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Maryland needed massive public backlash to do the right thing and fire DJ Durkin

Maryland’s initial decision to reinstate Durkin was absurd even by the warped standards college football has set. It took lots of pressure for the university to do the right thing.

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Maryland v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

After that — after all of that — DJ Durkin’s been fired as Maryland’s head football coach.

Four months after the death of a player following a team workout, 81 days after Durkin’s suspension due to an explosive report about the “toxic” culture inside his program, six days after Maryland unveiled a 192-page investigative report describing that culture as one of fear, and one day after shockingly reinstating him and igniting a public backlash, the university announced Wednesday that it had fired Durkin in the end.

University president Wallace Loh said it was his decision. Maryland’s board of regents had made the call to keep Durkin in the first place.

It’s the right decision. It’s stunning that Maryland arrived at such a wrong decision only one day earlier, when it wanted to keep Durkin.

Offensive lineman Jordan McNair is dead at 19, and the university has accepted that staff members in Durkin’s program contributed to his death. (Maryland’s board of regents justified Durkin’s return Tuesday by saying his program’s culture didn’t have a direct link to McNair’s death. You can read the report and make your own determination.)

The school was set to turn over more players to Durkin’s care, apparently under the impression that such an idea will work. But it could not possibly work. It could not possibly be anything but a stain. Pretty much everyone who paid attention to this story saw that, except for the people in power who thought Durkin should come back.

It seems they reconsidered after people from all over, players on the team, and political leaders from across Maryland — punctuated by Gov. Larry Hogan late Wednesday afternoon — said they should.

Maryland had an easy out all along. Even in the distorted world, where winning at all costs is the priority, Durkin wasn’t worth going to bat for.

Universities are willing to do nearly anything in the service of winning games. That’s been proved at Penn State and Baylor and so many other places. It’s a commentary on how warped the climate around this sport is that it makes sense when universities hand out passes to the people who play starring roles in horrible scandals.

When Ohio State investigators found Urban Meyer could have done more to deal with an assistant accused of serial domestic abuse, the Buckeyes suspended him. They didn’t fire him, despite a contract clause that might have given them a cheap way out. It made the ugliest kind of sense. Meyer is a future Hall of Famer. Ohio State wanted to keep winning.

Durkin, though, was 10-15 overall and 5-13 in the Big Ten during his two non-suspended seasons at Maryland. His best year was his first year, which ended with a loss to Boston College in the Quick Lane Bowl. In six games against the East division’s OSU, Michigan, and Penn State, Durkin’s teams were 0-6 and have got outscored 322-47.

While Durkin was suspended, Maryland went 5-3 under interim coach Matt Canada. Before the season, S&P+ projected Maryland to be the country’s No. 71 team, but they are up to 54th, with an 86 percent chance to make a bowl game.

Durkin’s buyout is not big by this sport’s standards. Firing him will cost a little more than $5 million, if the university doesn’t try to cut him loose for cause. Maryland has budgetary problems, but it was always weird to think the school couldn’t figure that out.

Given all that — and even before we get to the horrible things we now know about Durkn’s program — why was he ever close to coming back?

Two powerful groups — regents and boosters — bought in.

He’s easy to buy into. I know this because I did, too. When Durkin arrived at Maryland at the end of 2015, he was impressive. I sat in his office, interviewed him, and came away thinking that if anyone would ever make the team respectable, it’d be him. He conveyed a brand of friendly seriousness that seemed like it could appeal to anyone.

This was a broadly shared feeling among Maryland fans, boosters, and media members. The program had just spent a half-decade being an embarrassment under Randy Edsall, who could neither coach nor interview well. Recruits shared the feeling, too, and Durkin’s first two classes took Maryland to recruiting heights it had never reached before.

Durkin also satisfied Maryland’s board of regents, the people who ultimately decided his fate. Board chairman James Brady said Durkin was “incredibly forthright” during an interview with the board and added: “We believe he’s a good man and a good coach.”

NCAA Football: Indiana at Maryland
Maryland’s DJ Durkin was reinstated as head football coach after a board of regents recommendation.
Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

While Durkin refrained from public statements, every indication is that he was steadfast all along that he didn’t deserve to go anywhere. It helped him that a loud camp of Maryland boosters had supported him all along. One blamed McNair for his own death, telling The Diamondback, the campus newspaper, that the teenager should’ve hydrated better before dying of heatstroke. Another booster called players who didn’t support Durkin “so-called athletes” who were “looking for participation trophies.”

So Maryland was prepared to stick with Durkin because the powerful people were (and maybe still are, in private) behind him. The regents said Tuesday he was “committed to ensuring the proper reforms,” but it was not not clear why Maryland wouldn’t want to find someone whose program didn’t help kill a player to guide those reforms.

The investigative report Maryland commissioned found that Durkin’s program had “a culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out.”

The commission found “many occasions” where strength coach Rick Court, Durkin’s first and one of his most prized hires, “engaged in abusive conduct during his tenure at Maryland.” That included allegations that he made homophobic taunts of players, tried to choke a player during a lat pulldown workout, and once threw a trash can with a player’s vomit in it across a room. One interviewee said Durkin and Court were “the same person.”

The report lacked examples of Durkin himself engaging in clear abuse. It found his players are less happy than those at peer programs, and it piled up evidence he’s mistreated players he doesn’t consider stars. The regents chalked up these failures to something Durkin shared with the whole athletic department and university, and they also sought to absolve him by saying they never trained him right to be a head coach.

“We didn’t provide all of the training, all of the insights that a new head coach should be aware of,” Brady said, noting that the former defensive coordinator had a lot on his plate.

The damage to Maryland’s reputation might already be done. But it was going to pay a price for keeping Durkin, both in recruiting and reputation.

Durkin’s reputation among his own players and their parents is certainly mixed. Several reports said a group of players walked out of a meeting with him on Wednesday. The parent of one player called Durkin a “narcissistic sociopath.” All of that’s on top of McNair’s father, Martin, who said Durkin “shouldn’t be allowed to coach anyone else’s kid.”

Maryland’s recruiting would have suffered had Durkin stayed. Every program the Terps compete with for players would justifiably have warned families that Durkin’s program didn’t care about their kids’ wellbeing. He couldn’t have been as effective on the trail as he once was, which would’ve led to a lot more of something Durkin was already doing: losing.

And that’s what made the initial decision so weird, even if you were a cynic who accepted that college football teams would sacrifice doing the right thing for winning games.

Though it’s done right now, Maryland succeeded in making itself an embarrassment — both nationally and among its younger alums.

I’m one of those alums. The move to keep Durkin was not popular among my peers.

“I’m ill this is a joke,” one friend from my class texted before Brady was even off the podium announcing Durkin’s reinstatement.

“So utterly embarrassed to be an alumnus of the University of Maryland right now,” a Maryland friend wrote around the same time.

“Every large school has bad people in power but it’s still striking to see it openly revealed to the world,” another said.

The school’s younger alumni and current students have been less inclined to explain away complaints about player abuse (and, again, a player’s death) than the boosters who’ve chosen to blame players and stand with Durkin. The initial decision to keep Durkin might not have sunk this younger group’s interest in the team, but that’s only because there’s so little in the first place. Absent a fuller house-cleaning, there still won’t be much.

If Durkin is the special coach Maryland’s most powerful decision-makers seem to think he is, maybe he would have made the team better. Maryland might have finished fifth in the Big Ten East instead of sixth. Maybe he would’ve gotten to third place and an Outback Bowl some year.

Whether any of those dreams came true or not, the state’s flagship university picked a weird reason to leave the public’s faith in it in tatters. It apparently didn’t realize how wrong it was until the public spent a whole day telling it.

This post was initially published Wednesday morning. It’s been updated to reflect developments around Durkin’s firing.