Maryland's Loh went against attorney general's advice in taking responsibility for McNair mistakes

University of Maryland President Wallace Loh’s decision to take “legal and moral responsibility” for mistakes made in treating 19-year-old football player Jordan McNair went against advice from the attorney general’s office, according to a source with knowledge of the proceedings.

Instead, Loh stood before a sea of cameras and microphones during an Aug. 14 press conference and apologized, saying the university took ownership for mistakes athletic training staff made on the day McNair suffered the heatstroke that would ultimately kill him.

University of Maryland football scandal surrounding Jordan McNair's death: Baltimore Sun coverage »

Loh’s announcement — which came roughly two months after McNair died and four days after ESPN published an explosive article about the football team’s culture — was a turning point in the scandal that’s overtaken the state flagship, and it helped catalyze a series of consequential moves.

Three days after his statement, the University System of Maryland’s governing body would assume control of investigations into the football team. The Board of Regents would then push Loh to retire, while insisting he reinstate the embattled football coach. Loh would agree to do so, but end up firing coach DJ Durkin anyway. Regents chair James Brady would resign in the wake of intense public pressure.

To many, accepting responsibility was a sign of courage that illustrated Loh understood the magnitude of McNair’s death. Sharing this belief: the McNair family and a number of Prince George’s County officials.

But to shocked members of the Board of Regents, it contributed to the lack of trust between the president and the board that oversees him — and a sense that he regarded his relationship with the governing body too cavalierly.

Raquel Coombs, director of communications for the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, said the “office does not discuss advice we may or may not have given to a client.”

A different source close to the situation described it this way: Loh called attorney general Brian Frosh ahead of the press conference, walked him through his plan and was told, “You are the client,” which the source said could be interpreted in a number of ways.

The attorney general’s office is representing the University of Maryland and the university system on all legal claims related to McNair’s death. The teenager’s parents are being represented by prominent Baltimore firm Murphy, Falcon & Murphy, whose lawyers are the architects behind numerous high-profile, high-dollar settlements.

University officials declined to make Loh available for an interview to discuss his decisions surrounding the McNair tragedy.

A separate source familiar with the situation said that by the time of the press conference, Loh had been briefed on enough information to understand that the university’s trainers had not effectively treated McNair on May 29 and felt he had to take responsibility.

Those in Loh’s corner cite his performance at the Aug. 14 news conference as a reason they support his leadership and hope he’ll rescind his retirement.

Prince George’s County executive Rushern Baker said Loh bravely went down the right path by “taking a stand, knowing that there would be repercussions.” Baker said Loh’s decision to take responsibility struck a chord with many people, including him, and calmed a volatile situation on campus.

“As county executive, we run into these incidents all the time with police officers and firefighters,” he said. “Usually what we’re counseled to do is to wait until everything is in — don't say anything that could implicate the county. That’s the instinct from the legal community.”

Loh instead “took the moral high ground,” Baker said, and sent a message that McNair’s life was valued.

It meant a great deal to McNair’s parents, too.

“Jordan’s parents think, and we think as well, that in the aftermath of the board’s horrible decision, Wallace Loh has acted with dignity under fire and tremendous courage,” said attorney Billy Murphy.

But to some regents, according to the first source, those same actions contributed to the sense that the board couldn’t trust Loh and had to assume control over the situation. From a liability standpoint, the source said, it put the system in a difficult spot for Loh to assume responsibility so quickly and before the investigation into the day’s events had been completed and released.

There had been previous tensions between Loh and some regents, sources say, including over the renaming of the football stadium in College Park. Brady was one of five people who voted against changing the name of Byrd Stadium in 2015. This went against the wishes of Loh and student activists who said it was insulting to have African-American athletes play in a stadium named for Harry Clifton “Curley” Byrd, a racist former university president.

In an interview last month, Brady denied having a “personal vendetta” against Loh.

The decision to take responsibility wouldn’t be the last time during this saga that Loh would go against instructions.

The regents took over two investigations into the College Park football program: One was tasked with reviewing protocols and procedures on the day McNair fell ill and one was commissioned to evaluate the team’s culture, which had been dubbed “toxic” by ESPN.

The first report determined that athletic training staff made a host of errors on the day McNair fell ill— including failing to immerse him in cold water, which experts say is the best practice and could have saved his life. The second determined the football program “fostered a culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out.” It delved into two years’ worth of problems within the athletic department, and found it “lacked a culture of accountability” and was hindered by frequent turnover, dissension and infighting.

The investigations’ results led the board to eventually come to the conclusion that the university bears responsibility for what happened to McNair, a system spokesman said.

The regents discussed the investigation results in numerous closed-door meetings. Some felt firing all three men was the only path forward. After hours of discussion — and in-person meetings where Loh, Durkin and athletic director Damon Evans made their cases — they settled on recommendations.

The vote was not unanimous.

Loh was to retire as the end of the school year. Evans was to keep his job. Durkin — whose impassioned speech made an impression on the board — was to return to the sidelines after months on administrative leave. Sources have told The Sun that this went against Loh’s wishes.

During the tense press conference last month these recommendations were made public, Loh didn’t express confidence in Durkin or mention him by name, but he agreed to go along with the regents’ decisions.

Afterward, there was swift backlash and confusion after reports that Loh had been pushed out while Durkin and Evans kept their high-paying, high-profile jobs: How could a football player die and it was the president who was leaving, not the coach?

Over the next roughly 24 hours, Loh heard these concerns firsthand in meetings with students, academic leadership and politicians. And he saw the intense outcry against the regents. Armed with popular sentiment, he made the move he originally wanted to. He defied the board and fired Durkin.

Brady resigned from the board amid the controversy.

Some observers look at the timing of his decision and think Loh — who holds a doctorate in psychology from the University of Michigan and a law degree from Yale University — played his cards right to achieve his objectives and end up looking good in the public eye.

State lawmakers had begun preemptively mobilizing in support of Loh even before the regents announced their recommendations, saying he’s been an asset to the state flagship and should not be unfairly scapegoated. After last month’s news, their voices only grew louder.

Sen. Jim Rosapepe, an outspoken Loh supporter, said there wasn’t a hidden agenda behind the president’s moves.

“He’s a really straight arrow,” said Rosapepe, who represents College Park. “There’s not crafty politics. He tries to figure out what the right thing to do is and then he does it.”

Rosapepe is among a group of state lawmakers who have called for Loh to rescind his retirement. A prominent donor also asked him to reconsider his departure. Loh has fielded calls, emails and in-person pleas to continue his tenure.

At the same time, the University Senate, a College Park governing body composed of faculty, staff, students and administrators, passed a resolution calling for Loh to “honor his previous statement to retire in June of 2019.” Last week, a coalition of roughly two dozen student groups — many representing marginalized communities on campus — held a rally they dubbed, “Fire the Liars,” and demanded the same commitment.

Loh’s given no public indication of whether he’s reconsidering.

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

trichman@baltsun.com

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