By Chris Eckard and Jonas Shaffer
COLLEGE PARK – In late August, only a minute or two had passed since a 295-pound defensive tackle strutted down a runway in an attention-grabbing, form-fitting white-on-white uniform when his coach grabbed a microphone inside the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.
This was a big night for the Terps football program, a chance to unveil more than a dozen new glitzy uniform combinations before a crowd of high-level boosters, university officials and reporters on the eve of new head coach Randy Edsall’s debut season in College Park.
But it might as well have been a corporate showcase for a company – and its founder in attendance – that the Terps have come to develop an intimate and complex relationship with in recent years.
“We must protect this house!” Edsall hollered into the mike, parroting the slogan of Under Armour, the school’s official athletic apparel outfitter.
Edsall smiled before turning his attention to the line of stylishly dressed players standing behind him and the season-opening game against Miami looming in front of them. Intentionally or not, though, the message had been received: This was Under Armour’s show, and founder Kevin Plank, a Maryland alumnus, was running it.
The 39-year-old’s role in the internal affairs of the school and its athletics department has long been a source of wonder and sometimes intrigue. All at once, he helms an internationally recognized sportswear company, holds a seat on the university’s Board of Trustees and serves as an informal advisor to Athletic Director Kevin Anderson.
Even in the often-messy sphere of college athletics and college boosters, the relationship between Plank and his alma mater – a mutually beneficial association steeped in significant financial commitments and considerations for both sides – is unique, according to a review of public records and interviews with officials and experts.
While Under Armour outfits schools as prominent as Auburn and South Carolina, Plank has structured the company’s relationship with Maryland so that their successes might dovetail, with one’s progress elevating the other as both search for a position of prominence in such competitive fields.
“The birthplace of the company is basically the school, so that affinity and that heritage is something that they want to give back for what the university did for them,” said Paul Swangard of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center of the University of Oregon. “The giveback here is almost a different way that these people have said, ‘Here’s a way you can benefit from the investment you made in me.’ And the best way they think they can help is to provide the athletics department these resources that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.”
CLOSE TO HOME
The roots of Plank’s involvement with Maryland athletics are well documented. A walk-on special-teams member of the Terps football team in the early 1990s, Plank figured he’d play faster and lighter if he eschewed regular cotton T-shirts for an alternative that would wick away sweat.
Already endowed with a keen business sense, Plank searched for a mircofiber that would work, created a prototype when he found one that did, and launched his company with a mere 500 shirts stowed away.
Merchandise in hand, Plank reached out to equipment managers across the ACC and premier athletes nationwide. Using Plank’s connections from prep school and college to market the new brand, Under Armour soon developed a foothold in the previously untapped market of performance apparel. Before long, the company’s revenue began to balloon – $17,000 in 1996, $100,000 in 1997, $1.3 million in 1999.
In a 2003 interview with Mark Hyman for Inc. magazine, Plank said: “One of my clearest memories of college is my strength coach at Maryland saying, ‘Plank, stop worrying about all this other (business) crap and just commit yourself to playing football. You have the rest of your life to do these other things.’ But I could never stop. I remember thinking how much fun it would be just to sit at a desk and think, ‘All right, how are we going to make a buck?’”
“I probably had about 20 grand in the bank when Under Armour started. A lot of money for a college kid. I ended up going to just under $40,000 in credit card debt spread across five cards. In the summer of 1997, I was totally broke—so broke I needed to go to my mom’s house to ask if she minded cooking for me. Then all of a sudden I started getting my first round of orders,” he told the magazine.
From there, Plank and Under Armour took off. And it quickly became obvious that a relationship between Plank and his alma mater would help both. Plank featured Rasheed Simmons, a former college teammate, in one of the company’s first big advertisements and later cast then-Maryland defensive line coach Dave Sollazzo in the company’s “We Must Protect This House” TV campaign.
In 2004, the Terps became the first collegiate football team in the country to wear Under Armour jerseys after the athletics department finalized a five-year, $2.6 million deal with Plank. Four years later, the company became the exclusive outfitter for all of the school’s 27 varsity sports as part of a five-year pact in which Under Armour pays the school $17.5 million.
That deal exceeds Oregon’s annual payout of $2.8 million from Nike, which was founded by Oregon alumnus Phil Knight. Michigan’s deal with Adidas is believed to be the nation’s highest, netting the Wolverines about $7.5 million annually.
Chris Boyer, a former Maryland athletics department official who was involved in contract negotiations with Under Armour, declined to comment on the contract and the university’s relationship with Plank. Plank also declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this story.
Former Maryland Athletic Director Debbie Yow, who now holds the same position at North Carolina State University, declined to be interviewed, instead writing in an email, “In my interactions with Mr. Plank, I found him to be a highly competent and creative professional.”
He’s also a very involved one, especially as it pertains to big-ticket Maryland sports.
In September 2010, Plank loaned a plane to university officials for a men’s basketball recruiting trip, a review of public records showed.
He offered the same help during the school’s search for a new football coach after Ralph Friedgen’s contract was bought out in December 2010, and again when Anderson was courting Arizona men’s basketball coach Sean Miller in May for the vacant Maryland job, according to reports.
While Plank’s financial support, which also includes more than $1 million in donations to Maryland athletics, represents only a fraction of Knight’s largesse at Oregon – the Nike chairman was the chief financier of the $230-million Matthew Knight Arena – it is still significant.
“He loves the state of Maryland, he loves this university and he loves this athletics program,” Anderson said in an interview. “He’s been very helpful. Anything that we need, he helps us find a way to get it and be successful.”
Perhaps no episode better illustrated the potential windfall from their relationship than the introduction of – and response to – the Terps’ “Maryland Pride” football uniforms this fall.
Before a national television audience in their Labor Day season opener against Miami, the Terps strutted into Byrd Stadium dressed in Under Armour uniforms that imitated the distinctive design of the Maryland state flag. Celebrities, college football writers and even some fans derided the garish getup, but the program and its outfitter were soon awash in publicity.
At one point during the game, “Maryland,” “Terps” and “Under Armor” were all trending nationally on Twitter. ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” opened its show the next day with coverage of the uniforms. The following week, The Washington Post and The New York Times printed front-page stories – on the same day – highlighting the Terps’ jerseys and Under Armour’s marketing techniques.
“This company has got the world talking,” Plank said at an Under Armour town hall event shortly after.
What Under Armour wants – and what Maryland provides – is unencumbered exposure in College Park and beyond.
According to a copy of the company’s most recent outfitting contract with the university, no coaches, assistants or team members are allowed to display any third-party products in athletic competition or at public events.
That means soccer players with an affinity for Nike cleats must blot out the company’s recognizable “Swoosh” logo. It also means Under Armour is now in the business of lacrosse equipment, outfitting the school’s men’s team this season for the first time ever.
“It’s a tremendous resource and a tremendous opportunity for us,” Anderson said. “Not only from a merchandising point of view, but to be able to sit down with people and talk about what we’re looking at and what we’re trying to do and having them as a resource and pointing us in the right direction.”
The relationship between school and supporter hasn’t always been rosy, though.
Plank – and Under Armour – were heavily scrutinized after an investigation by The Washington Post found that in 2009, blue-chip shooting guard Lance Stephenson visited Under Armour’s Baltimore headquarters during an official visit. Because Plank is a university booster, critics charged Maryland with coordinating the visit unethically, suggesting that Under Armour might offer inducements the Terps could not. Maryland investigated the claim but never reported any findings of wrongdoing. Nor did the NCAA, which also looked into the matter.
During the school’s search for a football coach last year, Anderson also decided not to hire Mike Leach, the former Texas Tech coach with whom Plank has a strong personal relationship. The Terps ultimately opted for former Connecticut’s Randy Edsall, who endured a turbulent first season as coach with a 2-10 record.
Still, Plank’s devotion to the Terps has endured. In November, he publicly voiced his support of Edsall, calling him “a competitor, a fighter, and somebody whose foxhole I would stand in any day of the week.” According to two sources with knowledge of the situation, Plank has also been instrumental in fundraising for an on-campus indoor practice facility for the football team – an increasingly important resource in the arms race among Division I schools.
Plank, Anderson said, knows that to give the Under Armour brand the cache of Nike, Maryland must grow with it. So it came as no surprise to him, then, that at the jerseys’ unveiling last August, Plank promised he was just getting started.
“There is no greater thrill, privilege or honor than having Under Armour be a part of this program and all the Terrapin athletic programs,” Plank said. “Many, many good things are to come.”