Maryland wants to be a big, bad football program so badly.
In that respect, the shipwreck of a press conference announcing DJ Durkin’s reinstatement on Tuesday, a day before backtracking and firing him Wednesday, did its job.
The school’s board of regents did everything it could to make sure the responsibility didn’t fall completely onto Durkin’s shoulders when something went horribly wrong, all so it could justify bringing him back after a suspension that lasted eight games.
And something did go horribly wrong on May 29, when offensive lineman Jordan McNair fell ill during a workout. Durkin was in attendance, and McNair wasn’t given potentially life-saving treatment. He later died, with Maryland acknowledging errors by its training staff.
In the aftermath of that incident, Maryland subtly avoided putting serious blame on the man who was in charge of the football program.
And in doing so, the leaders of the university system showed an unwillingness to do what was right: hold someone in power completely to account for a failure in his own program.
To avoid doing that, they leaned on a 192-page, university-commissioned investigative report that painted an ugly picture of the program but didn’t slam the head coach directly.
Only after intense blowback on Tuesday and Wednesday, including from campus groups and Maryland’s governor, did the school do the right thing.
University president Wallace Loh made the ultimate call to fire Durkin.
“The overwhelming majority of stakeholders expressed serious concerns about Coach DJ Durkin returning to the campus,” he said.
Going by Maryland’s rationale before letting Durkin go, the coach wasn’t truly in control of his program by his third season on the job. He hadn’t navigated institutional politics to establish his culture in full, and old inefficiencies still ran rampant. And if those indirectly resulted in the death of one of his players, to these leaders, it wasn’t on Durkin.
Maryland’s investigators pulled out a dictionary to avoid calling the program “toxic” when describing Durkin’s program. That gave the school’s board of regents cover even as the report reached other damning conclusions.
In response to an ESPN report that called the culture of the program “toxic” under Durkin, the investigators who built the Maryland report addressed that claim oddly.
They said Maryland had a culture “where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out.” Yet they stopped short of calling Maryland’s football culture literally toxic. They did so by using a definition — specifically, Merriam-Webster’s — that allowed the investigators some wiggle room:
Toxic means “extremely harsh, malicious, or harmful.” By definition, Maryland’s football culture was not toxic.
“Extremely” is a particularly subjective word in the middle of an already subjective definition. By using the definition they did, they raised the bar of what defines “toxic” above how others might have defined it. For example, Dictionary.com defines “toxic” as “causing unpleasant feelings; harmful or malicious.” The New Oxford American Dictionary returns a definition of “very bad, unpleasant, or harmful.”
Durkin’s culture couldn’t have been malicious, because he earned the loyalty of his players, the report said. Yet it also stated players were fearful to come to him with their concerns if they didn’t align with him. That doesn’t sound harmful?
The school’s investigative commission also used a lack of consensus among Maryland’s players to make clear it didn’t see a link between the culture and McNair’s death:
There was no uniform rejection of Maryland’s coaching staff, and no uniform rejection of the treatment of players, by any of the groups of stakeholders interviewed by this Commission. The lone, clear consistency was that Mr. Court’s level of profanity was often excessive and personal in nature. In light of our conclusion that Maryland’s football culture was not “toxic,” we do not find that the culture caused the tragic death of Jordan McNair.
Around the time McNair collapsed at the workout that led to his death, head football athletic trainer Wes Robinson yelled something to the effect of “drag his ass across the field!” according to multiple players who spoke to another group investigating the circumstances of McNair’s death specifically. That doesn’t sound toxic?
Not assessing the culture as “toxic” matters. The notion of a toxic culture is the thing that got Durkin put on leave in August. It’s the first thing the commission listed out its responsibility to investigate. The conclusion the culture was not toxic was the first thing board of regents chairman James Brady told reporters the board had accepted.
It quickly became a key part of the justification for keeping Durkin. Loh, the university president, used it, too, in describing the initial decision in public.
Loh was one of the leading voices in the room actually trying to fire Durkin. Maryland’s regents didn’t let him at first, and he stood down to keep his job for a few months.
Multiple regents did want Durkin fired, and some were apparently swayed by an in-person meeting with Durkin recently. According to the Washington Post, Durkin got reinstated because of a power struggle between Loh and Durkin loyalists on the board:
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.
“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.”
Loh relented, kept Durkin at the time, and will himself retire in June. He didn’t overrule the regents until Gov. Larry Hogan joined the public backlash against keeping Durkin Wednesday.
This isn’t to give Loh too much credit in this equation, but it was pretty clear during the press conference that he was at least trying to wash his hands of the whole situation and shift the direct responsibility of Durkin’s future to athletic director Damon Evans. When someone asked if Durkin would coach the team on Saturday against Michigan State, Loh only said, “All coaches report directly to the athletic director.”
People around the program tried so hard to spare Durkin this entire time. They’ve blamed McNair, his teammates, and the school itself in unusual ways.
A lot of Maryland boosters have loudly supported Durkin, too. One blamed McNair for not hydrating well enough before his death. Another said players who complained were “so-called athletes” and “looking for participation trophies.” That might explain how you get the chairman of the board of regents saying with a straight face about 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 really said that on Tuesday. But McNair died after Durkin was on the job for two seasons.
Brady said Durkin was “unfairly blamed,” and that “we believe he’s a good man and a good coach.” The latter is at this stage unclear, given the fact he was 10-15 as Terps head coach in two seasons. But this type of thing pops up all across the school’s report as well, the same report that Brady uses as the basis for why they initially him back:
Mr. Durkin was hired under high-pressure circumstances and tasked with turning a struggling football program into a Big Ten contender, with less funding and fan support than other conference programs. The athletics department provided little education around, or support to handle, the myriad administrative responsibilities of a head coach, tasks Mr. Durkin had not been delegated in previous jobs as a coordinator or position coach.
Durkin always bore only “some” responsibility. The athletic department “shares” responsibility for Court not knowing who he reported to and not having much apparent oversight at all. Evans and “the entire athletics department leadership” bore responsibility for Court’s excesses, although the strength coach is traditionally the assistant most in lockstep with a head coach’s vision. But it’s never stated in concrete terms how much Durkin was on the hook for. All of the language surrounding him treated him with kid gloves.
None of that ever squared with anyone who knows anything about the practical nature of a college football program.
The buck stops with the head coach at all times. It can’t only stop with the coach when you’re 13-0 and in the Playoff with no NCAA sanctions. It has to also stop with him when things are going wrong, because that’s total accountability.
Maryland failed to hold Durkin truly accountable for so long and was prepared to continue not doing so. Leaders insulated him from the fullest extent of the repercussions he could face by spreading the blame out across multiple people and departments.
Loh only did what was right after he was basically forced to.