ANNAPOLIS – Soon after the University of Maryland’s men’s basketball team captured the national championship, the ads began rolling out.
As the team made its journey home to College Park on Tuesday, a blitzkrieg of commercials and full-page ads paid for by the university hit TV screens and major newspapers.
But instead of congratulating the newly crowned national champions, it was the university’s academic programs that were getting a pat on the back.
“Sometimes we tend to forget what an exciting university we’ve got going on,” Gov. Parris N. Glendening said Friday, at a State House new conference honoring the Terrapins.
With its athletic program flourishing — both the football and basketball teams have been successful this year — the university has found itself in the enviable position of being thrust into the national spotlight. But many are hoping that the athletic department’s success doesn’t outshine the university’s rising academic reputation.
“The basketball team had a major achievement,” said University System of Maryland Chancellor Donald Langenberg of the Terrapins’ victory. “We’re all proud of them.”
But he was also quick to point out that he is also proud of the university’s other success stories, such as Bill Phillips, a university professor who is a Nobel laureate in physics.
That dual praise for athletics and academics has been a common theme when university officials and others with ties to the university are asked about their thoughts on the athletic department’s success.
When the Terps basketball team visited the State House Friday, lawmakers fell all over themselves trying to get pictures and autographs. Wearing caps that proclaimed the Terrapins the national champions and waving banners and signs, delegates were quick to show their appreciation for the team’s success when the team visited the House chamber.
But even with the furor the team caused, the governor was quick to seize the opportunity to echo the university’s emphasis on its academic achievements. He said he remembers the university of 25 years ago, when only one of its programs was ranked in the top 25. Today, 61 are ranked in the top 25, he said proudly.
“It will be great someday when people get as excited over academic programs,” Glendening said.
Even Gary Williams, coach of the basketball team got in the act.
As he extended thanks for all the support his team has received, he opened his statement with the words, “On behalf of the University of Maryland, which is a great academic institution. . .”
The university is probably worried that College Park will strictly be known as an athletic institution, said Robert Morse, director of data research for U.S. News and World Report, which ranks colleges and universities annually.
“I think Maryland has been trying to improve themselves academically,” he said. “They were trying to position themselves as a school that does more than just win championships. . . . Not by leaps and bounds has its reputation been rising, but it has been rising.”
Even still, the university has a long way to go, he said. Maryland is not in the top 50 colleges and universities in the country, Morse said.
“They’re not in the league, at least in our rankings, of (the University of) Illinois,” he said. Illinois is another public university that has had successful athletic teams this year with a football team that reached the Sugar Bowl and a basketball team that reached the Sweet 16.
But he said all the attention should help Maryland, he said.
That attention is what George Cathcart, director of communications for the university, is banking on.
“I think our athletic success has been wonderful for our academic reputation by giving us an opportunity to tell people what we’re all about,” Cathcart said.
“What’s happening in athletics is enhancing what’s going on in academics,” he said. “It’s helped us tell our story and attract more and more high-quality applicants.”