On Saturday, the Terrapins football team took the field against Clemson for what could have been the two teams’ final meeting. Once a recognized ACC fixture with near-perennial conference championship implications, this year’s contest pitted a 5-2 Terps team depleted by injuries against the No. 9 Tigers’ explosive offense.
An announced crowd of 48,134 alternately cheered, groaned and dwindled as the Terps took a first-quarter lead, lost momentum and allowed quarterback Tajh Boyd and the Tigers to pull away in the second half.
In the game’s waning minutes, Byrd Stadium’s student section all but vanished. The yellow “M” section drifted away. The season’s biggest home crowd by a margin of nearly 10,000 largely had elected to move on, many before the game was truly decided.
Some disappointment seems warranted — the Terps had lost their top two receiving options and both starting cornerbacks after a promising 4-0 start, one year after season-ending injuries to all four rostered quarterbacks derailed the Terps’ 2012 campaign. But with the Terps slated to move next year to the Big Ten, home to some of the nation’s most ardent fan bases year in and year out, it’s clear a sweeping culture change is necessary.
Terps fan enthusiasm wasn’t always this way. For decades after the ACC’s formation, the Terps proved a conference powerhouse, winning eight conference championships and making 16 bowl appearances from 1948 to 1985.
Over time, however, that storied history seems to have faded from students’ consciousness. Despite six winning seasons under former coach Ralph Friedgen, the Terps struggled to fill Byrd Stadium late in his tenure.
During coach Randy Edsall’s three seasons at the helm, the Terps netted an average announced home attendance just short of 40,000. This number, significantly smaller than Byrd Stadium’s 54,000 capacity seating, pales in comparison to those of Big Ten heavyweights Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, which regularly draw crowds of more than 100,000.
Of course, not all the responsibility for this university’s attendance woes can be attributed to students. In a state that frequently boasts a steady diet of crab cakes and football, it’s curious that the flagship university’s home games are so poorly attended by those outside of the campus community.
Fortunately, as the conference move looms ever closer, university officials and the athletic department have demonstrated a concerted effort to foster pride among students and alumni alike and institute new campus traditions.
For the first time in school history, university officials sanctioned on-campus tailgates, which took place before the Virginia and Clemson games. Fraternity members and guests widely attended the events, jointly sponsored by the Student Government Association and Interfraternity Council. In addition, the university discontinued its long-standing homecoming parade in favor of a Friday night pre-party and pep rally the day before the game.
Forty-three percent of students were unaware of the parade’s existence, according to a 2012 study conducted by the Student Homecoming Committee. By gauging student and alumni interest and replacing poorly attended activities with engaging, well-marketed ones, this university can enhance the game-day experience for all involved.
The move to a more challenging conference will test not only the Terps’ resolve but also that of its fans. Shellackings from Big Ten contenders are almost certainly in the team’s foreseeable future, and considering the past two years’ propensity toward season-ending injuries, even more trying roadblocks may lie on the horizon.
Mustering a sense of pride in the face of continual setbacks has proved difficult for Terps fans over the past few seasons, but that will become all the more essential after this university’s conference move. Joining the time-honored Big Ten tradition will necessitate a culture change away from the apathy that has long characterized this university’s fan base. And for now at least, that transformation seems to be within reach.