College athletics is like a dormant volcano, University of Maryland president Wallace Loh has been known to say.
An athletic scandal can explode at any point, he would explain, and blow up a university, its reputation and its president.
It appears Loh was right.
Loh announced at a news conference Tuesday afternoon that he would retire in June as part of the fallout from 19-year-old football player Jordan McNair’s death in June. Loh said he would stay on through the remainder of the school year to ensure a “smooth transition.”
Loh, 72, will be remembered as a formidable fundraiser, who raised more than $1.4 billion during his tenure, as well as a personality on campus. But as much as he tried to define his presidency by reshaping the campus and College Park, his legacy will be forever tied to an athletic scandal, one that he seemed to predict could happen.
The president’s departure is the only immediate, top-level administrative shakeup to stem from McNair’s death and a subsequent review of the football program, which found it “fostered a culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out.” Embattled head football coach DJ Durkin and athletic director Damon Evans will remain in their positions, despite stories of physical and verbal abuse on the team and widespread dysfunction throughout the department.
The 19-year-old’s death thrust the university and its athletic department into months of uncertainty and scrutiny.
Members of the Board of Regents ultimately determined the football program was best served with Durkin at the helm, and Evans as his supervisor. The regents made it clear either Loh could put Durkin back on the field, or they would act to replace him with someone who would, said a source with knowledge of the situation.
In a letter sent to the college community shortly before 5 p.m., Loh said he took responsibility for the ongoing dysfunction of the athletic department. He previously said he took moral and legal responsibility for the mistakes that led to McNair’s death.
“Together, we will look back on our years in College Park with enduring affection. I will be proud of the growth of our academic enterprise with the addition of talented new faculty members across all disciplines,” Loh said in the letter, adding that the greater College Park region has been turned into a “hub of innovation and economic development.”
He committed to working with Evans to implement wide-ranging reforms to the athletics department during the rest of his tenure — but notably left out Durkin.
McNair, who fell ill during a May 29 preseason workout, suffered heatstroke and was not treated with cold-water immersion, a technique that researchers say has a 100 percent success rate when done correctly. The former McDonogh standout died two weeks later.
Over the past few months, the university system’s governing board has overseen two investigations into the football program: One looking at procedures and protocols on the day McNair fell ill and the other examining the team’s culture. While Loh initially called for both investigations, the system’s Board of Regents later voted to assume control. Both investigations revealed significant issues.
The regents discussed the second report during a series of marathon meetings in recent weeks. The report found a “culture where problems festered.” Loh appeared before the board on Friday to discuss his future.
Loh’s departure in the wake of McNair’s death recalls the fallout from the death of basketball star Len Bias in the late 1980s. The investigation — which revealed Bias died of a cocaine overdose — and subsequent public furor brought down a number of university leaders.
Loh’s tenure was marked by a series of controversial choices about the athletic department that have left it significantly changed.
His salary was $675,000 last year.
Since Loh’s appointment in 2010, he has been known for taking decisive action, at times failing to seek the views of others in the university community.
He shocked the university by cutting seven sports teams in 2012, a gut-wrenching decision he said was necessary to address a multimillion-dollar deficit.
He then moved the university into the Big Ten conference, breaking a roughly 60-year relationship with the Atlantic Coast Conference. The choice was largely made behind closed doors. At the time, Loh said he could not pass up the millions of dollars a year the university was expected to receive from the Big Ten by the end of the decade.
The Baltimore Sun recently reported that the football program has been dwindling in popularity despite its high-profile athletic conference. Annual budget records — obtained in a Public Information Act request — chronicle year-over-year declines in football ticket sales revenue and outside donations to the team, even as expenses such as coaching salaries, recruiting, scholarships and team travel are rising.
Barry DesRoches, a vocal alumnus and athletic booster, credits Loh for the decision because he believes the university will benefit in the long run. DesRoches believes Loh’s ideas were bold and big, but he sometimes made decisions without involving the public — a mistake he believed slowed down his plans.
“He does not have an ability to bring people with him. There is almost a disdain for opposing viewpoints. Once Wallace made up his mind about something, it was full speed ahead,” DesRoches said. “He had a sense of urgency and wanted to speed things up and the reality of that was it slowed things down.”
Loh also ordered the renaming of the university’s football stadium, after student activists protested. They said the name “Byrd Stadium” was an insult given the racist views of former university president Curley Byrd.
The regents, who had ultimate control over the stadium re-naming, were divided on the issue. While it ultimately passed, five regents, including board chair James T. Brady, voted against it.
Loh’s background gave no indication that it would be decisions made about the athletic department that would come to define his tenure.
Loh, a Chinese immigrant who grew up in Peru, was a former law school dean and provost who is known for his cerebral approach. He quotes philosophers like Socrates — and Yogi Berra.
He was popular among state lawmakers. In recent days, many had come to his defense and preemptively urged the board of regents to keep Loh at the state flagship’s helm. They’ve since expressed shock at his retirement.
“He’s done a phenomenal job the past eight years,” said Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker. “He’s been the moral compass of the university. I was quite appalled.
“The football coach should stay and the president should leave? What world are we living in?”
A visible presence on the campus, Loh often took selfies with students, even at the campus gym, and always carried around golden turtle pins to pass out at games, conferences or other university events.
But his relationship with the student body was at times contentious. Protesters have multiple times occupied his administration building in recent years, demanding action and accountability from Loh and his cabinet.
Student concerns over hate on campus reached a crescendo after the killing of Army Lt. Richard Collins III. Police say the black Bowie State student was stabbed by a white University of Maryland student.
In the year before the stabbing, white nationalist posters were tacked up around campus on multiple occasions. A noose was found hanging in a fraternity house.
A.J. Pruitt, last year’s student body president, said
Loh’s legacy is “a mixed bag.”
“From a business perspective or the perspective of just rankings or academic excellence, you have to give Dr. Loh some credit,” he said. Pruitt cited the university’s growing endowment and Loh’s strides in pushing for the redevelopment of U.S. 1, a road that had long been considered an eyesore that didn’t make College Park an appealing college town.
Loh also sought to improve the university’s connection to city leaders, helping to repair strained relations. And he oversaw the collection of the largest donation in university history: a $219 million donation from the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation.
“On the other hand,” Pruitt said, “what I have continually noted, is what I consider to be the continued degradation of the community trust in the leadership of the university.”