Connecticut Sports Talk, July 11

Season ticket sales at Maryland Stadium are down 10 percent this season and, said interim athletic director Damon Evans, “are nowhere where they need to be.” (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

> > Follow @romanstubbs >As Damon Evans officially assumed control, at least temporarily, of Maryland’s athletic department earlier this week, he vowed to embrace the pressure of his new reality. On his plate were the daily responsibilities of Athletic Director Kevin Anderson, who on Monday announced that he was taking a six-month sabbatical. Maryland quickly tabbed Evans, the school’s executive athletic director since 2014, to take over on an interim basis.

“It has been fluid,” Evans said Friday in his first interview since taking the role.

Anderson’s departure was not only preceded by a bizarre string of events, including a three-week absence from his office and contested reports of his ouster last weekend, it also came at the midway point of Maryland’s football season.

It’s hardly an ideal time for a major college athletic department to undergo a transition in leadership, and not only because it’s a potential distraction a team that has lost three of its last four games ahead of Saturday’s visit to No. 5 Wisconsin.

[College football TV schedule: Michigan vs. Penn State is Lions’ first big playoff test]

Season ticket sales are down 10 percent this year and home attendance has lagged over the first half of the season. The school is also facing an uphill climb in fundraising efforts for the new Cole Field House project; the initial $155 million price tag increased by roughly 25 percent to $196 million this summer, with the athletic department on the hook for $19 million. With Anderson gone and his path to a potential return unclear, the pressure is on Evans to pick up the pieces.

“Pressure, that’s part of this job. That’s just something that you deal with,” said Evans, 47. “When you’re an athletic director, or in this case in an interim or acting role, what you have to do is match the expectations of the people you’re dealing with. And I want people to have high expectations of us. I don’t mind people putting pressure on us, because that shows that they’re committed, that shows that they care.”

For everything that has changed for Evans over the past week, his vision for Maryland football hasn’t. He has served as the athletic department’s liaison to the program since he was hired by the school in 2014, negotiating all of the coaching contracts and building a strong rapport with second-year Coach DJ Durkin, whom Evans met with several times this week as he officially took over Anderson’s duties. On that end, Evans is a symbol of stability in an uncertain time for the school.

“We’ve been working together now really since Day One,” Durkin said. “I think Damon and Kevin [Anderson] were very in sync and in line in a lot of things. I don’t think it changes football in any way.”

Evans did not comment Friday on whether he remains in contact with Anderson as both assume their new roles, but he did address the state of the football program and his ongoing communication with Durkin.

They relate to one another easily. Both are former college football players — Evans played wide receiver at Georgia, while Durkin was a defensive end at Bowling Green — and they often spoke about their experiences working at elite programs in the Southeastern Conference.

While Durkin served as an assistant at Florida earlier in his career, Evans became the first African American athletic director in the SEC when he took that job at Georgia in 2004. Evans was fired by Georgia in July 2010 after being charged with a DUI in Atlanta; after several years working in the private sector, Anderson lobbied to hire Evans in 2014. The following year, Evans played a crucial role in hiring Durkin as the football coach.

“I believe that I have a good working knowledge and understanding of the game. By no means am I a coach, but I do understand what we will need and what it takes to move the program forward,” Evans said. “Sitting down and talking to DJ, I think we have conversations we can really relate to each other . . . we’ve been able to talk about a lot of things that we can bring from those different programs to Maryland. But at the same time, we’ve talked about the uniqueness of the University of Maryland and how we utilize that uniqueness.”

That uniqueness has been accompanied with a slew of challenges; season ticket sales have dipped since Durkin’s first season and “are nowhere where they need to be,” Evans said. The silver lining is that the school projects to increase its overall ticket sale revenue by as much as 2 percent by the end of the season, thanks in part to visits to College Park by Big Ten blue bloods Michigan and Penn State in November. Only about 5,000 tickets remain on sale for each of those games, Evans said.

[Penn State hasn’t looked back since it was destroyed by Michigan. Its coach still won’t.]

The more pressing challenge for Maryland is sustaining consistent attendance against less enticing opponents; after a season-high 38,325 attended last Saturday’s 37-21 loss to Northwestern, Durkin and his players were forced to address questions about a lack of energy at Maryland Stadium. The most cheering the student section made all afternoon was during the first half, when those seated there played keepaway with a football that had been kicked into the stands.

“Don’t get me started with attendance. I think attendance starts with students and supporting their classmates. As a donor, that gives me heartburn, to tell you the truth,” said Barry Gossett, a high-level donor.

While Evans believes that Durkin’s rebuild of the program will eventually help drive up season ticket sales and overall revenue, he has been devising ways to improve “the in-game experience” at Maryland Stadium, which averaged just 39,615 fans last season. That filled just 76 percent of the 54,000-seat venue and ranked 12th in the Big Ten, ahead of only Northwestern and Purdue.

Evans is also scrambling to raise more fundraising for the new Cole Field House project; the first phase was completed in August and the school has raised $60 million of its $90 million goal, Evans said, but the athletic department must also cover nearly half of the $41 million increase to the project’s budget.

Developing a lucrative football program, one of Evans’ foremost priorities, would certainly help cut into that cost. He plans to be on the ground trumpeting his vision to donors like Gossett in the coming weeks, hoping to rally support that can help drum up interest at a time of uncertainty for the program.

“Football has the ability to generate a significant amount of revenue for our athletics program. That revenue just doesn’t go to football . . . so as football goes, well, it helps all of our other sports,” Evans said. “Is it a challenge? Yes. But we have to embrace the challenge.”

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