There was a fascinating battle of influence going on at the University of Maryland about what to do with its football program and head football coach DJ Durkin.
But that all ended Wednesday when the University System of Maryland’s board of regents fired him. University president Wallace Loh made the announcement in a statement.
“This is a difficult decision, but it is the right one for our entire university,” said Loh.
On June 13, Maryland offensive lineman Jordan McNair died from complications relating from heatstroke suffered during a team work out May 29. McNair was running the seventh of 10 100-yard sprints when he began to complain of feeling ill.
The subsequent inquiry into his death led to Durkin, in his third season, being placed on paid administrative leave on Aug. 11. Athletics director Damon Evans was put on leave, as well.
Durkin and Evans were invited back to work Tuesday after the board of regents recommended they be reinstated after reviewing the program.
“Since returning to campus after yesterday’s press conference, I have met with the leadership of the Student Government Association speaking on behalf of numerous student organizations; the Senate Executive Committee; Deans; department chairs; and campus leadership,” said Loh. “The overwhelming majority of stakeholders expressed serious concerns about Coach DJ Durkin returning to the campus.
This decision to bring Durkin back did not sit well with Maryland’s student government association and they were planning to have a rally to protest the reinstatements on Thursday. It was expected that over 1,000 people would attend. Allen hoped the football team would also attend in support.
A friend of McNair’s father was also working to organize a protest on Saturday at the Terps’ game against Michigan State.
At the center of the anger was the belief Durkin created a culture discouraging players from expressing concern or doubt about things they felt were not right. The regents had agreed that a new approach needs to be taken.
Jonathan Allen, the student body president, told ESPN of students’ anger over the decision. He had planned to introduce legislation Wednesday calling for Durkin to be fired.
What’s interesting is ESPN had sources telling them Loh, who plans to retire after the school year, would have been fired by the board of regents if he didn’t allow Durkin to return.
So you see where the battle lines had been drawn. The football program generates the money. The Big Ten schools split almost $90 million in bowl game and college playoff money last year. The regents had exonerated Durkin of direct responsibility for McNair’s death. And the students were demanding Durkin be fired.
“We believe that Coach Durkin has been unfairly blamed for the dysfunction in the athletic department,” said Brady.
The question was, who’s voice would be heard?
“People are appalled at this,” Allen told ESPN. “When I spoke to stakeholders — media, alums, donors — over the last few months, as this has been transpiring, they all said there’s no way Durkin comes back from this. And yet he’s returning and the president is the one that’s leaving?”
Allen’s contention was that James Brady, the regent’s chair, had basically taken the easy – and financially prudent – way out. Had Durkin been fired immediately, along with Evans and Loh, it would have likely instigated costly legal proceeding.
All the regents did was buy out Maryland’s football strength coach, Rick Court, for $315,000.
Football coaches have been known to run training camps and practices with militarist verve. The idea is to instill toughness and discipline in the players. But times have changed and so has the public’s attitude about that type of approach.
The 200-page report commissioned after the incident did include mentions of physical and emotional abuse. Serious allegations were levied.
The Athletic mentioned incidents of players being asked to ride step machines with a PVC pipe on their backs and another player being called a “expletive bitch” while getting an IV to relieve cramping during a practice.
Court was also accused of throwing weights, using abusive language and humiliating players about their weight.
Worse yet, there were accusations of a slow response getting McNair the help he needed, a timeline revealing it took almost 1 hour, 40 minutes after McNair first complained to get him to the hospital. And while he was in the care of trainers, his temperature was not taken and he was not immersed in cold water to bring his body temperature down.
Allen hoped to strike the core of the Maryland athletic department by pushing for a decrease from the $406 each student pays to support the program. There was no word whether those plans would still move forward.
Maryland is 5-3 under interim coach Matt Canada, which means it is close to qualifying for a bowl game. Durkin returned to his locker room on Tuesday and things reportedly did not go well. A few players walked out of the room.
And then came Wednesday afternoon and a decision many were hoping for but few expected to come to pass. Durkin is gone.
Durkin was 10-15 at Maryland, including a loss in the 2016 Quick Lane Bowl. He succeeded current UConn coach Randy Edsall in December 2015 after serving as Michigan’s defensive coordinator.
But it seems as if Maryland’s problems are just beginning. Something such as this can be toxic for recruiting, especially for a program that fights everyday to find players who can compete with Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State.
It will be up to the new coaching staff to restore the faith that seemingly has been lost in the program.