The board gathered in downtown Baltimore one Friday in late October to grill three University of Maryland officials one last time behind closed doors before voting on a plan to resolve the football scandal roiling College Park. First came U-Md. President Wallace D. Loh. Then Athletic Director Damon Evans.
Last up was football coach DJ Durkin.
Now the 17 members of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents wanted to know: Could Durkin return to the sideline after an extended leave of absence and lead the Terrapins? Could he solve problems that came to light after 19-year-old Jordan McNair suffered heatstroke during a team workout and died days later?
The 40-year-old coach gave a bravura and contrite performance. “He came off as sincere, honest, committed, sorry,” said one person familiar with the Oct. 26 meeting. Durkin accepted responsibility for his actions in the crisis, exuded passion for the team and its welfare and pledged a total effort to prevent future troubles.
He effectively changed the minds of some regents, according to one person in the room, and the board’s subsequent decision — endorsing Durkin and Evans, while embracing a plan for Loh to move toward retirement — set off a firestorm in College Park, Annapolis and beyond when it was announced Tuesday. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Democrat Ben Jealous, opponents in the gubernatorial election, agreed that the board had misstepped.
The next day, Loh reversed course, defying the board, firing Durkin and further inflaming a growing chorus of critics of the governing body that oversees the state’s 12 public institutions of higher education. James T. Brady, the board’s chairman, resigned Thursday.
The episode underscored long-standing tensions between U-Md. and the board that manages the 40,000-student flagship at College Park.
It also illuminated the struggle of an appointed and unpaid board grappling with a messy and explosive personnel issue, intertwined with big-time athletics and questions about governance in higher education.
Analysts say the board’s action was risky and highly unusual.
“In general, system boards should not be micromanaging institutions,” said Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. “That’s why they hire a president. If they’re not happy with a president, they can choose to fire a president.”
Loh has declined repeated requests for interviews about the power struggle. So have Durkin, Evans and most regents.
Board members are appointed by the governor to staggered terms. They include business executives, lawyers and a student at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Two also serve in Hogan’s administration: state Agriculture Secretary Joseph Bartenfelder and Health Secretary Robert R. Neall. A few were appointed by Hogan’s Democratic predecessor, Martin O’Malley, but the majority are the incumbent’s appointees.
Since August, the board has met nine times to discuss the football scandal and its aftermath. On Aug. 17, it voted to assume control of investigations that Loh had launched into McNair’s death and the culture of the football program.
“This has been a long, arduous task,” said Barry Gossett, the board’s vice chairman. “People don’t appreciate how much time we had to put in for this. There were a lot of meetings and discussions. A lot of people would call and say, ‘Did you know this; did you know that?’ ”
Gossett is a prominent, longtime athletics donor whose name appears on the team's football facility. He'd said in August shortly after the controversy erupted, "I kind of stand behind DJ and his program and what he has been doing." As the regents weighed the evidence last month, though, he said the board seesawed.
“When you started going through all this stuff the first time, you’d come to one conclusion,” he said. “And then you’d read it a second time; you might be able to come to a different conclusion.”
“It felt like a jury,” said another regent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the proceedings.
The board believed investigative reports had not given the school cause to fire the coach, according to a person close to the situation. The regents had at one point discussed the option of buying Durkin out of his contract, a cost that would run about $5.5 million, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Durkin’s legal team had made clear that any settlement could be even costlier, taking into account salary, legal fees, reputational damage and future earnings. Others familiar with the board’s thinking said expenses were not a primary issue.
There were multiple votes along the way at different meetings. The board has declined to make public the precise tallies, the issues voted on and how individual members voted.
The most crucial actions occurred Oct. 26. The regents had already studied the 192-page report on the program’s culture. But they wanted to hear directly from the principals. Initially, Evans and Loh requested time in front of the board. The regents felt that, out of fairness, Durkin should be invited in, too.
“I mean, regents all had differing views on differing things. I think we got to the point: ‘Okay, let’s really ask the people about what they think,’ ” Gossett said.
Shortly before 2 p.m. Oct. 26, Brady arrived at the second-floor boardroom in the system’s Baltimore office, and other members filtered in. Reporters observed the start of the meeting but were ushered out a few minutes later when the board went into a closed session.
Loh, Evans and Durkin arrived separately through a back door, out of sight of the media. Each answered questions for about an hour, according to people familiar with the meeting.
Loh’s meeting focused on Evans and Durkin, according to people familiar with the questioning. They say Loh laid out his concerns with bringing back Durkin, the uproar it could cause on campus and the backlash the university would face. His own future at the school was not a subject of discussion.
Long before this meeting, Loh’s relations with the board had deteriorated.
A person familiar with the board’s thinking cited significant issues that members believed Loh had failed to raise with the board in private, including a lengthy period of leadership dysfunction in the athletic department in 2017 and 2018. Loh also was faulted for allegedly giving mixed signals in 2015 about how he would handle a controversy over the name of the football stadium. Ultimately, the name of a prominent 20th-century U-Md. president, Harry Clifton “Curley” Byrd, who supported racial segregation, was stripped from the stadium.
“A lot of this would never have happened in the way it happened if the board had more trust in the president,” the person familiar with the board’s thinking said.
Loh was out of the building and back on the road by the time Durkin walked in about an hour later. Going into the meeting, Durkin’s fate was uncertain. Some familiar with the process say a faction on the board who wanted to keep the coach might not have had the necessary votes until Durkin made his case.
He struck them as genuine, acknowledging problems and discussing solutions.
After about an hour, Durkin left. He tried to escape the attention of reporters by leaving through the back door with his New York-based lawyer, Jeff Klein. Both realized reporters were stationed at that exit, and Durkin hurried down a hallway toward the front door. He declined to comment and walked briskly through a revolving door.
The regents spent the next hour or so debating what they’d just heard, trying to reconcile the troubles they’d read about in the report with the confident coach they’d just met.
“Was he the leader and part of the culture? Sure,” Gossett said, “But was he personally responsible for some of those things? I don’t think the majority felt that way.”
Finally, Gossett said, Brady told the group: “We’ve considered everything. . . . We’ve got to come up with a decision to move on.”
Brady later acknowledged there were divisions but said a clear majority supported the final result. Some regents say they don’t recall the tally on the crucial question of keeping Durkin.
“What I am sure of is that the vote was decisive,” Brady said.
The room felt lighter — “It was a ton of relief,” one regent said — but the board’s problems were only beginning.
The regents agreed to sleep on their decision and reconvene Monday to affirm their vote. Their Friday-night votes remained secret.
Loh was informed of the board’s wishes. According to two people familiar with the situation, he was led to believe that if he didn’t retain Durkin, he would be out of a job.
Loh spent Monday night weighing his options, and some of his closest advisers weren’t certain what he would do.
By Tuesday, Loh had agreed to appear at a news conference, accept the board’s personnel recommendations and announce his own retirement, effective in June.
Backlash was instant and loud. The president spent most of Wednesday in meetings with students, faculty and campus leaders. The myriad concerns that were expressed remained consistent. He consulted with Evans, and shortly after the team’s Wednesday practice, Durkin was told that he had been fired.