BALTIMORE — As the stunning news conference that announced the reinstatement of Maryland football Coach DJ Durkin began in downtown Baltimore on Tuesday afternoon, Durkin himself was 30 miles away on campus in College Park, preparing to return to work after 80 days on administrative leave. He arrived at the front of the Gossett Team House on a golf cart with a group of people at 3:30 p.m., walking into the facility while ignoring a reporter who shouted after him to comment.
That afternoon, Durkin addressed his team for the first time since he was placed on leave Aug. 11 in the aftermath of offensive lineman Jordan McNair’s death in June and as part of an investigation into the culture of his program.
According to multiple people with knowledge of the situation, three players walked out of the meeting Tuesday, underscoring the deep uncertainty that Durkin’s return will bring. Some players and staff members were stunned by Durkin’s return, and some program insiders wondered how he would regain his footing as the program’s leader and continue to recruit prospective players in the wake of McNair’s death and allegations of abuse.
“The guy has lost all his power. Nobody respects the guy. I think that’s going to be Durkin’s greatest challenge, is reestablishing himself as a leader,” said a person close to the team.
Nonetheless, Athletic Director Damon Evans released a statement Tuesday evening that read: “DJ Durkin is our head football coach and has all the customary responsibilities along with it. Coach Durkin is focused on ensuring that there is a smooth transition and his priority is the well-being of our student-athletes.”
A spokesman for the athletic department confirmed that Durkin would be on the sideline for Maryland’s next game, Saturday at home against Michigan State. Durkin posted a 10-15 record in his two seasons in College Park but has not been around the team since summer workouts. The team has a 5-3 record under interim head coach Matt Canada.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to rejoin the team and very much appreciate having the support of the Board of Regents,” Durkin said in a statement. “Our thoughts have and will continue to be with Jordan’s family. I am proud that the team has remained united and represented themselves and the University well during this difficult time. As we move forward, I am confident that our team will successfully represent the entire University in a positive way both on and off the field.”
After James T. Brady, chair of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, announced Durkin would retain his job, Hassan Murphy, the McNair family’s attorney, held a brief news conference alongside McNair’s parents.
Marty McNair, Jordan’s father, said he felt as though he had been “punched in the stomach and somebody spit in my face.”
When Marty McNair and Tonya Wilson, Jordan’s mother, appeared on “Good Morning America” in August, McNair’s father said Durkin “shouldn’t be able to work with anybody else’s kid.”
“I miss my son every day, and today, it just didn’t help,” McNair’s mother said Tuesday evening. “It didn’t help at all.”
Murphy called the reinstatement of Durkin callous and indefensible. “How can a student-athlete be called a p---- as he is in the early stages of death, dying before their eyes with no action taken and yet no one be held accountable?” Murphy said.
It was not immediately clear which players walked out of the team meeting. Some voiced anger on Twitter at the decision to reinstate Durkin.
“Every Saturday my teammates and I have to kneel before the memorial of our fallen teammate. Yet a group of people do not have the courage to hold anyone accountable for his death,” wrote offensive lineman Ellis McKennie, who was also a high school teammate of McNair’s at McDonogh outside Baltimore. “If only they could have the courage that Jordan had. It’s never the wrong time to do what’s right.”
Later Tuesday, the Maryland Student Government Association said on Facebook that it was “outraged with the decisions made by the Board of Regents” regarding the football program and announced plans to stage an on-campus rally Thursday.
Players began to filter off the field at around 6:15 p.m., as it was starting to grow darker and the field lights shone bright.
“What are you writing on that paper, ma’am,” one shouted at a reporter who watched the scene. “I want to know. You’ve got to leave. You can’t be around here. . . . You’ve got stop asking me and my teammates questions. We’re not answering any more.”
Over the previous 10 weeks, the regents took into consideration the results of two outside probes, both of which painted a troubling picture of Durkin’s football program. The first was focused on the events surrounding the death of McNair. The 19-year-old suffered from exertional heatstroke at a May 29 team workout and died 15 days later. That report was presented to the board of regents Sept. 21 and outlined mistakes made by Maryland staffers, noting that the school’s athletic trainers failed to properly diagnose or treat McNair.
The second report stemmed from allegations of abuse and bullying, initially logged in an Aug. 10 ESPN report. The next day, Loh announced an external review that would focus on the culture of the football program and named three members to a commission. The board of regents assumed oversight of the probe days later and expanded the commission to include eight people.
That group spent the next eight weeks interviewing past and present players, parents and school employees and shared its findings with the regents at the board’s regularly scheduled meeting this past Friday. According to the report, the investigators did not find the culture of the program to be “toxic,” though it did identify several incidences of abusive or bullying behavior and faulted Durkin for failing to rein in Rick Court, the strength and conditioning coach who resigned in August.
“If the culture had been ‘malicious or harmful,’ Mr. Durkin would not have earned the loyalty and respect of many of his student-athletes and coaches,” the report stated. “Many players interviewed by the Commission felt Mr. Durkin’s and Mr. Court’s coaching tactics reflected those of a ‘big-time football program.’”
The investigators wrote that they “believe his concern for his players’ welfare is genuine,” but noted that both players and coaches were hesitant to voice concerns to Durkin, fearing “retribution or dismissal of their concerns.”
“Mr. Durkin advertised an ‘open door’ policy, but many players and assistants felt this did not extend to those whose opinions did not align with Mr. Durkin’s,” the commission wrote.
Upon the conclusion of the independent commission’s investigation that examined the football program’s culture, McNair’s father said he thought the board of regents “would do the right thing.”
Murphy, the McNair’s attorney, said both Durkin and Court failed in their duty to protect the athletes.
“As of today,” Murphy said, “the only person who has paid for those failures is Jordan McNair.”
Murphy said University President Wallace D. Loh, who announced Tuesday that he will retire in June 2019, “remains the only person thus far in this process who has accepted moral and legal responsibility and has spoken from his heart about what happened.” Murphy said Loh’s position was “taken from him.”
There are also lingering questions about how Durkin and Evans will coexist. While Evans told investigators that he visited the football program and its staff at least once a week, Durkin insisted that contact was sporadic and that no regular oversight of his program existed. Evans showed up for practice Tuesday. When he was asked to comment, he simply replied: “Not right now. I’m going to go check out our team.”
Larimer reported from College Park.