University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh told state lawmakers Thursday that he warned his governing board late last month that “all hell will break loose” if the school’s embattled football coach returned to duties amid the scandal that enveloped the program.
Despite that warning, the University System of Maryland Board of Regents recommended keeping DJ Durkin as coach of the Terrapins. That guidance came as the regents concluded a review of problems within U-Md. athletics that were exposed after the death of football player Jordan McNair in June.
Loh told a House of Delegates committee that he learned of the board’s recommendation Oct. 29 during a discussion with system Chancellor Robert L. Caret. The chancellor said at that time he would relay the board’s views to Durkin, according to Loh.
The U-Md. president told lawmakers he perceived the board’s actions as circumventing his authority.
Loh’s account shed light on behind-the-scenes maneuvering as a power struggle unfolded between him and the Board of Regents — a struggle that rocked the state flagship university and the system. The stakes were substantial: not just the response to McNair’s death and ensuring the safety of athletes but also clarifying who was in charge of the 40,000-student College Park campus.
When the board’s recommendation became public Oct. 30, and Durkin returned to work, Loh announced he would retire in June.
True to Loh’s prediction, outrage over the board’s action flared immediately in Annapolis, College Park and beyond. On Oct. 31, Loh defied the board and fired Durkin. On Nov. 1, the board chair, James T. Brady, resigned, ending what had become an extraordinary standoff.
The House Appropriations Committee combed through these events in a hearing with Loh, Caret and Linda R. Gooden, the new chair of the Board of Regents.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who attended the hearing, expressed disbelief at what the board had done. “From my perspective, after the decision was made, it seemed the only person that was penalized was the president of the university,” Busch said. “They didn’t hold the coach accountable at all.”
Durkin was the state’s second-highest-paid employee, earning nearly $2.5 million a year. Loh was asked about the costs associated with the coach’s termination and told the committee that Durkin’s buyout would cost about $5 million. Loh said after the meeting he was unsure whether that money had already been paid out.
Gooden, who last week apologized for the board’s decision, reiterated her contrition and said the board would redouble efforts to ensure what she called “shared governance.” She acknowledged the board was wrong.
“We lost sight of the bigger picture: the ability of the university to move forward,” Gooden said. “College Park’s football program needed new leadership, and that need should have driven our decision.”
The hearing capped a tumultuous and painful period for the state’s flagship university and the governing board as officials wrestled with the aftermath of McNair’s death following a team workout in May. McNair failed to receive proper care after suffering heatstroke, leading Loh to assert that the university would shoulder legal and moral responsibility for what happened.
The regents examined the culture of the football team after investigators found problems in it and the athletic department. Some lawmakers were skeptical of the report’s finding that the team did not have a “toxic” culture. McNair’s death, said Del. Keith E. Haynes (D-Baltimore City), “rises to the height of toxicity.”
Loh told lawmakers that he recently held a constructive meeting with Caret and Gooden. “The only thing we can do is to make sure that this kind of death never happens again at College Park or at any other campus in the state of Maryland,” he said.
The board ordinarily has 17 members but has a vacancy, following Brady’s resignation. Regents are appointed by the governor to staggered terms, subject to state Senate confirmation. They are unpaid, overseeing 12 universities statewide with 175,000 students under a system established in 1988.
Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore City) asked Gooden whether the board was up to the task. “Do you believe that a single, voluntary, politically appointed board really can oversee the entire system of colleges in the state of Maryland?”
“I do,” Gooden replied. “For the past 30 years, we’ve gotten many things right. Clearly, we got this one wrong.”
Normally, the only personnel decisions the board makes for individual campuses are hiring or firing a president.
Gooden has been on the board since 2009, appointed by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). Most regents are appointees of Gov. Larry Hogan (R). Gooden said she was not at the Oct. 26 board meeting when regents voted to recommend keeping Durkin. She declined after the hearing to share her position on that. But she said the board had been divided on Durkin.
Loh, 73, who earns about $675,000 a year, has been in office since 2010. Some supporters have called on him in recent days to postpone his retirement in light of the widespread criticism of the board’s actions. Lawmakers did not raise that question with him.
Asked after the hearing whether he was reconsidering his plans, Loh told reporters he had no comment.
Rick Maese contributed to this report.