With week to go until election, a Hogan ally throws a wrench into the race with Maryland football decision

When few people were rallying around Larry Hogan’s long-shot bid for governor in 2014, James T. Brady was there to help, serving as the Republican’s campaign chairman.

University of Maryland president fires football coach DJ Durkin »

This week, Brady — whom Hogan appointed to chair the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents after his upset victory in the governor’s race — threw an unexpected wrench into the 2018 gubernatorial campaign.

Brady announced a controversial decision to retain the University of Maryland’s head football coach, DJ Durkin, and athletic director Damon Evans, while the school’s president Wallace Loh retires — despite the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair and a subsequent investigation into the university’s football program that found pervasive problems.

In doing so, Brady opened up the board — and Hogan, who appointed most of its members — to blistering criticism.

The announcement came with just a week to go until Election Day and as Hogan is leading in the polls.

Hogan responded Wednesday evening with a statement that condemned the university system, saying it had “let down” the university community and Marylanders.

He called on the board and Loh to reconsider their decisions and “to schedule a public hearing to address these issues in an open and transparent manner.”

“I am deeply troubled by the lack of transparency from the board of regents, and deeply concerned about how they could have possibly arrived at the decisions announced yesterday,” the governor said in a statement. “I share the concerns of many Marylanders and believe very strongly that more must be done to restore the public trust.”

Before Hogan’s statement, Democratic challenger Ben Jealous said: “The buck stops with the governor.”

“It’s his board and his chair,” Jealous said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun. “A child has died because of a toxic football culture and the two men most responsible for that aren’t being held accountable. Every member of that board who voted to prioritize the coach over the school president should be asked to resign, starting with Mr. Brady.”

An investigation into the football team reported that the strength and conditioning coach attempted to “humiliate” athletes by throwing food, weights and, once, a trash can full of vomit. The coach was accused of using excessive profanity.

A separate report found athletics staff made a host of errors May 29, the day McNair fell ill during practice — including failing to immerse the offensive lineman in cold water. Experts said that could have saved his life.

In an interview with the Sun, Brady said the regents went through an “exhaustive process” before deciding that Durkin and Evans deserved to keep their high-paying jobs at the top of the most visible department of the state’s flagship campus. Durkin makes $2.5 million annually; Evans’ contract is worth about $800,000 a year.

“From the beginning, we knew that whatever answer we came up with was going to have some element of controversy connected with it,” Brady said. “It’s a complicated issue and I understand everyone’s concern with everything connected to it.”

Brady strongly defended Durkin, saying the 40-year-old man is a young coach who was not properly trained or brought on board correctly by supervisors when he took over the Terrapins football team.

“When DJ came on board, he didn’t get all the help he needed. Being the head coach of a college football team in 2018, in a big conference like the Big Ten, is a big job,” Brady said.

Brady added he couldn’t consider the political ramifications of his announcement.

“We were aware we had an election coming up,” Brady said. “I don’t believe it should have any impact on this campaign at all. ... We felt that we needed to report as soon as we were in a position to report. Was it the most comfortable timing? Absolutely not. … We needed to do this and move on.”

On Tuesday, the governor questioned whether enough had been done to address issues at the university and its football team.

“Many will understandably question whether enough has been done to address the serious concerns that exist among many in the College Park community,” Hogan said in his first statement. “I am one of them.”

Condemnation of the board’s decision rained down across Maryland’s political establishment.

U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown, a Democrat whom Hogan defeated in his 2014 campaign for governor, said Durkin and Evans should be fired.

“Gov. Hogan’s hand-picked Board Chairman Brady should resign for the extreme callousness and ineptitude he demonstrated by putting his own personal vendettas and agenda ahead of the welfare of our students,” Brown said.

Maryland House Speaker Michael Busch and Del. Maggie McIntosh of Baltimore — both Democrats — announced an investigatory hearing into the matter.

“The tragic death of Jordan McNair and the unprecedented and unusual decision-making process of the University System of Maryland Regents continues to raise more questions than answers,” Busch said in a statement.

Sen. Nancy King, a Montgomery County Democrat who is expected to chair a Senate committee that oversees the university system’s budget, said she will likely hold a hearing on the matter when the General Assembly convenes in January.

“I’m concerned about donors to the university and I’m concerned about the whole program,” King said, adding that she is unhappy to see Loh departing.

“He has done so much academically for this school,” she said.

Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat who has stayed neutral in the governor’s race, called the board’s actions an “embarrassment to the people of Maryland.”

“The board of regents has sent a very clear message that the safety and well-being of kids doesn't matter,” Franchot said. “Character doesn't count, and the reputation of our state's flagship institution is irrelevant.”

Hogan has led Jealous by double digits in every public poll for a year.

With early voting underway through Thursday, the Maryland scandal will likely continue to dominate headlines through Election Day next week.

John Dedie, a political science professor at the Community College of Baltimore County, said he believes the matter could impact the race. But he wondered if Jealous has enough time and resources to successfully link the regents’ decision to Hogan.

“Because Hogan appointed so many people to the board of regents, this whole mess does nothing to help the governor,” Dedie said. “If this decision had been made a month ago, Jealous would be within 5 points of the governor by now. When people send their kids off to school, they expect their kids to come home safe.”

Donald Norris, professor emeritus of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said many are right to be angry over the board’s decision. But he said Hogan can’t do much about the board members now that he’s appointed them. Members serve five-year terms and the regents are independent from the governor.

Hogan also noted in his statement that he can’t remove regents or university staff.

“I can and will demand that the university is held accountable for making the reforms they have pledged to put in place with the full transparency that the students, parents, and faculty expect and deserve,” the governor added.

Norris said there will be all kinds of fallout.

“I can imagine the faculty at the University of Maryland, College Park, organizing to oppose this horrendous decision,” Norris said. “I can also imagine elected officials from around the state will be opposing it as strongly as they can.”

But he said Hogan should refrain from political interference with the board.

“Once you appoint somebody, you have no control over what they do,” Norris said. “No governor should be interfering politically with the board of regents. He shouldn’t be asking them to resign. That sets a very bad precedent for future appointees.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Michael Dresser and Talia Richman contributed to this article.

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