Not since Lew Perkins took over the athletic department at Maryland in 1987, 11 months after the death of basketball star Len Bias, has the school’s athletic director faced as big a challenge as Damon Evans has in front of him.
Perkins inherited a basketball program that had fleeting success under Bob Wade before it unraveled amid NCAA violations. The football team, an Atlantic Coast Conference powerhouse under Bobby Ross, sunk to mediocrity when Ross departed a year after Bias died.
As Evans takes over this week, the football team has been reeling from the recent death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair and the department itself faces its share of financial hurdles.
During his introductory news conference in College Park on Tuesday, the 48-year-old Evans exuded confidence in talking about the leadership he hopes to provide, yet didn’t overlook the obstacles he faces.
Asked how much more challenging the job he inherits from Kevin Anderson, who resigned in April, is compared with when he took over for Vince Dooley, his former football coach, at Georgia in 2004, Evans said his previous stint will help him.
“Each job, when you look at it, we operate in the same world, but in different communities, different environments, different conferences,” Evans said. “As far as myself, I’ve learned a lot. … I think I can see the picture better.”
The picture at Maryland is not very pretty — or even clear — right now.
Here are five of the biggest challenges facing Evans as he gets started:
1. Getting through the external review of of whether proper protocol was followed during and immediately after the May 29 offseason conditioning workout when McNair was hospitalized.
Evans said at his news conference that the outside sports medicine consulting firm the university hired to conduct the investigation has started its process, which university president Wallace D. Loh said could take up to 90 days.
Even if Walters Inc., run by former South Carolina athletic trainer Rod Walters, concludes that Maryland did everything correctly, there will still be the possibility of a wrongful death lawsuit from McNair’s family if a pre-existing condition hadn’t been caught during tests by the team’s medical staff.
2. Trying to help pay for the completion of the Cole Field House renovation, including the $19 million the athletic department is responsible for as part of the $41 million that was tacked on as a result of the project’s scope being expanded.
Loh’s confidence in Evans as a fundraiser will certainly be put to the test, though the $21.25 million gift longtime donor Barry Gossett gave recently for a student learning center inside Cole Field House helped Evans get the job.
“We have a plan in place. We will continue to fundraise,” Evans said Tuesday. “You guys are going to get tired of me said fundraise, but there’s no ceiling, no limit for us. We’re going to bolster our efforts in the fundraising department to do those things.
“We’ve got to become a little more strategic in some of the business. Whether it’s striking a multimedia rights deal, or naming rights opportunity, or revamping some of our existing and getting better deals in place, which will drive more revenue for us."
3. Some critics of Evans consider the group of senior managers he helped assemble needs an upgrade, particularly in the area of fundraising.
By firing Jamie Williams, who acted in a mentoring role with athletes, and forcing Lori Ebihara, the department's top female administrator, to take a personal leave from which she, like Anderson, didn’t return, there is some room for Evans to fill in the gaps.
Several other longtime athletic department staff members are sweating through the end of the academic calendar year Saturday to see whether they will be retained.
Cheryl Harrison, the senior associate athletic director in charge of development, has been questioned by some high-profile boosters about her ability to raise money, but she is believed to be close to Gossett and his wife, Mary.
Asked Tuesday about making more staff changes, Evans said, “Right now, I’m going to just stay status quo. We’ve got some open positions that we have to fill. We’ll look at that. The good thing for me is that I’ve been here and I know what’s going on, but I think I need to continue to assess. When you’re in the acting role, you can’t do everything you want to do. But right now we’re going to stand pat and do what we need to do to better position ourselves.”
4. Assessing the futures of both football coach DJ Durkin and men’s basketball coach Mark Turgeon.
With his team coming off an injury-marred 4-8 season that ended with an embarrassing 66-3 home loss to Penn State, Durkin is at a critical juncture in his first head coaching job.
Asked Tuesday what his confidence level is in Durkin, Evans said enthusiastically, “High. Extremely high. I believe in DJ Durkin. I sat in the room with DJ when we were out looking for coaches [to replace Randy Edsall]. I believed then, and I believe now, that he’s the right man for the job.
“They’re a great team. I believe DJ is going to do some things. Nothing more evident than the fact of the recruiting classes that he’s had. We’ve just been a little bit snakebit and we do compete in a very difficult side of the Big Ten. That Eastern division is tough. Utmost confidence in DJ Durkin.”
Evans was not asked directly Tuesday about Turgeon, but this is an even more critical season for him going into his eighth year, especially coming off a disappointing 19-13 record that ended without a postseason bid for the first time since the 2013-14 season.
The fan base for men’s basketball has loudly voiced its displeasure with Maryland’s performance the past few years, in particular the continuing theme of late-season slumps. Since Evans played no part in Turgeon’s hiring, he doesn’t have the same allegiance he has to Durkin.
5. Trying to put his unseemly departure from Georgia behind him.
One of the big themes during Tuesday’s news conference was the fact that Loh was giving Evans a long-awaited second chance, coming eight years after he was fired at Georgia in the aftermath of being charged with drunk driving. Evans had a 28-year-old female in his car, identified as Courtney Fuhrmann, who told police they were dating.
Evans knows that he will be scrutinized even more closely now than he was when he was Anderson’s top aide.