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Maryland regents stick with football coach DJ Durkin over president’s recommendation

DJ Durkin will remain as the University of Maryland's football coach following an investigation into allegations of a toxic culture at the football program. (Video: WUSA9)

The University System of Maryland Board of Regents sided with the football coach over the president of its College Park campus Tuesday, bringing a contentious resolution to a controversy that has roiled the school for months.

By the end of Tuesday, Maryland Coach DJ Durkin was back in his College Park office, and Wallace D. Loh, who has led the campus for the past eight years, was pointed toward retirement.

After a tumultuous four months that began with the June death of a 19-year-old football player and grew more unseemly with accusations of abuse and bullying in the football program, Loh stands as the most high-profile casualty. At a meeting with the regents Friday in Baltimore, Loh recommended to the board that the school part ways with Durkin. Shortly thereafter, Durkin made his case of why he should retain his job to the same group.

In the end, the regents presented Loh with an ultimatum of sorts: If he wanted to finish the school year and reach the end of his contract, he had to keep Durkin.

Barry Svrluga: Maryland ought to be ashamed

“It was made clear that if he wanted to remain in his position, he had no option,” said a person close to the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “He ultimately felt it would’ve been tremendously disruptive to the entire campus if he was to be terminated simply because he wouldn’t put the coach back on the field.”

So Loh, 73, capitulated but then announced his intention to retire at the end of June.

The fallout from the regents’ recommendations will unfold on two fronts: a football team that must now try to embrace the return of a controversial head coach eight games into its season, and a campus community unsure of what the future might hold.

University of Maryland president said Aug. 14 that the school accepts "legal and moral responsibility" for the decisions made by its athletic training staff. (Video: Reuters)

“It’s just astounding that the university president will be gone and the coaches are still on the sidelines. . . . It seems upside-down,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), the vice chairman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

Durkin, who has been on administrative leave since Aug. 11, rejoined the team Tuesday afternoon and will be back on the sideline for the Terrapins’ game Saturday against Michigan State, according to an athletic department spokesman. Multiple people close to the football program said several players walked out of Durkin’s first meeting with the team Tuesday.

A week before Election Day, the board’s action quickly became an issue in the governor’s race Tuesday with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous calling on Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who appointed the majority of the board, to “step in and call on [the board] to fire [Athletic Director Damon] Evans and Durkin. It is not enough for the leader of our state to simply shift blame and throw his hands up, yet ultimately do nothing.”

Hogan said he was not part of the board’s decision-making process and seemed to acknowledge that the board’s actions would not please everyone, saying, “many will understandably question whether enough has been done to address the serious concerns that exist among many in the College Park community — I am one of them.”

The 17 regents are politically appointed. Four were appointed by former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), and the rest were appointed by Hogan.

Report on Maryland football culture cites problems but stops short of ‘toxic’ label

Several state lawmakers were surprised and outraged over Loh’s impending departure.

“Simply awful. Football shouldn’t take precedence over academics,” said Del. Erek L. Barron, (D-Prince George’s), who played football for Maryland. “Football shouldn’t be driving a decision that affects an entire university.”

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) praised Loh for promoting academics, improving the donor base leading to the construction of several new buildings on campus and “doing a better job of relating with the town than any other president that I can remember.”

“He leaves a good legacy,” Miller said. “His legacy in sports is challenged.”

In making their decision, the regents took into consideration the results of two outside probes, both of which painted a checkered picture of Durkin’s program. The first was focused on the events surrounding the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair, who suffered 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.

Read the full Maryland football program culture report

The second report stemmed from allegations of abuse and bullying, initially voiced in an Aug. 10 ESPN story. The next day Loh announced an external review by a three-member commission that would focus on the culture of the football program. Days later, the board of regents assumed oversight of the probe and expanded the commission to include eight people, including retired federal judges Alex Williams and Ben Legg; former Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich; former NFL quarterback Doug Williams, now an executive with the Washington Redskins; and Tom McMillen, a former Maryland basketball star who served two terms in Congress.

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. Investigators did not find the culture of the program to be “toxic,” though it did identify several incidents of abusive or bullying behavior and faulted Durkin for failing to rein in Rick Court, the team’s strength and conditioning coach whom players accused of multiple instances of abusive and bullying behavior.

After receiving the report Oct. 19, the regents debated their options. Some had been pushing to part ways with Durkin, Evans and Loh, while other factions were in favor of retaining just the president. Still others felt strongly that all three should be allowed to remain in their current roles.

As the days passed, some of the regents shifted loyalties. In the early days, Durkin lacked the support that he apparently had as the board neared a final decision.

Perhaps the biggest turning point came Friday when the board held its fourth meeting on the matter. Loh had requested time to speak to the board. Out of fairness, the regents also extended an offer to Durkin to come before the full board for an in-person discussion.

According to three people familiar with the meeting, Durkin impressed the regents, and many were persuaded that he deserved to remain in his post.

“Our meeting with DJ Durkin was very instructive,” board chair James T. Brady said Tuesday. “His passion for the university, for the football team and for the players was absolutely impressive and very believable.”

Durkin returns to Maryland football team, and three players walk out of his first meeting

Loh met separately with the same group before Durkin arrived. He made a forceful, unwavering argument that the university needed to move on and find another football coach, according to one person familiar with the meeting. That person said Loh did not blame the culture in the program and did not connect Durkin’s actions directly with McNair’s death but did say that too much had transpired in these two months for Durkin to lead the program effectively, citing potential tumult in the locker room and challenges the staff would face in recruiting. Another person familiar with the discussions said Loh raised pointed concerns but did not advocate for the coach’s termination.

Multiple people close to the situation said it was made clear to Loh that if he didn’t follow the board’s instructions, he’d be replaced immediately by another administrator that would carry out its recommendations.

The university system comprises 12 public colleges and institutions, but the board of regents is not authorized to make any personnel decisions on each campus. The president’s position is the lone exception. The board effectively needed Loh to agree to its wishes on Durkin and Evans.

Loh had been the subject of mounting speculation, and many people close to the program criticized his decision to publicly accept “legal and moral responsibility” for the mistakes that led to McNair’s death.

“Today, I stand by that statement 100 percent,” Loh told reporters Tuesday. “And I will do everything possible to fulfill that responsibility.”

Hassan Murphy, the McNair family’s attorney, said Loh “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.”

“If the university will not do right by Jordan, we promise to explore every possible avenue that will,” Murphy added.

As news of the regents’ recommendations received initial backlash Tuesday afternoon, Brady defended a process that effectively left all the principals in place.

“I think it’s totally inaccurate to say that nothing has happened,” Brady said. “In fact, the recommendations being put in place are not common on all college campuses for football programs. They are very much state-of-the-art, best practices.”

And of the suggestion that the board has prioritized athletics over academics, Brady bristled.

“Absolutely untrue,” he said. “Academics are the primary thing that exists at College Park. That is why it exists. Athletics support the academic mission, and that will always be where we go first. I can’t control how people view all of these things. But I can tell you without equivocation, the idea that academics is not first and foremost at the University of Maryland is absolutely and unequivocally wrong.”

During his tenure, Loh appreciated the perils and marketing opportunities of intercollegiate sports. He often referred to athletics as “the front porch” of the university, something that people would recognize in watching college football or basketball on television. “It is not the most important part of the house,” he said in 2014, “but it is the most visible.”

But Loh also knew that big-time sports could produce big-time risks. He made that clear in 2017 in remarks to the University Senate, a group that represents faculty and others. Someone asked Loh how he could be sure that Maryland was “protected from the corrupting influence of athletics,” according to a report in the Diamondback student newspaper.

“As president, I sit over a number of dormant volcanoes,” Loh replied. “One of them is an athletic scandal. It blows up — it blows up the university, its reputation. It blows up the president.”

Ovetta Wiggins, Nick Anderson, Susan Svrluga, Sarah Larimer, Emily Giambalvo and Roman Stubbs contributed to this report.