The man who could become the next chairman of the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents likes to say that he was such a slow runner, a coach once threatened to time him with a sundial.
But Barry Gossett, 78, believes in the transformative power of sports — which is one of the reasons he says it is painful to witness the turmoil in the athletics program of the College Park campus that he likens to another troubled era at the school.
“It's almost equal to Lenny Bias,” Gossett says, referring to the Terps basketball star who died of a cocaine overdose in 1986, leading to the departure of high-profile officials and to a university overhaul of the academic standards for athletes.
Just as Maryland’s men’s basketball team was decimated by Bias' death, Gossett — who has contributed tens of millions of dollars to the College Park campus and its athletic programs — predicted in an interview Friday that the football program is in for years of rebuilding.
“I think we've moved back five years, probably, into where we could be in a competitive situation,” said Gossett, the vice-chair of the regents, who could be elevated to chairman this week, in the wake of James Brady’s resignation Thursday. “You've got to recruit. We have people in interim positions, and I don't know when they will become full time. We don't have a crystal ball.”
Gossett said the university had been gaining momentum, improving its academic reputation and helping to make College Park a more appealing college town.
The university, he said, will rebound, but “it will take time.”
The football program — which years ago named its team house for Gossett and his wife, Mary, who died in September — has been sharply criticized over the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair, who suffered heatstroke during a team workout in May.
The regents themselves were criticized in the last week by politicians, student groups and others for recommending that head football coach DJ Durkin and athletic director Damon Evans remain. University President Wallace Loh announced that he was retiring in June. But on Wednesday, Loh dismissed Durkin after a public outcry. The next day, Brady resigned, saying his presence on the board would “inhibit its ability to move Maryland’s higher education agenda forward."
Gossett declined to elaborate on the regents’ decisions behind closed doors or his own feelings about Durkin.
“Things happen in closed session for a reason,” Gossett said.
The Baltimore Sun reported Friday that an impassioned speech by Durkin had changed some regents’ minds in his favor, ahead of Tuesday’s announcement.
If he becomes chairman, Gossett and the other regents face a challenge to restore the public’s trust, said state Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat who is vice chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environment Committee.
“There is a lot of suspicion and distrust to all the regents,” Pinsky said. “I think it was a travesty, their initial reaction, retaining Durkin and putting a gun to the head of Loh.”
But Pinsky added that some of the regents “are very decent people.” And he said of Gossett: “He’s a very decent individual. He's fair. Obviously he has contributed a lot of financial support to the university.”
North Baltimore’s state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, who chairs the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said Gossett’s experience may qualify him for the chairmanship. But, she said, she’s she’s disturbed by what she sees as poor judgment among board members who voted to maintain Durkin.
“I would hope to see some more changes,” she said. “Something is wrong in terms of the way that they’re assessing the situation. You’re talking about the death of a player. … I’m majorly concerned about that.”
If he were elevated, the longtime College Park booster would lead a body responsible for overseeing and supporting not just the flagship but all 12 campuses of the university system.
A source who is an administrator at one of those other campuses said: "I think faculty and administrators on other campuses have expressed concern about Barry Gossett's close allegiance to College Park."
The source pointed to his association with the football program, saying that the amount he has donated makes clear where his priorities lie.
Gossett did not immediately respond Sunday to a request for comment on the criticism.
Brady, Gov. Larry Hogan’s former campaign chairman, become the regents' chair in 2016. Gossett was appointed to the board in 2007.
He is the retired chairman of Baltimore-based Acton Mobile Industries, which supplies mobile offices, construction trailers and modular buildings.
The regents are expected to meet this week to select a new chairman.
“It’s not up to me,” Gossett said when asked if he would seek the post. “They choose. I’m technically still the vice chairman assuming the role of chairman.”
In April, Gossett and Mary committed $21.25 million for the creation of a Center for Academic and Personal Excellence for the school’s student-athletes.
That followed other donations, including a $10 million gift in 2007 from a charitable trust established by the couple. Eighty percent went toward sports programs.
Gossett said he never had children and “the best place to invest is in young people, and hopefully they will learn to appreciate it and maybe give back.”
When he was 11 years old, he was an usher at Byrd Stadium, now called Maryland Stadium. “I saw the programs of [football coach] Jim Tatum and I was just hooked since then,” Gossett said.
“It's like anything else. Once you make a sizable donation, then people want to talk to you.”
Baltimore Sun reporters Liz Bowie and Christina Tkacik contributed to this article.