Former University of Maryland football coach DJ Durkin told a task force that President Wallace Loh resisted his call to make players available for interviews by a consultant examining the heatstroke death of teammate Jordan McNair, according to multiple sources.
Durkin told the investigative task force that he urged Loh in July to make as many players as possible accessible to sports medicine consultant Dr. Rod Walters because that would enhance the credibility of Walters' final report.
In a claim the university denies, Durkin said Loh disagreed, expressing concern that only disgruntled players would come forward, the sources said.
Durkin's account — which he also shared with the state university system’s Board of Regents — was not included in the Oct. 23 report of the eight-member task force, whose assignment was to investigate the football team's culture and whose first three members were named by Loh. The remaining members were picked by the regents.
Sources said Durkin wanted the regents to know there had been information he presented to the task force that didn’t appear in the final report.
The report did note that Durkin called athletic director Damon Evans after McNair's death in June "to request an external review of how player safety was handled on that occasion."
The sources said Durkin told the task force that Loh — during the same July meeting at the president's house — reiterated that Durkin had his full support. Loh fired Durkin on Oct. 31, saying members of the campus community and others “expressed serious concerns about coach DJ Durkin returning to the campus.”
The sources spoke on condition of anonymity, citing various reasons.
Asked about the former coach's assertions, the university issued a statement through spokeswoman Katie Lawson.
"Throughout both investigations, the university has been entirely supportive of gathering input from our student-athletes and listening to their concerns," it said. "Our president would never stand in the way of obtaining the facts."
The university did not refute Durkin's contention that Loh previously told the coach he backed him after McNair's death. Durkin was fired one day after a divided board of regents cleared him to return to his job from administrative leave.
"President Loh frequently expressed the importance of presumed innocence and for having a process to ascertain the facts," Lawson said.
The task force said in its report last month that it "recounted all sides of each story." A few of its members had preexisting relationships with the university or regents members, which experts say can cause an appearance of a conflict of interest. But task force officials said their omission of certain items — and inclusion of others — was based on its mandate to investigate the football program’s culture and make “non-personnel related” recommendations.
“Our editorial judgments hinged on meeting those objectives," said Charles Scheeler, a task force member who — with his law firm, DLA Piper — helped organize meetings and phone calls.
Durkin’s attorney, Jeffrey Klein, declined to comment.
McNair fell ill during a May 29 workout, suffering heatstroke that would lead to his death two weeks later. Just six players agreed to speak to Walters, who the university hired to investigate how the team staff handled the 19-year-old’s distress. Walters' report determined school personnel did not adhere to industry best practices in treating McNair.
The Sun reported last month that some parents and others openly wondered whether more players might have come forward had a more confidential process been used to solicit the players’ input.
Instead, Walters said he allowed assistant athletic director Jason Baisden to handle the sign-up. Players were told to sign their names to a sheet that was hung in the Gossett Football Team House. And they were later escorted by Baisden to meet with the investigator.
“Hindsight is 20/20,” Walters said later. Arranging more confidential outreach is “something we could’ve done.”
The task force, which Loh called an "independent commission," was established on Aug. 14, as Walters was still completing his work. It was created to investigate the practices and culture of the football team following an ESPN report alleging a “toxic” atmosphere in which staff bullied and intimidated players.
Members of the task force included Scheeler, former Gov. Robert Ehrlich and retired U.S. District Judges Ben Legg and Alex Williams.
Scheeler and Williams have histories with regents vice chairman Barry Gossett, who has contributed millions of dollars to the school's athletic programs and for whom the football team house is named. Scheeler said he was an attorney a dozen years ago for a company that Gossett led as chairman and that the two serve as directors of the Rosedale Federal Savings & Loan Association. Scheeler's brother, Don, is a past president of the Terrapin Club, a booster organization that helps fund athletic scholarships.
Williams, who also serves on a board with Gossett, established a center on campus in 2015 that is named for him.
Webs of relationships, while often innocuous, can create the appearance of conflicts of interest, experts say.
"If you've got a bunch of buddies who are populating themselves with committees and then deciding who is going to investigate who, you're never going to get to the truth," said attorney Chris Madel, who has handled several high-profile independent investigations, including one in 2010 involving improper spending by Fiesta Bowl officials and another over a 2014 dispute between the Minnesota Vikings and punter Chris Kluwe, who said he was released because he supported same-sex marriage. Madel is not connected to the Maryland situation.
The university referred questions about the commission to the board of regents, which said in a statement that Scheeler and Williams "both have the objectivity and talent to contribute greatly to an impartial investigation" and that the eight members generally possessed a broad range of backgrounds.
Williams did not return messages seeking comment. Scheeler said he apprised Loh of his history and the president "advised me that he did not view these relationships as a problem given the scope of our assignment. DLA Piper also reviewed this matter before we accepted the engagement, and determined that no conflicts of interest existed."
Nationally, other independent investigations have sought to emphasize participants’ objectivity and — in some cases — their detachment from their subjects. Attorney Kenneth Wainstein, who led an investigation of a high-profile academic scandal involving athletes and others at the University of North Carolina, declared during the probe in 2014 that it was “completely independent of the University and its faculty, staff, and administration.”
Scheeler — who helped oversee the 2007 investigation by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell into steroid use by Major League Baseball players — said many of the commission members live in Maryland.
“So not surprisingly,” he said, “we all have an affinity for the university and many of us know people involved with the campus and the Board. That said, I feel confident that personal relationships did not influence our collective thinking about our methodology or the final report we produced.”
Todd Haugh, a business law and ethics expert, said that “even the appearance of conflict can be problematic. People are going to gravitate to folks they already know or have a relationship with,” said Haugh, an assistant professor at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. “The intentions are often laudable and above board, but the risk is that there are subconscious biases or subconscious conflicts.”
Scheeler said the commission contacted every player Durkin coached at Maryland and spoke with 55, in addition to conducting a survey in which 94 players participated. Scheeler noted that the panel's report included that Durkin sought the external review of player safety and that the coach had asked Evans to retain new trainers before August practices began to ensure his players' safety. The report also said Durkin was not given the opportunity by the university to present his side of the story before being placed on leave.
The university placed top trainers Wes Robinson and Steve Nordwall on administrative leave on Aug. 10 and dismissed them earlier this month. Former strength and conditioning coach Rick Court resigned on Aug. 14.