Long before offensive lineman Jordan McNair died from heatstroke in June and third-year Maryland coach DJ Durkin was put on administrative leave in August, the task of rebuilding a moribund football program was viewed by many to be challenging.
Now, in the aftermath of a controversial — and widely criticized — decision Tuesday by the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents to reinstate the 40-year-old coach, the odds of Durkin doing it successfully have grown infinitely longer.
“Can he overcome it? It’s possible, but I think it’s going to be very, very difficult,” Good Counsel coach Andy Stefanelli said Wednesday.
Stefanelli, who as head coach the past two years and previously as a longtime assistant at the Olney school encouraged several players — including his own son, Drew — to play for the Terps, is shocked how visceral the reaction against Durkin’s reinstatement has been.
“Not that I support it [the criticism], but I underestimated the backlash that seems to be occurring now,” Stefanelli said. “It seems to be pretty strong. Certainly in the short run, it’s going to be very difficult, frankly, for DJ or for anybody else.
“If they didn’t reinstate him [Durkin] and they left [offensive coordinator] Matt Canada as the interim, I didn’t think that was a great solution in terms of recruiting. … They’re kind of stuck in no-man’s land right now.”
Despite the fact that only one player who orally committed for Maryland’s 2019 class has decommitted in the aftermath of McNair’s death, Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said Tuesday that one of Durkin’s greatest strengths — being a top-notch recruiter — has been compromised greatly, if not completely eradicated.
“All the things that came out regarding the program, the toxic nature of the program, the bullying, the abuse, high-level kids and their families are going to think twice about going to Maryland because of these reports,” Farrell said. “I don’t think they can win on the recruiting trail with DJ Durkin as the head coach.”
Farrell said that he was “really surprised” that Durkin was reinstated.
Though Durkin and his staff have made inroads to keep much of the local talent close to home with two straight top-30 recruiting classes, Farrell said “you need to work really hard to keep the kids home. You have to have an attractive program, you have to have a coach that people gravitate towards. They need to honestly reboot and have somebody change the culture and sell a new vision.”
While other programs have recovered from equally horrific tragedies — Penn State being the most obvious example after the child sex abuse scandal involving longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky — Farrell said that Maryland doesn’t have the fan base or tradition to make a similar revival.
There’s a difference when over 100,000 fans fill a stadium each week at Penn State compared with the 30,000 to 35,000 the Terps have attracted in recent years. Given the team’s mediocre record (10-15) under Durkin and his immediate full-time predecessor, Randy Edsall, it’s tough to sell a losing program mired in scandal and controversy.
“Maryland is not Penn State,” Farrell said. "Penn State addressed the problem and got nailed by the NCAA but Joe Paterno, who was a legend, got ousted. DJ Durkin is not a legend. This isn’t Urban Meyer, where you can survive a scandal and get a four-game suspension.”
In an interview Wednesday with The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board and reporters, Board of Regents chairman James Brady said that Durkin’s effectiveness as a recruiter was broached by university president Wallace D. Loh as it considered the coach’s status.
“Wallace Loh expressed to us that DJ Durkin was a good man, and he respected him,” Brady said. “He did raise the issue as to whether he would be able to deal with the environment, that he wasn’t going to go back in with all the negative publicity, whether he would be able to recruit young men and deal with their families.
“That was an issue we also had, but one in the last analysis we felt he could deal with. We had that conversation with him, and we were convinced he was prepared to take on that challenge and be successful in doing so.”
Stefanelli and parents of current players said that they were not aware of any issues within the team because of Durkin’s approach and allegations of a “toxic” culture. One of the parents said he wouldn’t have allowed his son to sign with Maryland, or would have pulled him out of school, had problems been obvious.
“There was definitely a culture change when Coach Durkin took over,” Stefanelli said. “From my son's perspective, it was positive. It was kind of a different approach, a fresher, newer approach to things and I think the kids at the time were excited about the changes that were occurring.
“Obviously the situation there with Jordan McNair was tragic and it changes things. A lot of my support [publicly for Durkin] came from some of the claims of a toxic culture. My statement was we as parents, and my son as a player, never saw it.”
One parent, who asked to remain anonymous, said Tuesday that he wouldn’t think the same of the program now compared with when his son initially committed.
“As a parent, if I have a Maryland coach in my living room, it’s like, “Yeah, OK, I understand, but I’m not messing with Maryland,’ ” the parent said.
Another obstacle for Durkin to climb is how the team will react to his being back at practice and on the sideline during games. According to team sources, the practices were shorter and not as intense under Canada, who joined Maryland in January as offensive coordinator.
That the change occurred eight games into a 12-game season and after the Terps won, 63-33, over Illinois last week adds to the potential for disruptions and distractions. Maryland, which hosts Michigan State on Saturday, is a victory away from becoming bowl-eligible.
“That’s really difficult. They’re in the middle of a season, having some success,” Stefanelli said. “It’d be different if he had been there through training camp and then was taken off. He hasn’t been there since the start of [preseason practice]. That will be a difficult transition.
“Over time, after a couple of games, it will probably settle in. Probably for the players, it’s got to be disruptive. And to have the media attention these kids are getting, I'm sure it’s something these kids don’t want to talk about. They want to concentrate on football and being student-athletes.”
According to sources, three players walked out of Durkin’s first team meeting Tuesday. Two sources said that Durkin was applauded by those who remained after he finished speaking.
Junior offensive lineman Ellis McKennie, who, like McNair, played at McDonogh, said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun on Wednesday that he returned shortly after walking out of the meeting and practiced.
Two parents of players, who asked to remain unanimous, believe that the timing of Durkin’s return is an indication that the Board of Regents didn’t consider the players when it made its decision to reinstate the coach, who earns $2.5 million annually on a five-year contract.
“If anything, I don’t know why they waited until now to bring him back,” one parent said. “Eight games into the season, that’s kind of crazy. Who knows what they were thinking at this point. I thought that was very strange, big game this weekend.”
Another parent, who requested anonymity, said Wednesday that he would have preferred that, even if Durkin was reinstated, the coach would remain in the background through the end of the season and allow Canada to finish the season as the face of the team.
“I think he could have started working on the recommendations of the board [in terms of proper behavior] and to foster a relationship with the players, parents and whoever else is involved in the program,” the parent said.
Asked if the Board of Regents considered the timing of its move in regard to the overall season, Brady said: “We were very conscious of the athletes, but we felt we were in a position where we had to make decisions and it certainly was not the most comfortable time for the athletes.
“We get that. They have proven to be extraordinarily resilient through this whole process and I think they were confident that they would exemplify that same kind of resilience even after this decision was announced.”
Stefanelli, whose son played his senior year for Durkin, was asked if winning a couple of games might defuse the situation.
After playing the Spartans on Saturday at Maryland Stadium, the Terps go on the road to Indiana on Nov. 10 before finishing the season at home against Ohio State and on the road at Penn State.
“Winning always helps,” Stefanelli said. “I thought even in the wake of what was going on, and the team was winning, I thought it helped a little bit for any case that was being made for Coach Durkin. He obviously was bringing in some good players. … If they don’t [win], the challenge even gets greater for Coach.
“In Year 3, the team was turning the corner, so to speak. If you look at their schedule now, they’re in the toughest part of the schedule. Hopefully they’ll win some games and go to a bowl game, but it’s not going to be easy.”