"I don't see any positive for the lacrosse program," the ESPN analyst says of the University of Maryland's jump to the Big Ten Conference. "You're talking about the potential of severing rivalries with North Carolina, Duke, Virginia."
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Maryland will leave a conference that already boasts some of the nation's best men's and women's programs and that only stands to grow stronger with the addition of Syracuse and Notre Dame from the Big East.
Meanwhile, only three Big Ten schools — Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan — offer men's lacrosse. So even with Maryland and Rutgers, reportedly, joining the conference, it would not have the minimum six teams needed for men's lacrosse to be an official Big Ten sport. The picture is similar in women's lacrosse, where Northwestern and Penn State are established powers, Ohio State has a solid program and Michigan will play its first varsity season in 2013-2014.
Though other schools, such as Michigan State, boast solid club teams, it's not clear when the conference might have the critical mass needed to offer competitive lacrosse, with an automatic NCAA tournament bid for the Big Ten champion.
Maryland will have options. The Terps men could become an independent, similar to arch-rival Johns Hopkins, or they could hook on with a lacrosse conference such as the Eastern College Athletic Conference, which includes Loyola, Denver, Ohio State and Michigan. The women could join the American Lacrosse Conference, which includes Northwestern, Penn State and Hopkins.
In announcing the move Monday, athletic director Kevin Anderson said only that he had presented his lacrosse coaches with several potential opportunities.
Regardless of conference affiliation, Maryland could continue to play local rivalry games against lacrosse powers Johns Hopkins, Navy and Loyola. The men won't sacrifice an automatic tournament bid by leaving the ACC. Despite the traditional excellence of its top programs, the conference doesn't have enough men's teams to make the champion an automatic qualifier.
The Maryland men's team has won two NCAA titles and was runner-up then last two seasons. The women have won an NCAA-best 10 national titles, the last coming in 2010.
If there's a bright side to the move, analysts say, it's that Maryland lacrosse could help trigger new interest in the sport around the Big Ten's traditional Midwestern footprint. Though the Big Ten Network has been slow to televise lacrosse games, that could change with new audiences in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. And if Maryland's arrival spurs Michigan State or Illinois to follow Michigan into the Division I ranks, it would be a boon to the sport, says Mark Dixon, an ESPN analyst and former Johns Hopkins standout.
"It could definitely be a long-term positive," Dixon says.
Kessenich agrees but notes that the cost of launching a lacrosse program is prohibitive for most schools, even large state universities with robust athletic programs. Substantial private fundraising is key.
"In 10-15 years, who knows?" Kessenich says of the prospects for a lacrosse boom in the Midwest. "But right now, there are obvious negatives to the move. And the positives are just maybes."
Kessenich says any negative impacts to Maryland's program will be delayed. "With John Tillman at the helm and their history and the talent they have, they'll be good for the next four years," he says. "The question is after that."
He and Dixon struggle to envision future sales pitches to recruits (Tillman did not immediately return a call seeking comment on Monday).
"Do they lose their identity?" Dixon says. "Being able to say to a kid, 'You're going to play Carolina, Duke and UVA in consecutive weeks,' that's a pretty sweet deal. So without that, their recruiting could definitely be hurt."