Firing University of Maryland football coach DJ Durkin was the right thing to do in the wake of player Jordan McNair’s death. There is a strong case to be made that he was culpable to the extent that he allowed a dysfunctionally dangerous atmosphere to persist within the team that both led to McNair’s heat stroke and the woefully inadequate response to it. And it’s a near certainty that he would not have been an effective coach going forward. What parents would consent to sending their sons to play for him? What trust would current players have in his leadership?
But in the last two days, the decision of whether he stayed or left came to signify more than whether the university responded appropriately to McNair’s tragic death. It became about whether Maryland is serious about fostering a top-tier flagship university that drives our economic competitiveness or whether it cares more about chasing success in Big 10 football. The initial decision by the University System’s Board of Regents to reinstate Mr. Durkin as coach and retain Damon Evans as athletic director, even at the expense of the retirement of university President Wallace Loh, sent an unmistakable message to the state and all those watching across the nation that football rules all.
We were certainly heartened to see Gov. Larry Hogan step in Wednesday afternoon to demand that the regents reconsider their decision on Mr. Durkin and that Mr. Loh reconsider his decision to retire — perhaps “retire” would be more apt. We have no doubt that his intervention emboldened Mr. Loh to fire Mr. Durkin, a path he reportedly advocated to the regents last week. But we fear that a tremendous amount of damage has already been done.
James Brady, the chairman of the regents, was unequivocal in his defense of the board’s decision making in an interview with The Sun’s editorial board Wednesday morning. He insisted that the infighting, convoluted lines of authority, poor communications and poisonous atmosphere in the athletic department bore no relation to McNair’s death, and he espoused confidence that the two relevant parties in charge at the time — Messrs. Evans and Durkin — were uniquely qualified to fix it. He admitted no connection between Mr. Loh’s concerns about Mr. Durkin, the board’s recommendation and Mr. Loh’s decision to retire. Nor did he acknowledge any concern that the board’s hands-on involvement in decisions about the fate of a university’s athletic director and football coach overstepped the prudent bounds of its governance. What he seemed most earnest to convey was that the board had spent an extraordinary amount of time investigating, considering and debating before arriving at what nearly everyone else could plainly see was the wrong decision.
Mr. Loh reportedly fired Mr. Durkin without consulting the regents. This chain of events did not come about because those ultimately responsible for guiding this and the other campuses in the system had an epiphany about the error of their ways. They remain in place, and they have not yet offered any indication of a change of heart. As such, the atmosphere in Maryland’s higher education community is poisoned by the appearance that the regents are willing to override the judgment of those they have entrusted to lead their campuses. What qualified candidate would be foolish enough to become a university president in Maryland with this precedent? Former regents chairman Jim Shea and former University System Chancellor William E. Brit Kirwan are right — Mr. Loh’s step is not enough; the regents must publicly repudiate their earlier actions.
The other question left hanging now is Mr. Loh’s fate. He is reportedly reconsidering his decision to retire in June, and no question, the regents’ deplorable actions have swung public favor in Mr. Loh’s direction. We counsel against a rush to judgment in either direction. In terms of his culpability in McNair’s death, we find it believable that he was unaware of the circumstances in the football program that put a student at such risk. But we also recognize that athletics have bedeviled Mr. Loh since his arrival at Maryland, and his antipathy for dealing with them — plainly evident in every conversation we have had with him — must bear some relation to the development of the atmosphere that led to McNair’s death. Mr. Hogan was right in his call for a more transparent process to determine Mr. Loh’s fate. Unfortunately, the massive failure of the regents leaves us with no body with sufficient public trust to determine whether he should stay or go. At a minimum, the regents chairman, Mr. Brady, must resign. There is no other way forward.