DJ Durkin is no longer the football coach at Maryland, so who knows where he will be when his former players host the Buckeyes on senior day at Maryland Stadium? In two years as a head coach, both with the Terrapins, his record was 10-15. That’s a .400 winning percentage. Win that percentage of your games over a long enough time, and you’re dime-a-dozen expendable. Flip through the catalogue and find someone else.
One of those coaches can step on land mines — even some of his own creation — and still keep his job, and one can’t. No two programs nationally have endured more tumultuous 2018 seasons than Maryland and Ohio State. But if we’re honest, we know this much is true: If DJ Durkin had been 79-9, he would be coaching Maryland against Ohio State this weekend. If Urban Meyer were 10-15, he would be watching from home while trying to spruce up his résumé.
The fates of the coaches in each place cut to an obvious but undeniable truism in big-time college athletics: Winning is more important than the culture you create for your kids or the quality of the men you hire to coach them. Winning is a mask and a deodorant. Winning is the ultimate survival aid, the life preserver coaches who have committed egregious errors can cling to.
If you win, you can harbor a domestic abuser on your staff and lie publicly about it. That’s what Meyer did over the summer. For the record, he says he “made a mistake” and didn’t lie, but he’s splitting hairs, and he knows it. On July 24, he told reporters at Big Ten media days that there was “nothing” to a report about a 2015 domestic violence allegation against Buckeyes receivers coach Zach Smith, whom Meyer had fired the day before.
There’s wasn’t “nothing” there.
“I don’t know who creates a story like that,” Meyer said, condescendingly, trying to dismiss the report on a technicality when he was aware that Smith’s ex-wife had reported years of abuse to police in suburban Columbus — reports that did not lead to Smith’s arrest but did exist. It’s not nothing.
In August, Ohio State trustees met for 10 hours while deciding, ultimately, that Meyer should be suspended for three games. Hanging over that entire meeting: Guys, he’s winning 90 percent of his games here.
Domestic violence is as serious an issue as a coach, who is supposed to be a role model for his players, can confront. Unless, of course, a player dies on a coach’s watch. That, of course, was Durkin’s situation.
Durkin’s first job in coaching was as a graduate assistant on Meyer’s staff at Bowling Green in 2001. He worked for Meyer again in 2010 at Florida. He had to learn something from him, right?
When Durkin got his head coaching chance at Maryland, he found himself in Meyer’s division in the Big Ten. In trying to chase Meyer the coach and Ohio State the program, Durkin worked to create a culture that blindly pushed players past what they were capable of. In that culture, Jordan McNair died.
In October, when the University of Maryland System Board of Regents evaluated a report it had ordered about that culture, it initially — and ridiculously — reinstated Durkin. Do you remember those 24 hours, spanning Oct. 30-31, before Wallace D. Loh, the president of the flagship College Park campus, dismissed Durkin? One thing I heard over and over during that day: They’re going to fight to keep this guy?
Translation: He’s 10-15. Interim coach Matt Canada, at that point, had the Terps at 5-3. Is DJ Durkin worth defending?
For the foreseeable future, Maryland’s program is wounded by McNair’s death and the revelations about Durkin’s operation that followed. That seems inescapable, not just for Canada and the kids he’s trying to lead but for whoever is hired for the job permanently. It will take time, lots of time, and a whole new cast of characters to get the Terrapins beyond the fact that a kid collapsed during a workout, wasn’t properly helped and died a preventable death. It’s still sad and staggering to comprehend.
But at Ohio State, the biggest issue is . . . what? Depth along the offensive line? Quarterback Dwayne Haskins’s return to Maryland, where he attended Bullis in Potomac? Discontent among a fan base with the highest expectations about a 9-1 record and next week’s Armageddon game against rival Michigan? Yeah, sure, there’s the recent swirl about an unsubstantiated report about sketchy circumstances surrounding Smith and a former Buckeye’s transfer to Florida. But for the most part, since Meyer returned to coach in September, it has been football.
“I’m concerned about everything,” Meyer said this week. “That’s my job.”
Consider, though, why Meyer even has that job. The controversies that enveloped Maryland and Ohio State this season sprang from wholly different circumstances, and at some level, it’s unfair to compare them. What’s not unfair to conclude: Winning makes loose morals and truth-bending permissible. Losing simply makes justice more convenient.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistated Durkin’s record. Durkin’s record at Maryland is 10-15 and his overall record is 11-15, including a win as interim head coach at Florida.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.