In the week that followed Maryland sidelining DJ Durkin, his football team has continued to practice each day while school administrators sort through the wreckage surrounding the program. And though school officials have shed no light on the coach’s professional fate, those close to the situation and the sport said this week that there may be too many obstacles for Durkin to return to his position.
The Maryland university system’s Board of Regents on Friday asserted control over two investigations charged with determining what role Durkin played in the May 29 team workout that resulted in the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair 15 days later and whether he helped foster a culture that allowed the tragedy to occur. Even if Durkin is cleared of any wrongdoing or culpability, the program’s many stakeholders — fans, alumni, players, parents, administrators — would have much to consider before deciding whether to entrust Durkin with the keys to the program again.
“In my opinion, he has zero chance of being retained as the head coach,” ESPN college football analyst Paul Finebaum said. “. . . How could the university possibly bring him back after already admitting negligence and wrongdoing? It seems to me that it’s a nonstarter. He’s not coming back.”
Perhaps most damning is the opinion of McNair’s parents. The player’s father, Martin McNair, said Thursday on “Good Morning America” that Durkin “shouldn’t be able to work with anybody else’s kid.”
“Right now it looks pretty daunting for DJ, especially with the parents coming out and being as vocal as they are about their son’s death,” said ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who added that he would like to hear more from current and former players to gather further information about Durkin.
Those close to the sport and the program say that welcoming Durkin back into the fold after he was placed on administrative leave Aug. 11 could cause divisions among the fan base, the university community and perhaps even a locker room that is grieving the loss of a teammate.
More than a dozen current players and parents interviewed by The Washington Post have expressed confidence in Durkin and said they believe he has been wrongfully faulted for McNair’s death. They also disputed recent news reports that described the program culture as toxic.
However, a high-level donor said it’s “impossible” that Durkin would return to his position and does not think Athletic Director Damon Evans and university President Wallace D. Loh will remain in their jobs, either. The donor expects to see “major boosters withhold support until Loh and Evans are out of the picture.”
“I think both Maryland and any other prospective school that considers DJ going forward has to, prior to making that decision, needs to put themselves in the shoes of the McNair family . . . and contemplate what that family has gone through before they make a decision,” said the donor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity given the sensitive nature of the situation. “If you do that, there’s no way Maryland brings him back, and other schools need to answer that question for themselves.”
There are multiple ways that Durkin could leave the program, starting with the university terminating him with cause.
The coach’s contract outlines five reasons he could be fired with cause, which means he would not receive any further compensation from the university: immoral or unlawful conduct that is “inconsistent with professional standards of conduct of an intercollegiate head football coach”; repetitive unprofessional or unsportsmanlike behavior; a material act of insubordination or repeated acts of insubordination; failure to substantially fulfill the material duties and obligations outlined in the contract; or the NCAA finding Maryland committed a “major violation” for which Durkin is culpable.
School officials have given no formal timeline as to when a decision might be made about Durkin. The investigation into the workout that led to McNair’s death isn’t expected to be complete until mid-September. The team is scheduled to open its season against Texas on Sept. 1 at FedEx Field.
A second inquiry will probe the troubling football culture that has been outlined in media reports. That probe was initially announced Tuesday by Loh, who said then that “the university accepts legal and moral responsibility for the mistakes that our training staff made” in treating McNair.
It is conceivable that one or both of these investigations could give Maryland a reason to fire Durkin with cause. Any decision to do so ultimately would be made by the athletic director, according to Durkin’s contract.
If Maryland were to fire Durkin without cause, the university would be on the hook for 65 percent of the money of his salary through the end of his contract, which is set to expire Dec. 31, 2021, including base salary and supplemental income. That is roughly $5.8 million. Because Durkin is on paid administrative leave, he is set to make $500,000 on Sept. 1, one-fourth the annual total of supplemental income he’s due for 2018.
There is also a chance Durkin could negotiate a settlement, a path the university took with former assistant Rick Court, who was a focus of an ESPN report that depicted an unhealthy team environment at Maryland. Court resigned as strength and conditioning coach Monday after reaching a settlement for $315,000, two-thirds of what he was due for the remainder of his contract.
Thus far, Court is the only Maryland employee to lose his job, though Durkin is one of three others on leave. Asked specifically about Durkin, Evans said at Tuesday’s news conference, “As additional information comes forward, we will do what’s appropriate.”
“The head coach is responsible for the trainers,” said Gerry DiNardo, a college football analyst for the Big Ten Network and a former college head coach. “The university has made the decision that it was the trainers’ fault. For some reason that we do not know, the university is waiting to gather more information on DJ’s role before they make a decision on him.”
Because of that, DiNardo said he expects the findings of the investigation into McNair’s death to provide clarity to those who are still undecided about their stance on Durkin.
There is little precedent for coaches from high-level programs to survive being suspended or placed on administrative leave. Bobby Petrino was placed on leave and then fired as football coach at Arkansas in 2012 after a motorcycle accident led to revelations that he had intentionally misled the university about an extramarital affair and an unfair hiring. Petrino is now the coach at Louisville.
More recently, Randy Sanders, the football coach at East Tennessee State, was placed on leave in April after slapping a player’s helmet during a practice. He was docked a week’s pay and received a letter of reprimand but returned to his job less than a week later.
Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer is on leave while the university investigates whether protocols were followed after allegations of domestic violence emerged against former assistant Zach Smith.
Maryland’s situation has stark differences from Ohio State’s, Finebaum said, primarily because Maryland has publicly accepted responsibility for McNair’s death. In Durkin’s case, the ESPN analyst said, the administrative leave is probably a precursor to dismissal, but Meyer’s might not be.
On top of that, Meyer has enjoyed enormous on-field success at Ohio State, with a 73-8 record and a national championship in six seasons. Durkin’s record in two years at Maryland is 10-15. The ability to win games, Finebaum said, can play a role in whether a university retains a coach who becomes the center of negative attention.
“But I think the reality is [Durkin’s lack of a winning culture] may not matter because of the dire circumstances here and the epic tragedy,” Finebaum said. “. . . A large number of coaches would have a hard time surviving this particular case.”
Matthew Jacobson, who’s beginning graduate school at Maryland and was part of the school’s official student fan organization the past four years, said the alumni he’s in contact with do not want Durkin to represent the university again.
“A kid died under his watch,” Jacobson said. “It doesn’t matter who was most at fault. The fact that this happened in the first place reflects poorly upon him. . . . I think they’ve really doomed themselves in the court of public opinion.”
Roman Stubbs and Ben Strauss contributed to this report.