its season opener, but that Hurricanes squad was depleted by suspensions in the wake of the discovery of yet another scandal at one of the NCAA’s favorite investigative targets. Of greater concerns has to be a one-sided defeat to Temple and a hard-fought victory this past weekend against Towson State, a team that plays one level below the Terps in what was once known as Division I-AA.

As for men’s basketball, there doesn’t look to be much immediate help there either. Last May, the school’s legendary basketball coach, Gary Williams, announced he was retiring after 22 years with the program. And while new head coach Mark Turgeon may indeed by a strong hire, replacing a legend who took the Terps to back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Final Four and a national championship doesn’t happen in a single season. And that’s the case whether you’re talking about success on the court or off of it in the minds of the boosters who support the program.

The first person to suffer as the result of the athletic department’s budget deficit had to be former head football coach Ralph Friedgen. Arguably, Friedgen was the best football coach to stalk the sidelines at College Park since Bobby Ross. Friedgen led the Terps to seven bowl berths in 10 seasons, winning five. His overall record was 75-50, but even that wasn’t enough to save his job at a school that was bleeding too much red ink.

Here’s what the former head coach had to say last week in an interview with WNST-AM’s Glenn Clark:

Clark: Is it tough for you to watch? Have you sat down and watched any Maryland games or is it tough for you to do that. I know you love the kids, but I also know you’re a Maryland alum, and it’s got to be a little painful.

Friedgen: Well, it’s not painful because I watch it for the kids. I could care less about Maryland. I’ve burned my diploma. I’m flying a Georgia Tech flag right now.

Clark: [laughing] That’s hurtful, Coach. I don’t want to hear that. I’m a Maryland alum.

Friedgen: Well, they talk about Maryland pride. They didn’t show me a whole lot of Maryland pride, either getting the job or getting fired.

I’m sure Friedgen feels like he has plenty of reasons to be bitter after being dismissed following a 9-4 season that ended with a bowl victory. But in a big business like college football, there are few schools that can afford that sort of sentimentality. At least not anymore.

Eric McErlain blogs at Off Wing Opinion, a Forbes “Best of the Web” winner. In 2006 he wrote a “bloggers bill of rights” to help integrate bloggers into the Washington Capitals’ press box. Eric has also written for Deadspin, NBC Sports and the Sporting News, and covers sports television for The TV News. Follow Eric on Twitter.