In a sudden turn of events, University of Maryland President Wallace Loh fired football coach DJ Durkin on Wednesday night, a day after the university system’s Board of Regents reinstated the embattled coach.
In a statement released by the university, Loh said he took the action after meeting with the Student Government Association, department chairs and other campus leadership. The regents’ decision to keep Durkin after the death of player Jordan McNair had drawn blistering criticism from political leaders across the state, McNair’s family and others.
“The overwhelming majority of stakeholders expressed serious concerns about Coach DJ Durkin returning to the campus,” Loh wrote in a letter to the campus.
According to a source with knowledge of the matter, Loh disagreed with the regents’ decision Tuesday to keep Durkin, but deferred to their wishes — until hearing the public outcry Wednesday. The source requested anonymity because he was discussing privileged, personnel information.
“It was clear to him that DJ could not function effectively,” the source said. “He should not be on the field this Saturday. He knew he had to act quickly and decisively and he did.”
The source said the university is buying out the remainder of Durkin’s five-year, multimillion-dollar contract, as he was not fired for cause. The remaining value of the contract is $5.4 million.
The move was announced less than two hours after Gov. Larry Hogan called on the regents and Loh to reconsider decisions that Durkin and athletic director Damon Evans would keep their jobs and that Loh would retire in June.
“I share the concerns of many Marylanders and believe very strongly that more must be done to restore the public trust,” Hogan said. “I am calling on both the University System of Maryland Board of Regents and President Wallace Loh to reconsider their decisions and to schedule a public hearing to address these issues in an open and transparent manner.”
News of Durkin’s firing was received with cheers on campus.
At a meeting of the Student Government Association, student body president Jonathan Allen read Loh’s statement to the group. The room erupted in applause.
“I’m very satisfied,” Allen said.
The idea that Durkin would remain as coach outraged students across the university. Multiple student groups — from the UMD College Republicans to the UMD Socialists — made plans to co-sponsor a rally Thursday afternoon to demand justice for McNair.
Jasmine Washington, president of the university’s chapter of the NAACP, said now that Durkin is gone she can “breathe again.”
“I’m happy that this happened, but I think this should've never happened in the first place,” she said. “This was common sense — Durkin should never have come back.”
McNair, 19, died in June about two weeks after suffering heatstroke during a team practice.
An investigation commissioned by the university found athletics staff made a host of errors 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.
A separate investigation determined the football program “fostered a culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out.” It found a 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.
Outside the football team house Wednesday evening, McNair’s father, Marty, spoke with reporters and said: “Some justice has been done.”
“There’s a level of gratitude that Dr. Loh made the decision to do the right thing,” he said. “But it’s been a tough five months. It’s been an emotional roller coaster. This is just a scab that won’t heal.”
A day earlier, after hearing that Durkin would keep his job, Marty McNair said he felt like “somebody spit in my face.”
Baltimore attorney Billy Murphy, who is representing McNair’s family, said Board of Regents Chairman James T. Brady should be dismissed by Hogan for the way he handled the fallout.
“He is a remaining impediment for justice for this young man,” Murphy said. “He was the architect of the absolutely outrageous decision that the board made.”
Brady did not respond Wednesday night to a request for comment, but had defended the board’s decisions earlier in the day.
Durkin’s attorney declined to comment. A university spokeswoman said Evans did not have a statement on the decision Wednesday night.
Loh said Wednesday night that he believed parting ways with Durkin was in the best interests of the university. The source also said Loh might reconsider his plan to retire in June.
Loh’s move leaves the regents with a decision to make about whether they should keep Loh now that he has terminated Durkin. The source said the regents made it clear earlier that either Loh would put Durkin back onto the field or they would replace Loh. His salary was $675,000 last year.
Durkin had returned to practice Tuesday. The news of his firing came abruptly Wednesday, said Terps player Ellis McKennie, an offensive lineman who grew up with McNair and was his close friend.
"Evans pulled us in after practice," McKennie said. "We had all gone down and started getting in the showers and we get a text saying saying, 'Meeting in 10 minutes.' "
Evans announced at the meeting: "The news is that Coach Durkin has been terminated," McKennie said. He said the athletic director did not give a reason for the dismissal.
Given what happened to McNair, McKennie was upset about Durkin's return and walked out of a Tuesday meeting during which the coach was reintroduced.
McKennie said he was pleased people outside the team had voiced their concerns about the coach's return.
"I'm just ready for us to focus on the rest of the season," the player said.
Maryland offensive lineman Johnny Jordan said the “right decision was made for justice for Jordan and for everything to be easier for us as players.”
Jordan, who was McNair’s roommate and a pallbearer at his funeral, said this move brings some closure — but he still thinks of his friend whenever he passes the empty room in what was supposed to be their apartment.
“I’m not playing for a head coach,” Jordan said. “I’m playing for the guy upstairs.”
Loh’s decision followed criticism Tuesday and Wednesday of the board’s decision to retain Durkin, and of Hogan, who appointed 13 of the 17 unpaid regents. The governor’s appointees included Brady, who was his 2014 campaign chairman and headed his transition team when he took office.
Democratic gubernatorial 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.”
The uproar over the board’s findings and decisions broke a week before Election Day.
U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown, a Democrat whom Hogan defeated in his 2014 campaign for governor, said Evans should be fired, as well as Durkin. Evans’ contract is worth about $800,000 a year.
“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 added.
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.
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.”
By Wednesday evening, many were praising the reversal.
Former University of Maryland System Chancellor William B. “Brit” Kirwan and former Board of Regents Chairman James L. Shea released a statement saying they “strongly support the decision of Dr. Wallace Loh to terminate the employment of football Coach DJ Durkin.”
“Dr. Loh’s action today will be remembered as a courageous and important decision in Maryland higher education,” the men wrote. “We also join the many calls for Dr. Loh to reconsider his decision to retire this June.”
Brown, the congressman, called the firing the “right decision.”
“President Loh was the only leader who had the moral fortitude to accept responsibility for Jordan McNair’s death, and I believe he will continue to act boldly and guide the athletic department to a safer, more sustainable future that students, student-athletes, and the University of Maryland family can be proud of,” he said.