Let’s be clear here: The death of Maryland football player Jordan McNair this past June was an unspeakable tragedy. The school’s handling of the aftermath is a complete and utter disaster.
In the end, when all the investigations were complete and all the meetings had been held and all the statements had been released, the final outcome — after more than four months — came down to politics and the importance of winning football games.
The political battle was waged between James T. Brady, the remarkably tone-deaf chairman of the University system’s Board of Regents ,and Wallace T. Loh, the now outgoing College Park president.
The issue of winning football games became apparent, according to several people, after football coach DJ Durkin addressed the regents Friday. Durkin followed Loh and Athletic Director Damon Evans into the regents meeting and, according to a number of people, delivered an impassioned speech worthy of Knute Rockne’s “win one for the Gipper” pep talk.
“He had them ready to break down the door and give body and soul for mighty Maryland,” one person said. “He told them he would win the Big Ten title, he would beat Michigan and Ohio State if they just gave him the chance.”
Regents were apparently impressed with Durkin’s “passion for Maryland,” which is amusing since Durkin will be on the first train out of Dodge if and when a better job comes along. In that sense, he’s like any other coach in any sport.
But his rah-rah, gung-ho speech apparently swung the regents to Brady’s side in his ongoing battle with Loh.
Brady and Loh are avowed enemies, dating from Loh siding with a 2015 student senate resolution to rename Byrd Stadium after stories re-surfaced that Harry C. (Curly) Byrd, the former school president, had been an avowed segregationist.
Brady has never forgiven Loh for recommending the name change — the building is now called, ”Maryland Stadium” — and, as recently as three weeks ago brought it up to Loh again during a meeting between the two.
Brady was also infuriated in August when Loh publicly said that Maryland had to take, “legal and moral responsibility” for McNair’s death. That was the major reason why he and the regents took the investigation out of Loh’s hands and appointed, among others, former Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich to the commission that undertook the investigation into the climate within the football program. Ehrlich initially appointed Brady to the board of regents. He was re-appointed after the election of current governor Larry Hogan.
The 192-page report that was released last week essentially confirmed all the reporting done by ESPN and the Washington Post that painted a grim picture of a coach who had created a program in which players were humiliated, emotionally abused and subjected to insane demands and disgusting punishments, but insisted the atmosphere was not “toxic.”
Toxic is a subjective word. What is toxic to most may not be toxic to a commission stacked by the regents with people who simply didn’t want to use the word publicly. After all the time and money spent, the commission didn’t even make a recommendation to the regents on what action to take with regard to personnel.
The fact that both Evans and Durkin have been retained is an embarrassment to the school — to its students, graduates, faculty, employees, boosters and fans.
There’s a grim old saying used to describe how powerful successful football coaches can be, whether it’s Bear Bryant, Vince Lombardi or Nick Saban: “He could kill a player and still be beloved as long as he wins the next game.”
It’s supposed to be hyperbole. In 2011, when Jerry Sandusky was arrested and charged with multiple counts of sexual abuse committed against young boys, Penn State’s board of trustees needed just four days to fire Joe Paterno, who was as revered in his time as much as anyone who ever coached college football.
To this day, some Penn State supporters insist Paterno was wronged and that taking down the statue built in his honor outside the football stadium was a disgrace. Their argument is largely based on their insistence that Paterno didn’t really know or understand what Sandusky was doing all those years.
The board’s position was simple: He was in charge. If he didn’t know, he should have known.
DJ Durkin was on the field the day Jordan McNair died. Certainly the trainers who were there and didn’t get him ice treatments when he became overheated bear a good deal of responsibility, but Durkin was in charge. He was the guy being paid $2.5 million not just to win games, but to take care of the players he had recruited.
But seemingly to the board of regents, his job is to win games. A player died on his watch, and he’ll be on the sidelines on Saturday. Go get ’em, Coach!
Which is why this is going to go down very badly in the long term for Maryland. Penn State fired Paterno in the wake of a tragedy he was indirectly responsible for; Maryland didn’t fire Durkin in the wake of one he is directly responsible for.
He hired Rick Court, the out-of-control strength coach. He allowed Court to run amok, and he talked about what a key role Court was playing as he built his program. Court’s behavior was not just tolerated by Durkin; it was clearly what he wanted.
Evans also survived in large part because he is a slick politician. According to Maryland sources, he rallied the school’s non-football coaches, to send e-mails to the board singing his praises.
Fine. Evans is clearly bright, but he also supposed to be overseeing the football program during Durkin’s tenure. If the circumstances hadn’t been so tragic, it would have been fall-down funny when Evans introduced himself at an August news conference as “the new athletic director at the University of Maryland,” as if he had just been told about the McNair tragedy that morning.
When all was said and done, Brady won a power struggle with Loh. On Friday, Loh recommended to the regents that Durkin be replaced, not only because of what was in the commission report, but because it would be close to impossible for Durkin to recruit going forward in the wake of all that has happened.
When the regents decided to retain Durkin — and Evans — and told Loh he could not fire either, Loh’s instinct was to resign on the spot. Apparently members of his staff talked him into saying he will “retire” in June, a year earlier than planned.
“They were scared that the board would appoint Brady or Ehrlich as interim president,” one person said. “He understood that was possible, so he agreed to stay.”
There are no heroes in this story. While Brady — who yammered on Tuesday about academics being more important than athletics at Maryland — will no doubt declare himself the victor because Loh will soon be gone, there are no winners.
Maryland has made great strides in recent years academically. The past four months, culminating with this shocking decision by the regents, will stain the university for years.
There’s no way to change the tragedy of McNair’s death. But the board of regents has taken a horrific situation and made it worse. The only thing the regents should get credit for is consistency: They got every single thing wrong.
Every single one.