Sports

DJ Durkin and Damon Evans will retain jobs at Maryland after months of controversy; former Iowa provost Wallace Loh to retire in 2019

Maryland coach DJ Durkin, shown last season. CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton
Maryland coach DJ Durkin, shown last season. CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton

Maryland football coach DJ Durkin, who has been on administrative leave since Aug. 11, is expected to return to the sidelines on the recommendation of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, the school announced Tuesday afternoon. Athletic Director Damon Evans also will be returning, and Maryland President Wallace Loh is planning to retire in June, in the wake of the controversy that has rocked the College Park campus the past two months.

In a news conference Tuesday afternoon in Baltimore, James Brady, chair of the university system’s board of regents, said the board accept the findings and recommendations of an eight-person special commission tasked with investigating the culture of the football program. That commission produced a 192-page investigative report that found problems with the leadership and accountability in the athletic department but did not find the culture within the football program under Durkin’s leadership to be “toxic.” Brady said in the news conference that Durkin had been “unfairly blamed for the dysfunction in the athletic department.”

According to four people familiar with the situation, the regents strongly urged Loh to allow Durkin to return and Evans to continue in his role. In his meeting with the regents last Friday, Loh explained to the board why he felt the school needed to move on from Durkin. But according to three people familiar with the situation, many of the regents were impressed by their subsequent meeting with Durkin, and enough were persuaded that he deserved to remain in his post that Loh was told he had no choice.

“It was made clear that if he wanted to remain in his position, he had no option,” one person close to the situation said. “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. . . .

“The board has no authority to hire and fire a football coach, but they made clear that returning DJ to the field was their highest priority.”

Durkin arrived at the Gossett Football Teamhouse at around 3:30 p.m., riding on a golf cart with a group of people. He walked in the building without responding to a reporter who shouted after him, asking if he had any comment. He is expected to be back on sidelines for Saturday’s game against Michigan State. Multiple people close to the football program said several players walked out of Durkin’s first meeting with the team Tuesday afternoon.

The decision marks yet another twist in the most tumultuous stretch in the program’s long history, sparked by the June death of Jordan McNair, a 19-year-old offensive lineman. After media reports alleged abuse and bullying within the program, the university launched a pair of outside investigations and placed Durkin on administrative leave Aug. 11.

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His status with the team has been up in the air since, with some players, parents, boosters and colleagues lending their support and others calling for change. Perhaps, most notably, McNair’s family had called for Durkin’s ouster.

“He shouldn’t be able to work with anybody else’s kid,” Martin McNair, the player’s father, said during an August appearance on “Good Morning America.”

In Durkin’s absence, the Terps have been led by offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who has served as interim head coach since August. Canada has guided the team to a 5-3 record.

The school had placed two high-level athletic trainers - Wes Robinson and Steve Nordwall, an assistant athletic director - on administrative leave and negotiated a settlement with Rick Court, the strength and conditioning coach who resigned Aug. 13. No decisions about Robinson or Nordwall have been announced.

The regents had given themselves a Tuesday deadline to announce any potential actions and reached their decisions after several days of hand-wringing and internal debates. The board received the commission’s report on the culture of the football program Oct. 19 and held five separate meetings to discuss the matter, culminating with Monday’s conference call.

According to multiple people familiar with the process, the 17 regents struggled for days to reach any sort of a consensus on what to do, and many changed their mind on Durkin only in the past few days. Some in the room 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.

Loh was originally scheduled to meet Monday morning with Robert Caret, chancellor of the university system, and Durkin and Evans were expected to also talk to Caret by phone. But people familiar with the day’s events said Loh’s meeting was canceled and neither phone call took place. Officials with the university system instead spent most of the day weighing their options.

The university system comprises 12 public colleges and institutions, but the board of regents is not authorized to hire and fire coaches - or make any personnel decisions on each campus. The president’s position is the exception, though the regents certainly can have heavy influence in other areas.

“My reading of it is the president is the one who has the authority to handle the personnel issues on the campus,” Caret told The Washington Post in an interview last month. “The board obviously can have influence on the president.”

The board of regents voted unanimously to take over control of the two Maryland investigations Aug. 17. Brady said then that the regents would “make the decisions necessary to safeguard and support our students, both at College Park and at campuses across the state.”

The first investigative report was focused on the events surrounding McNair’s death. 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.

The second report stemmed from allegations of abuse and bullying, initially logged in an Aug. 10 ESPN report. Those investigators spent eight weeks interviewing past and present players, parents and school employees. The commission’s report was published last week by media outlets, including The Post, but was not formally released by the university system until Monday afternoon. The commission did not find the culture of the program to be “toxic,” though it did identify several incidences of abusive or bullying behavior and faulted for Durkin for failing to rein in Court.

“If the culture had been ‘malicious or harmful,’ Mr. Durkin would not have earned the loyalty and respect of many of his student-athletes and coaches,” the report stated. “Many players interviewed by the Commission felt Mr. Durkin’s and Mr. Court’s coaching tactics reflected those of a ‘big time football program.’ “

Durkin received decidedly mixed reviews from current players who were surveyed by the commission that investigated the program. That group surveyed 94 Maryland players on Sept. 9 and asked about Durkin’s effectiveness. In a comparison that included results from 28 other schools, players rated him lower than the head coach from all but one other program.

According to the commission, some players suggested in their feedback that Durkin is “innocent” and “deserves to be back,” while others said he “should never get another coaching job.”

The investigators wrote that they “believe his concern for his players’ welfare is genuine,” but noted that both players and coaches were hesitant to voice concerns to Durkin, fearing “retribution or dismissal of their concerns.”

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“Mr. Durkin advertised an ‘open door’ policy, but many players and assistants felt this did not extend to those whose opinions did not align with Mr. Durkin’s,” the commission wrote.

The school had previously been warned about issues in the football program. One parent sent an anonymous letter in December 2016, raising concerns. “His actions are extreme and outrageous,” the letter said of Durkin, “intentional and reckless, and the sole cause of the emotional distress.”

According to the commission’s investigation into the culture of Maryland program, “from all appearances, this anonymous memorandum simply ‘slipped between the cracks.’”

Durkin had the support of many high-profile football boosters, many of whom signed a letter to the board in August voicing their support for the coach.

Durkin, who has a 10-15 record in his two seasons in College Park, faces challenges returning to the team with a campus and fan base divided over the controversy, not to mention a locker room that’s still grieving the loss of a teammate.

Back in July, Durkin had expressed fleeting optimism for his program at Big Ten media days in Chicago. His comments came less than a month before he was placed on administrative leave and mark the last time he has talked publicly about Maryland football.

“I’m very confident in the personnel we have and the procedures we have in place,” Durkin said. “We’re looking at those and making sure there’s anything we can do better or do differently, then we’ll be able to do that.”

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The Washington Post’s Sarah Larimer contributed to this report.

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