Maryland isn’t the first institution of higher learning to be dragged through the mud by an egregiously erring sports programs. Maryland is, however, the first in a while to respond to those errors by willfully compounding them.
In August, its football program was branded as “toxic” by ESPN, quoting some players who’d seen teammate Jordan McNair die as a result of medical inattention for which president Wallace Loh said the school accepted “moral and legal responsibility.” On Tuesday, its board of regents essentially asked, “Is ‘toxic’ a bad thing?”
The watching world fully expected the Terrapins to clean house. Coach DJ Durkin had been placed on administrative leave, doubtless preparatory to his firing. Damon Evans, who in 2010 resigned in DUI/red panties disgrace as Georgia’s athletic director, had become Maryland’s AD this summer after serving as assistant AD there since 2014. Surely he’d go, too. But no.
As we speak, the only Maryland higher-up scheduled to exit is Loh, who announced his retirement effective next year. This came after a round of internecine warfare in which the board of regents, which lacks the power to fire anybody but the president, is believed to have told the president he’d be fired if he moved to oust Durkin/Evans. This now stands as the most glaring example of tail wagging dog of the post-Sandusky era, and the lessons of Penn State were believed to be indelible. (Note: Maryland and Penn State share a conference.)
Louisville took a couple of days to dump its Hall of Fame basketball coach and high-flying AD when its name surfaced in documents presented in federal court. Maryland put Durkin on leave for 2½ months as it conducted separate investigations into McNair’s death and the depths of its toxicity, and the resulting reports wasn’t exonerating.
From Barry Svrugla of the Washington Post: “Guess (board chairman James Brady) missed the part about bizarrely motivating players with food, or showing them savage videos of animals killing each other, or creating a caste system of haves and have-nots, or humiliating them by throwing trash cans full of vomit across the room.”
Maryland’s stupefying defense of Durkin: He wasn’t up to the job. From the report: “The athletics department lacked a culture of accountability, did not provide adequate oversight of the football program and failed to provide ... Mr. Durkin with the tools, resources and guidance necessary to support and educate a first-time head coach in a major football conference.”
If there weren’t an actual death involved, this might be funny. Alas, there IS a death involved. A man who’d apprenticed under Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh and Will Muschamp – a man who sold himself to Maryland as ready to run a program – needed adult-education courses in “How To Be Head Coach” to do the job he’d pursued? And this is reason to keep him? And reason to keep Evans, who was the football liaison before being bumped up to AD-in-full?
If ever a program needed to start over, it’s Maryland. It intends to carry on having shed only strength coach Rick Court, who was paid $315K to go away. According to the report, it was Court who threw “food, weights, and on one occasion a trash can full of vomit.” Did not Durkin hire Court? Does not the head coach get paid to Set The Tone? What was Durkin doing, anyway? (It sure wasn’t winning. He’s 11-15. But that’s not his fault, either.)
Brady again: “We believe that coach Durkin has been unfairly blamed for the dysfunction in the athletic department. While he bears some responsibility, it is not fair to place all of it at his feet."
According to a Post report, three Maryland players walked out of a hello-again meeting with Durkin on Tuesday. (The Terps are 5-3 under interim coach Matt Canada.) “Everybody’s shell-shocked,” a source told ESPN. Said Marty McNair, Jordan McNair’s father: “I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach, and somebody spit in my face.”
Durkin was to resume his coaching duties, assuming he can figure out what they are, today. It’s still unclear how long his reinstatement might last. The outcry has been outrage mixed with incredulity. (Svrugla’s column is devastating.) Said Maryland Governor Larry Hogan: “Many will understandably question whether enough has been done to address the serious concerns that exist among many in the College Park community. I am one of them.”
Maryland has done strange things in the past. Its decision to leave the ACC to bank Big Ten TV money remains the most misguided choice of the conference-hopping era. Its mishandling of the succession from coach Ralph Friedgen to coach-in-waiting James Franklin wound up with the latter leaving for Vanderbilt – he’s now at Penn State – and the Terps hiring Randy Edsall, who went 22-34 over five seasons. Now there’s Durkin, who somehow kept his job but is the lamest of ducks.
If some of the players he recruited no longer want to play for him, who will? At its base, every recruiting pitch is a coach telling a parent, “I’ll take good care of your son.” Marty McNair’s son died after his body temperature reached 106 degrees in a May workout and Maryland staff waited 50-some minutes to summon an ambulance. Other people’s sons have had trashcans filled with upchuck hurled at them.
President Loh conceded his school was at fault. President Loh also advocated that Durkin be dismissed. Instead it’s the president who’s leaving. The coach, beggaring belief, gets to stay. Unknown is whether he can find anyone willing to play for him, now or ever again.