In the face of mounting outrage and pressure from state lawmakers, students and the community, the University of Maryland fired football coach DJ Durkin on Wednesday, one day after allowing him to return to his position.
In a letter to the university community, Wallace D. Loh, the president of the College Park campus, announced the decision, which directly defies a recommendation made by the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents on Tuesday afternoon.
Athletic Director Damon Evans informed Durkin of his ouster following the Terps’ practice Wednesday and then met with the entire team to inform players.
A person familiar with the situation said Durkin was not fired for cause and that the school intends to buy him out of his contract. Durkin was in the third year of a five-year deal and is owed roughly $5.5 million.
In his letter, Loh said that Durkin’s “departure is in the best interest of the University."
“This is a difficult decision, but it is the right one for our entire University,” Loh wrote. “I will devote the remaining months of my presidency to advancing the needed reforms in our Athletic Department that prioritize the safety and well-being of our student-athletes.”
Durkin, 40, was not available to comment Wednesday night, and a message left with his attorney was not immediately returned. Durkin, who had been placed on administrative leave Aug. 11, had rejoined the team just one day earlier. He had been in limbo while the board oversaw two independent investigations into the football program he oversaw — one focused on the circumstances surrounding the June death of Jordan McNair, a 19-year-old offensive lineman, and the other centered on the culture of the football program, which followed media reports alleging abuse and bullying behavior by football staff members.
School officials said Tuesday night that Durkin would be back on the sideline for Saturday’s game against Michigan State, but 24 hours later, offensive coordinator Matt Canada was again the interim coach and was expected to lead the 5-3 Terps through the remainder of the season.
The university’s decision capped a tumultuous day in which the board of regents’ recommendation that Durkin be retained was roundly criticized from all corners, with state lawmakers calling for a public hearing, several Maryland congressional representatives lambasting the board’s actions and Gov. Larry Hogan (R) calling on the regents to reconsider their controversial recommendations.
“I am deeply troubled by the lack of transparency from the Board of Regents, and deeply concerned about how they could have possibly arrived at the decisions announced” Tuesday, Hogan said.
All the while, Loh was in College Park taking in a series of meetings to assess the situation, according to a person close to the situation. He met with student government leaders, deans and vice presidents on campus, faculty senate representatives and community business leaders.
“It was quite clear to him that DJ Durkin could not go out on the field on Saturday and represent the university,” the person said.
The decision is not without risk for Loh. Multiple people familiar with the situation said he was strongly against the board of regents’ recommendation to allow Durkin back in the first place. Loh had met with the board in person last Friday, according to multiple people familiar with the meeting, and laid out his concerns about the possibility of Durkin returning.
“In the meeting he told the board that all hell would break loose,” the person said. “He told the board it would be serious problem with the campus community and the public at large, but they were bound and determined that [Durkin] come back. They basically put a gun to his head and threatened him saying if he wouldn’t do it, they’d find a president who would.”
Loh agreed to accept the board’s recommendations — which meant reinstating Durkin and retaining Evans — but then announced his intention to retire at the end of the academic year in June.
The university system has pushed back on that account. In an interview Wednesday, prior to Maryland’s decision to fire Durkin, board chair James T. Brady said it’s “not accurate to say he was forced out.”
“He received our recommendations, and made his decision,” Brady said.
In deciding to reverse course, Loh did not consult with the board of regents, though Maryland officials did alert Robert Caret, the system’s chancellor, shortly before they informed Durkin of their decision. Technically, the board of regents doesn’t have say over any campus personnel decisions, other than the school president. Loh has received no assurances that the regents won’t punish him for flouting their recommendations.
A spokesman for the university system did not immediately respond to a request to comment Wednesday night.
“The board has been so determined to bring DJ back, it’s possible they could carry through on their threat to fire him right away,” the person close to the situation said. “But with so much public criticism at this point, it could be a risky move for them.”
If the regents don’t take action, Loh, 73, could reconsider leaving the school in June, the person said. He had considered 2020 as his retirement target and has been urged by many state leaders and power brokers to not leave the school hastily.
Throughout Wednesday, pressure mounted on the governing board to explain its endorsement of Durkin while cutting ties with its academic leader. Much of the ire was directed at the 17 regents, all politically appointed volunteers, who had overseen the process since August and spent 12 days mulling their options.
“From the beginning there was never an illusion that we were going to come up with a decision that everyone was going to love,” Brady said Wednesday afternoon. “ … There was no perfect answer."
State and federal power brokers, particularly, amplified the pressure that had been heaped on the board in the previous 24 hours. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D- Md.), for example, echoed the sentiments expressed by many, saying he didn't “understand how the coach remains and the president is basically asked to leave."
To that end, in Annapolis, state legislators called a Nov. 15 hearing to hold the regents to account.
State lawmakers control funding for the University of Maryland system, and though House Appropriations Chair Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore) acknowledged her committee has no authority over employment decisions, she said lawmakers can use their bully pulpit to force transparency about how and why those decisions are made.
By Wednesday afternoon, 25 Democratic state lawmakers, including several influential committee chairs and party leaders, sent a sharply worded letter to Caret and the regents calling their actions “shameful” and “unacceptable.”
For many, the issue revolves solely around the board of regents and Brady, its chair. The board, which met behind closed doors five times to discuss the football program, has refused to disclose the tally of its vote. Brady said he didn’t recall the breakdown but said it was a “clear majority.” Most other board members either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
"We knew that whatever decision was made, it was not going to be popular," said Barry Gossett, vice president of the board, said Wednesday afternoon. “There was no easy choice."
The choice the regents made proved perhaps more contentious than anticipated. Several players tweeted their anger Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, upset at what they perceived as a lack of consequences for the death of their teammate, McNair. Students were planning a campus demonstration for Thursday to voice their concerns about the outcome.
When news of Durkin’s firing spread Wednesday evening, both groups expressed satisfaction.
“Justice served,” offensive lineman Ellis McKennie tweeted Wednesday evening. “Jordan McNair can begin to Rest In Peace. Go terps! See you Saturday!”
“Pressure busts pipes doesn’t it??” linebacker Tre Watson wrote in a tweet.
Jonathan Allen, Maryland’s student body president, said, “I think it says a lot about the power of student advocacy.”
Former University of Maryland System chancellor William B. Kirwan and former Board of Regents chairman James L. Shea issued a statement late Wednesday saying they “strongly support” Loh’s decision to fire Durkin.
"Dr. Loh's action will be remembered as a courageous and important decision in Maryland higher education," the statement reads. “Dr. Loh has taken this action despite an apparent ultimatum from the Board of Regents that he must retain Coach Durkin or else be terminated as president immediately. In effect, the Board of Regents was taking the unprecedented action of determining who would be the university's football coach."
The McNair family has been outspoken in its criticisms of Durkin, and Billy Murphy, the family’s Baltimore-based attorney, lauded the university’s decision Wednesday night. He called Durkin “a cancer to the entire football program” and said that Brady should also be removed from his position as board chair.
“It was a completely misguided and unbelievably bone-head decision that defied all reason, common sense, and morality,” Murphy said.
While a spokesman for the University System of Maryland declined to comment on the school’s decision Wednesday night, others offered praise as news of Durkin’s termination spread.
“Dr. Loh’s firing of Coach Durkin is the right decision and the decision that had to be made if the UMD community was going to ever move forward,” Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.) said. “President Loh was the only leader who had the moral fortitude to accept responsibility for Jordan McNair’s death, and I believe he will continue to act boldly and guide the Athletic Department to a safer, more sustainable future that students, student-athletes, and the University of Maryland family can be proud of.”
Roman Stubbs, Emily Giambalvo, Susan Svrluga, Erin Cox, Ovetta Wiggins and Keith L. Alexander contributed.