Finally, someone with the most basic combination of sanity, decency and clearheadedness surfaced Wednesday evening at the University of Maryland. Let’s not overstate the praise of Wallace D. Loh, president of the flagship College Park campus, because his fingers are all over this mess that has stained the school. But in a dizzying 24 hours in which rudimentary logic and the base-level well-being of the student body had been cast aside, at least Loh stepped forward and did what any rational leader would have done long ago: fire football coach DJ Durkin.
That Loh spit in the face of his misguided board of regents — which unfathomably reinstated Durkin on Tuesday — isn’t insignificant, because that very board had essentially strong-armed the College Park president and still has the ability to dismiss him. Only a day earlier, that very board essentially made a condition of Loh’s employment that Durkin return, which was some combination of unconscionable and reckless.
Chaos, though, can occasionally result in clarity. In this case, for those who care about the University of Maryland: Thank God.
Durkin is gone. Exhale and collect yourselves. All is not well. But at least now there is some sort of path forward.
For sure, it’s murky, littered with fallen limbs and treacherous crevices — not to mention Michigan and Ohio State and Penn State on the schedule every year. But a skilled and forceful leader might be able to navigate it — or at least give it a noble shot — if such a scarred school is capable of luring a skilled and forceful leader anymore.
There would not have been any such path had Durkin remained; that much was clear. The stench that resulted from the death of Jordan McNair would have followed him everywhere. It will stick to him now, as he heads out of town, even if Maryland has to pay him the $5.8 million remaining on his contract. He is damaged by this situation, a permanent mark against him. Someone will employ him at some point, and that someone will have to look at himself in the mirror and wonder whether Durkin’s ability to scheme a defensive front is worth the deal with the devil it will take to make the hire. Given that this is college sports, we know he will get a job. There is no longer a bottom here, even when you think it can’t get worse.
But forget Durkin now, as hard as that may be. He’s gone. That’s important. But in preparing to move on — and this is sure to be a long, painful process — it’s also important to remember how Maryland got here.
Maryland is here, of course, because McNair died. The 19-year-old offensive lineman died on Durkin’s watch, died in the environment Durkin created. It’s a small blessing that McNair’s former teammates don’t have to answer questions now about what Durkin’s program is like since his return, about how the coach has changed. That would have been nauseating. It’s a mighty blessing that Durkin won’t stand before us and tell us how he will right his past wrongs. He didn’t deserve the chance, not for a year or a week or a day.
But Maryland is here, too, not solely because Durkin was hired and McNair died. Maryland is here because it long ago lost its way. It lost its way badly.
You can’t draw a line directly from Jordan McNair’s death to Maryland’s decision to leave the ACC for the Big Ten. But they’re not wholly unrelated either. Both are relevant in discussing Maryland’s identity, athletically and otherwise. They matter in considering the conditions at the May workout during which McNair collapsed. And they matter in considering how to move beyond it all.
Work with me here. Considering Maryland is about to open its 100th season of men’s basketball, it’s not terribly long ago that the Terrapins were clearly defined, at least in sports. That identity: Gary Williams walking onto the court in a spotlight, thrusting his fist to the crowd, a hitch in his step and a scowl on his face. God love him, he was Maryland at its underdog and renegade best. That identity: Ralph Friedgen, gathered with his team in a corner of Byrd Stadium, belting out the Maryland “Victory Song” in concert with the student section — a student section that, back then, actually showed up and actually cared.
Those two alums, they didn’t get always get along. But they understood the school. They understood the programs. They understood the limitations but more importantly the possibilities. And they flourished. Maryland was a national champion in basketball and an Orange Bowl participant in football, with three straight 10-win seasons. That was only a decade-and-a-half ago. Scarcely seems possible now.
Loh, along with former athletic director Kevin Anderson, pushed Maryland away from that solid, steady base by yanking the school from the ACC to the Big Ten. This was a money grab, nothing short of it, a move that shoved to the side generations of tradition and history because Jim Delany, the Big Ten commissioner/con-artist, promised more cash. Never mind that the idea of driving through Beltway traffic to see Purdue on a Tuesday night in January was, nebulously, not as attractive as enduring the same commute to see, say, N.C. State. The money mattered, and Loh went for it.
That move put Durkin competing not against Wake Forest and Duke and Virginia and Pittsburgh but instead against Michigan and Ohio State and Penn State. That matters. The environment and the identity shifted. And because of the negligence of Damon Evans — then an administrator overseeing football while apparently shutting his eyes, now incomprehensibly the athletic director — Durkin was allowed to build his big-time program in his big-time division of the Terrapins’ big-time conference however he saw fit. If that meant fostering an environment that routinely humiliated and embarrassed players, well, then, fine. No one was there to tell him to stop.
Maryland’s past, Maryland’s integrity, no longer mattered. What mattered was getting in position to win in the Big Ten, oversight be damned. And what resulted was an athletic department in chaos, rife with infighting and backstabbing and confusion over the most basic reporting structure. Morale was low. Incompetence was high.
James T. Brady, the chair of the regents who embarrassed himself and his organization this week, tried to quietly put the bulk of this on the two ousted characters here — Anderson and Rick Court, the renegade strength and conditioning coach. But the reality is, Durkin created the climate for his program within a dysfunctional athletic department devoid of leadership at the top but also scarred by the misguided mission of moving from the ACC to the Big Ten.
The challenge now is for Maryland to somehow find its way again. Gary’s gone, and Ralph’s not coming back either. Maryland’s identity, even with Durkin mercifully removed, is wrapped up in Durkin’s errors and McNair’s death.
Loh took a step toward remedying that Wednesday night, even if it put his own job in peril. But here’s what Maryland has to offer to any prospective leader: a broken athletic department headed by a woeful leader in Evans, playing in a conference its fan base hasn’t yet embraced against three perennial football powers against which it has almost no chance. It will take an exceptional person who can hire other exceptional people to lead Maryland out of these woods. But right now, given how off-center Maryland is, what sort of exceptional person would choose Maryland?