So The Season That Doesn’t Matter commences. Problem is, it does matter. To respect McNair, we will try to keep college football in perspective. To continue the appropriate scrutiny of what went wrong, we will refuse to let the games interfere with probing and punishing everyone found to be responsible for the player’s death. Still, there’s still a feeling of emptiness that won’t subside.
This will be strange and polarizing and emotional. DJ Durkin, the bright 40-year-old coach who was methodically building a promising program, is away from the team, on leave while his team is under investigation. A year ago, Durkin was about to lead Maryland to a 51-41 upset of Texas in Austin. Now, with the Longhorns coming to FedEx Field on Saturday for a return game, Matt Canada, the new offensive coordinator, is the interim head coach. And he’s alternating between expressing the players’ excitement to compete in a big game and acknowledging their grief is “never going to go away, and we’re not asking it to go away.”
You feel for these players, competing with so much emotional conflict and attempting to provide a few moments of joy and distraction. For as much reason as there is to minimize the importance of this season, the players also deserve ample support and attention as they attempt to heal in public, with a scoreboard looming overhead. In that spirit, perhaps Saturdays can turn into a refuge this fall.
It’s a nice thought but now for the complication: The results could be ugly. For all Durkin has done to improve the program, you’re still talking about a situation in which the Terrapins are fighting to finish better than fifth in the East Division of the Big Ten Conference. The usual big dogs — Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan — are all ranked in the top 15. It again feels as if the Terrapins have four conference losses before the season even starts. During his first two seasons, Durkin had inspired hope in the unexpected — the upset at Texas last season, a road victory over Central Florida and a win over a battered and slumping Michigan State squad in 2016 — but he’s out of the picture indefinitely. If the investigation makes the university conclude he should be dismissed, the program will be in complete disarray.
If Durkin is found to be negligent or directly responsible in the creation of a dangerous and reckless training culture, as an ESPN report first suggested, then the only proper decision will be to fire him. But while we’re already forecasting and expressing strong opinions, Maryland must make its judgment based on the most comprehensive information. It matters most that the school does what’s right, what’s truly right, regardless of public and media reaction, regardless of extenuating factors such as the possible short-term decimation of the program.
Practical matters complicate these decisions, however. Athletic Director Damon Evans inherited a department with a money problem. It could be compounded if Durkin is fired or forced to resign after a contract buyout agreement. And what kind of coach would Maryland seek to replace him? Most schools would want a sitting head coach or at least one with experience in the top job, not another up-and-coming assistant, after this situation. But can the Terrapins afford to poach such a coach?
If the results of this football season are particularly bad, that affects the department’s bottom line, too. A lost season and no momentum for the revenue-generating football program? Complete football irrelevance in the mighty Big Ten? It trickles down to all the nonrevenue sports that need a boost from football and men’s basketball. Once the mind wanders deep into the collateral damage of this tragedy, it takes you to some vexing places.
For now, it’s best to focus on the simple, distressing fact: McNair died of complications resulting from heatstroke during a team workout. And filing it under “sadly, one of those things that happens” isn’t a satisfying conclusion. The university apologized publicly to the McNair family and accepted “legal and moral responsibility for the mistakes that our training staff made on the fateful workout day of May 29,” university President Wallace D. Loh said two weeks ago. Loh and Evans seem resigned to the fact that those “mistakes” will cost the university significant money — millions, probably — if the McNair family follows through on its desire to sue Maryland.
It’s unacceptable to conclude only that “mistakes” killed McNair. Life is too important, and money won’t bring him back. For its investigation to have any credibility, Maryland must uncover a deeper truth, and once it reaches that point, the blame probably will go beyond the team’s strength and conditioning coach, Rick Court, who resigned recently.
Welcome to the 2018 college football season, Maryland. It’s heavy. Durkin is gone, for now. McNair is gone forever. But here comes Texas, and if there’s not enough red, white, black and gold at FedEx Field on Saturday, the color of burnt orange will overwhelm the stadium. Of course, the Season That Doesn’t Matter would begin with a game that usually would carry the utmost significance.
It feels like a season that will force you to turn away frequently. It feels like a season in which temporary excitement will be followed by long sighs. It feels like a season in which the fate of Durkin and other consequences soon will interrupt the action.
And there’s only one proper response to all the depressing possibilities: So be it. Football can go on, but McNair’s death cannot be in vain.