As the Maryland athletic department he oversees was careening out of control and seemingly besieged from all sides, Damon Evans stood at a lectern to apologize to the family of a football player who died under his watch, admitting the school had made major mistakes that contributed to the 19-year-old’s death. Then he told the assembled cameras and recorders, “I believe that I’m the one that can lead us through these very difficult times.”
Two weeks later, Evans still feels that way, even as others say he failed to steer the football program clear of its current predicament, which includes two external investigations and a head coach who is on administrative leave.
“There are a lot of different facets to leadership,” Evans said in an interview this week. “I’m one that looks to solutions, to issues that are at hand, and good leaders learn from things that transpire and look to improve the environment in which they are in. That’s what I do.”
Evans, 48, has overseen the football program since 2014, preceding Coach DJ Durkin in College Park by a year. He was No. 2 in the athletic department when abuse within the football program allegedly took place and interim athletic director in May when offensive lineman Jordan McNair collapsed at practice because of exertional heatstroke. He was named permanently to the post just 12 days after McNair died in a hospital June 13.
The school is still reeling from McNair’s death and ensuing media reports that Durkin and Rick Court, his strength and conditioning coach, fostered a culture ruled by fear and intimidation. Durkin is one of three people on administrative leave, and Court resigned. Evans’s fate is uncertain, and many influential boosters think more upheaval is likely.
ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt, a prominent alumnus, said, “The fallout may be an entire reset of the culture across the university,” and Boomer Esiason, one of the most accomplished players to wear a Maryland football uniform, last week said that Evans and university President Wallace D. Loh have shown a “shameful lack of leadership,” adding that neither deserved to remain in his job.
Esiason said in an interview Tuesday that he is “disgusted” with what has transpired in College Park.
“They’ve lost management of everything,” said the former NFL quarterback, who now serves as a talk radio host and analyst for CBS. “It’s a big-picture issue. The athletic department has been mismanaged for many years.”
Loh said in a recent telephone interview that he stands by his appointment of Evans. Both men could see their positions scrutinized by an eight-person panel that is charged with investigating the culture surrounding the football program. Evans said Tuesday he had not been interviewed by the panel but expected that he will be called before the commission soon.
Some people close to the program have urged caution, hopeful that the investigation into the football program’s culture will find initial media reports to have been overblown and ultimately clear stakeholders such as Evans.
“I hope people will accept that with the same zeal that they’re accepting the other information that’s out there,” said Marcos Bronfman, president of the Terrapin Club and a member of the alumni association’s board of governors.
Evans repeated Tuesday that he had never heard the accusations of abuse detailed in an ESPN report and said he was responsive when other issues within the program were brought to his attention.
“And I responded to those in a thorough manner and handled those appropriately because that’s the right thing to do when anything is brought to my attention,” he said. “And that’s trying to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s happening within our program.”
Since arriving in College Park nearly four years ago, Evans was the athletic department’s primary point person for the football program, including its coaches, players and support staff. He also served as the department’s chief financial officer. Last summer, Evans flagged for school administration a questionable decision by the athletic department to hire an out-of-town attorney to represent two football players accused of sexual assault. The school since has said that Kevin Anderson, the athletic director at the time, used “a serious lack of judgment” in using school funds for that purpose. Anderson was placed on sabbatical last October, and Evans took over on an interim basis.
Asked about his role in the incident, Evans said he was not circumventing his boss.
“When payments for invoices need to be made, they typically would go through me, and that’s when I was first made aware of it,” he said. “When we are making those types of payments, there are a set of protocols that you go through to make those payments. I was going through proper protocol to notify the university — the president’s office — of what we were doing and how we were moving forward. So following protocols, as I would typically do, that’s what I did in that case.”
Anderson formally resigned in April, reaching an undisclosed financial settlement with the school. Maryland paid $120,000 for an outside firm to conduct a national search for his replacement. Many people familiar with the process say that Loh was set on Evans from the start, even as many boosters threw their support behind Patrick Kraft, the athletic director at Temple.
Evans was named permanently to the post June 25, less than two weeks after McNair died. On Aug. 14, Evans and Loh met with McNair’s family in Baltimore to apologize for the university’s actions.
“Obviously the last couple of weeks have been difficult times for us. But my job is to stay focused on our student-athletes and our staff, and that’s what I’m going to do,” Evans said.
He said the department has ramped up communication with parents and athletes. The football program has stationed more athletic trainers and doctors at football practices, adding cooling stations and more breaks. Perhaps most notably, last week the athletic department launched an online portal called Terps Feedback, which allows athletes to share concerns or report issues anonymously.
He said he anticipates further changes based on the recommendations from Walters Inc., the athletic training consulting outfit that is investigating the circumstances surrounding McNair’s death.
“We had to do what was appropriate. I had to do what was appropriate,” Evans said this week. “And mistakes were made. Mistakes were made in the medical and training fields, and we needed to make sure that we took the appropriate steps once we received those findings. We acted quickly and made a decision.”
Others have said the university at no point acted quickly — “What I will never grasp is why it took two months to say as much,” Van Pelt said on his “SportsCenter” program Saturday — and have questioned whether the football program, the athletic department and the greater university can emerge from this dark cloud with the same leaders in place.
Evans has faced scrutiny before. When Georgia promoted him in 2004, he became the first black athletic director in Southeastern Conference history. He resigned four days after his DUI arrest in 2010, casting uncertainty on his future in college sports.
He spent four years out of college sports before Anderson hired him in November 2014. Multiple people within the department said that in short order Evans began positioning himself to succeed Anderson someday, working quietly to curry favor both inside and out of the athletic department.
“From my perspective, I thought once Kevin left, I thought Damon was the perfect person for the job, given his experience, his time at Maryland and his skill set,” Bronfman said. “I thought that when he was being considered for the job, I thought that when he received the job, and I still feel that way today.”
Before he was hired, though, several influential boosters had concerns about Evans’s ability to lead the department in the wake of McNair’s death and amid swirling rumors about improper relationships with staff. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in June that the school received a formal complaint that triggered a human resources inquiry into allegations that Evans was having a romantic relationship with a subordinate. Evans denied the allegations, and the Chronicle reported that the inquiry found no evidence of wrongdoing.
The exact future for Evans and the department he leads probably won’t be known until the eight-person commission finishes its probe. The University System of Maryland, which is overseeing the investigation, has given no timetable or deadline for the panel.
Evans signed a six-year contract that formally began July 2 and is set to earn $720,000 this year.
“Some of you may say, ‘Well, of course he believes in second chances because he wants one,’ ” Evans said the day he was introduced as Maryland’s new athletic director. “I think everybody deserves a second chance. That’s what makes our country great. You make mistakes, and I call it failing forward. You learn from those mistakes.”
Roman Stubbs and Nick Anderson contributed to this report.