Maryland congressional members question university system about football player McNair's death

Members of the state’s congressional delegation expressed their concerns Wednesday to top officials of the University System of Maryland about how it handled the University of Maryland, College Park, football program after the heatstroke death of a Terrapins player.

Chancellor Robert Caret and Board of Regents Chairwoman Linda Gooden traveled to Capitol Hill to brief Maryland’s U.S. senators and several representatives on developments involving the system’s flagship campus.

College Park President Wallace Loh fired coach DJ Durkin on Oct. 31, saying members of the campus community and others “expressed serious concerns about coach DJ Durkin returning to the campus.”

At a news conference following Wednesday’s closed-door briefing, some delegation members expressed strong hopes that Loh would stay on despite his announced plan to retire in June.

U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings said he has spoken with Loh recently.

“I’m not going to talk for him, but I’m praying that he does,” Cummings said.

The meeting came a day after the Terrapins announced the hiring of University of Alabama offensive coordinator Mike Locksley as football coach.

Besides Cummings, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin and Reps. Steny Hoyer, C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger and John Sarbanes took part in the news conference. Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. Anthony Brown skipped the news conference, but participated in the meeting, delegation members said. They said Rep. John Delaney, who is retiring, as well as Reps. Jamie Raskin and Andy Harris, did not take part.

All Maryland delegation members except Harris are Democrats.

The lawmakers, Caret and Gooden agreed the Board of Regents handled the aftermath of McNair’s death abysmally

“The death of any young person is a tragedy. The death of a young person that could have been avoided is an even greater tragedy,” Hoyer said. “Hopefully, this tragic incident will never be repeated.”

The football program has been in turmoil since McNair, a 19-year-old offensive lineman, collapsed during practice May 29 and died two weeks later.

His death was determined to be the result of the team staff’s failure to promptly immerse the former McDonough School star in cold water, the standard treatment for heatstroke.

The fatality set off a chain of events that ultimately led to Durkin’s firing and the resignation of Board of Regents Chairman James Brady for what was widely seen as the mishandling of the response to reported problems in the football program.

Their departures came after months of negative publicity about the program, including an ESPN report that described a “toxic” culture in which players faced bullying and intimidation from members of the coaching staff. A task force named by the regents rejected that description, but found “a culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out.”

The day before he fired Durkin, Loh announced plans to retire in June at the same news conference at which Brady said Durkin had been cleared to return from administrative leave. The board’s decisions prompted a public backlash, joined by Gov. Larry Hogan, that led to Brady’s resignation.

There has been no announcement of a change in Loh’s plans.

Congressional delegation members did not characterize what they said to Caret and Gooden about Loh behind closed doors, but some members were outspoken in support of the College Park president.

“I believe Dr. Wallace Loh is providing extraordinary leadership to the University of Maryland, College Park,” Hoyer said. “He is going to be part of the solution to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

“Let me make no bones about it: I want to see Dr. Loh stay,” Cummings said.

Cardin said the delegation generally expressed confidence in Loh, but stressed that it’s up to the university president to stay beyond his planned retirement date.

Delegation members said Caret and Gooden appeared to be receptive to their message.

“They were very honest. They told us what the problems were,” Ruppersberger said.

Caret vowed that the system would learn from its mistakes and implement statewide solutions.

“We all agree it’s something that never should have happened and should never happen again,” he said. He said the system has implemented so far about half of the recommendations the task force made in its report on the football program.

There was only passing discussion of the university’s hiring of Locksley, but Cummings said he was encouraged that the new coach had run the Alabama offense.

“You can’t get too much better than that,” he said.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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