Inside the Maryland debacle: How football coach DJ Durkin's impassioned speech changed regents' minds

The University of Maryland’s president, athletic director and football coach were all facing the prospect of unemployment when they walked into a meeting last week with the Board of Regents.

For months, the College Park campus had been in a state of turmoil following the heatstroke and eventual death of 19-year-old offensive lineman Jordan McNair. A majority of board members were poised to recommend firing university president Wallace Loh, athletic director Damon Evans and football coach DJ Durkin — buying out the remainder of his multimillion-dollar contract — according to multiple sources knowledgeable about the matter. But they agreed to hear each man out one more time before acting.

Then Durkin began to speak.

During the course of an hourlong interview at the state university system’s Baltimore headquarters, Durkin gave a speech that dramatically changed the course of events and convinced board members he should stay, according to several sources.

“DJ gave one of the great halftime speeches of all time,” one source said. “It’s got to be one of the great all-time orations. He talked about his mission and his passion.” Board members left “convinced” that the team was “on the verge of beating Ohio State and Penn State,” the source said.

A second source disputed that characterization of the board’s reaction.

“Ohio State and Penn State didn’t come up in his remarks,” the source said of Durkin’s talk. “His comments were focused more on Jordan, the family, his response, the overall dysfunction in the athletic department and his plan going forward.”

In Loh’s interview, however, he warned the board of backlash if they recommended retaining the embattled coach: “All hell is going to break lose,” Loh said, according to one source.

Some members felt firing all three men was the only tenable path forward. But in the end, Durkin won the majority of regents over.

They recommended retaining Durkin and Evans, and telling Loh he had to retire at the end of the school year. “Their first vote was DJ has to stay. Then the inconsistency dawned on them. If they wanted to keep Durkin, they had to keep Evans,” the source said.

The university system’s chancellor, Robert Caret, is not a member of the board but was present for the debate. He acknowledged that there was disagreement on the board over whether Durkin, Evans and Loh should remain.

After an “active dialogue,” Caret said, the board came to a consensus. “That doesn’t mean we all agreed,” he said. “We moved forward as one body respecting, each other.”

The board instructed Caret to meet with Loh and inform him: “They’re going to allow you to stay until June of 2019, but you’ve got to keep Durkin,” according to a source. Loh agreed to go along.

But when board chairman James T. Brady announced the decision Tuesday, Loh’s initial warning proved prescient. The backlash was swift and deafening.

Students protested. Donors said they wouldn’t give money anymore. Politicians across the state condemned the message sent. McNair’s father said he felt as though someone had spit in his face.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan had appointed Brady to the board after he had served as Hogan’s campaign chairman. Now Hogan was fuming. The controversy had erupted a week before the gubernatorial election.

On Wednesday afternoon, Hogan issued a statement calling on the board to reverse course and pledged an investigation into what happened.

Later Wednesday, Loh took matters into his own hands and fired Durkin.

On Thursday, Brady announced he would resign. Reached by telephone Friday, he declined to comment, saying, “I’m finished talking about this.”

The university faced personnel decisions after damning findings by two investigations it launched into its football program.

One found that staff made a host of errors — including failing to immerse McNair in cold water, which experts say is the best practice and could have saved his life. The report determined trainers had failed to move the immersion tanks to the field that day because the location of the practice changed at the last minute.

The second investigation looked into the football team’s culture, following an explosive ESPN article in August that deemed the atmosphere “toxic.” An eight-person commission found that the football program “fostered a culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out.” Their report highlighted instances of the mental and physical abuse of players, and delved into two years of problems within the athletic department.

While Brady, as board chairman, has been a public face of the controversy, the personnel decisions were made by the full 17-member Board of Regents, the governing board of the state university system. Members include corporate executives, lawyers, and two members of Hogan’s Cabinet. Most were appointed by Hogan, a few by former Gov. Martin O’Malley.

The board includes passionate supporters of the College Park campus and its sports program. Six are alumni. The regents’ vice-chair Barry Gossett — now interim chair — is a prominent athletic booster who gave $10 million in 2007 to build the football team house that now bears his name. Another member, William Wood, is founding president of the University of Maryland College Park Alumni Association.

Earlier in the week, Brady had spoken on the board’s behalf in an interview with The Sun, defending the decision to keep Durkin. He said the process the regents went through was “extensive” and he was proud of its thoroughness.

He acknowledged that one of the board’s options was to “blow it all up,” but they chose to instead evaluate the current university leadership to “determine if they are willing and capable to effecting immediate, needed changes.”

The regents — at least a majority of them — thought Durkin was up for it, he said.

“He is a good man and a good coach,” Brady said in the Wednesday morning interview.

At Tuesday’s press conference, he also spoke of the persuasive power of Durkin’s meeting with the board.

“Our meeting with DJ Durkin was very instructive,” he said. “His passion for the university, for the football team and the players was absolutely impressive and very believable.”

It was abundantly clear that students, donors and politicians disagreed.

Charles P. Scheeler, a lawyer who oversaw the investigation into the culture of the Maryland football program, said the commission interviewed many current and former players — and found, they, too, had widely divergent views about Durkin.

“You had a very large group of people who just loved DJ Durkin,” Scheeler said. “And on the other side you had a very large group of people who were very critical of DJ Durkin. I was surprised there weren’t more people in the middle.

“It’s not unusual that different people can view the same environment very differently,” he said. “What was unusual was how remarkably different the views were.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance contributed to this article.

trichman@baltsun.com

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