Big Ten expansion 'absolutely huge' for men's lacrosse

When Maryland men's lacrosse coach John Tillman recently hit the recruiting trail, he wasn't entirely sure how players would react to a Terps program making the leap from the Atlantic Coast Conference to the Big Ten, a move that became official Tuesday.

Fortunately for Tillman, the transition has not been an issue.

"Some of the people we have talked to have been pretty excited about it," he said. "Obviously, the ACC has a great tradition and the Big Ten doesn't yet. But I think people realize there is a lot of potential in that conference."

That potential is increased by the addition of Johns Hopkins, which also joined the conference Tuesday as an affiliate member in men's lacrosse. Those teams enter a league that includes fellow newcomer Rutgers, previously of the Big East, and longtime members Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.

According to ESPN analyst Mark Dixon, the university's transition to the Big Ten could usher in a new era in men's lacrosse.

"I think it's huge for the sport when you're talking about major conferences in collegiate sports," Dixon said. "The Big Ten is one that has one of the biggest names, richest traditions, proudest histories. You name it, the Big Ten has it. And to have a legitimate lacrosse conference of six teams in the Big Ten, I think it's absolutely huge for the sport."

The six-team Big Ten will play its conference tournament at Maryland next spring and award an automatic qualifier to the NCAA tournament. The league might not rival the ACC — which sent all six of its teams to the NCAAs in May — but the Terps and Blue Jays have won a combined 54 national titles. None of the four other teams has that kind of track record, and in fact, none played in the 18-team NCAA tournament this season, though Ohio State and Penn State did in 2013. This spring, Rutgers had its best season in 10 years, and fledgling Michigan has considerable financial backing from its athletic department.

"We are really excited to go down this path and to dive into it as a conference sport," said Wendy Fallen, the Big Ten's associate commissioner for championships and the men's lacrosse coaches liaison. "There are two marquee programs in Maryland and Johns Hopkins, but we've got four other programs that are on the rise and have had some recent success. It's growing nationally and significantly not only in the East, but we've also seen growth in other parts of the country. So we feel it's just going to be tremendous for the conference."

The league's formation has sparked speculation about whether other member schools might try their hand at varsity men's lacrosse. Michigan State played in Division I until 1995 before Title IX forced the school to drop the program. Under coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, a former Maryland All-American, Northwestern is a perennial Division I national-title contender in women's lacrosse, with seven crowns since 2005.

But both schools said fielding a men's squad is not a topic of conversation. Spartans athletic director Mark Hollis said in a written statement that sports outside of football, men's basketball and ice hockey "require significant resources for scholarships, operations, facilities and leadership positions. MSU would be in a position for sports expansion with the support of a complete and full endowment of a sports program. That is the only scenario where adding sports would be considered."

Last month, Illinois AD Mike Thomas said the school hasn't considered adding lacrosse, according to The News-Gazette of Champaign, Ill.

Maryland's departure for the Big Ten leaves a vacancy in the ACC, which drops to five teams but will retain its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament for 2015 and 2016 as part of a two-year grace period. And the composition of reigning national champion Duke, runner-up Notre Dame, North Carolina, Syracuse and Virginia leaves the league as the most competitive in the sport, at least for now. .

"Throughout history, the ACC has arguably been the strongest men's lacrosse conference in the country," league spokeswoman Amy Yakola said. "Our conference has seen men's lacrosse sponsored by as few as three programs and as many as six. Prior to 2014, which is the only year we competed with six programs, the ACC had four programs from 1983 to 2013. As we look to 2015, we will have five teams competing in men's lacrosse."

Rumors have swirled that the ACC might add another program from a group of member schools that includes North Carolina State, which played men's Division I lacrosse until 1982; Boston College, which played until 2002; and Virginia Tech, which has a Division I women's team.

Officials from the Wolfpack and the Eagles did not respond to requests for comment. The Hokies referred inquiries to Yakola, who emphasized that the league is committed to moving forward with five teams.

"The ACC has been extremely well represented in the NCAA tournament, and based on the strength of our five teams and our schools' commitment to men's lacrosse, we don't anticipate that changing," she said.

With the long-anticipated Big Ten move finally in the books, the conference announced schedules for men's and women's lacrosse Tuesday. The marquee game on the men's side, the annual Maryland-Johns Hopkins contest, will be the weekend of April 24-26 at Byrd Stadium in College Park. The Terps' exodus from the ACC may cause a few hiccups early in the transition, but Tillman said the program's dedication to scheduling games against quality opponents and taking aim at conference and NCAA titles will not waver.

"We've always played really good teams, and we're going to continue to do that," he said. "The conference title may change, but we're always going to try to play against the best and play a really hard schedule. … I think the kids know that when you're playing a Johns Hopkins or an Ohio State or a Rutgers, those games are all going to be good. So we realize it's going to be a challenge."

edward.lee@baltsun.com