Going into its 2018 season opener against then-No. 23 Texas at FedEx Field, the mood of the University of Maryland football team was uncertain, as were the futures of third-year coach DJ Durkin and offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
Much had transpired for the Terps over a summer filled with tragedy and tension.
At the time, it had been nearly two months since offensive lineman Jordan McNair died after suffering heatstroke, but only three weeks since Durkin had been placed on administrative leave with Canada named interim coach.
Now, going into Saturday’s home game against Michigan State, some of the uncertainty is gone.
After being reinstated Tuesday afternoon on the recommendation of the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents, Durkin was fired by university president Wallace Loh on Wednesday night and Canada was told by athletic director Damon Evans that he would coach the team for the remainder of the season.
Canada’s original three-year contract to become Maryland’s offensive coordinator paid him $650,000 annually. According to a public-records request, he earned an additional $155,000 for his first month as interim coach (August) and is making an additional $135,000 for every month as acting head coach thereafter. Canada also could make an additional $75,000 in incentives.
A team that had three weeks to prepare for its first game without Durkin now has just three days to get ready for Michigan State after a tumultuous week filled with change. Whether that’s enough time to prepare, at least emotionally, should be evident shortly after the noon kickoff against the Spartans.
Against the Longhorns in the opener, the emotion was evident from the game captains carrying McNair’s jersey out for the coin toss to offensive lineman Ellis McKennie waving a flag with McNair’s jersey number in victory.
With a 34-29 upset win, it appeared as if the Terps had let out their frustration and pain on Texas. They seemed to enjoy the win even more than a similar one in Austin the year before, the biggest victory and only one over a ranked opponent in Durkin’s first two seasons.
Coming off the roller coaster of events this week — the reinstatement and firing of Durkin in a little over 24 hours, a walkout by three players from Durkin’s meeting with the team Tuesday and a fight between two members of the team at the end of practice that night — will Maryland have enough left to win its biggest game since 2016?
With a victory Saturday, Maryland (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten) will gain bowl eligibility and Canada could put himself in serious contention for the permanent head coaching job depending on how the team fares with a finish that includes road trips to Indiana and No. 14 Penn State sandwiched around a home game against No. 10 Ohio State.
The 46-year-old coach, who joined Durkin’s staff in January, said he believes the Terps are resilient enough to handle just about anything.
“I have great confidence. I think our guys are focused on what they can focus on,” Canada said at a Tuesday news conference, with rumors swirling at the time that Durkin would be back. “They’re leaning into each other. They’re excited about playing. I don’t think there’s anything else they’re worried about.”
Canada might have been a bit premature in his confidence — or simply hiding what several parents of players said recently was a fracture in the team’s unity over Durkin’s fate. A few hours later, a different storyline began to emerge.
After a practice observed by Durkin and run by coaches, two players with much different views on Durkin began fighting.
Reserve punter Matt Barber said Wednesday that the altercation began with several teammates taunting him about him being a “whistle-blower” in that he and his parents had talked anonymously to media outlets about allegations of abusive behavior by Durkin.
Standing inside the office of the Murphy, Falcon & Murphy law firm — the same attorneys representing McNair’s parents — Barber said he was pulled back by teammates allowing the other player to punch him in the face repeatedly.
“My jersey was bloody,” said Barber, who was left with a black eye, needing multiple stitches on his forehead and a dislocated shoulder. “I had blood all over my hands.”
Campus police were called. The Baltimore Sun has yet to receive a copy of the police report it requested Wednesday night.
In a statement released Wednesday night, Evans said, “This is an incredibly difficult time for our football student-athletes. However, we take any matters involving physical altercations extremely seriously. We are talking with the players involved and will take appropriate actions based on the facts.”
No decision has been reached regarding the players’ status for Saturday’s game.
The fight between the players is not the only example of Maryland’s emotions boiling over.
Several players took to social media this week before and after Durkin was fired to voice their support for — and criticism of — Loh’s decision, as well as question fellow students who were going to demand Durkin be fired at a campus rally Thursday.
McKennie, who was one of three players who walked out of the meeting where Durkin addressed the team after being reinstated Tuesday, tweeted after the coach was fired, “It’s crazy what a little pressure will do.”
Replied graduate linebacker Tre Watson, who joined the team in January after playing his first three years at Illinois, “Pressure busts pipes, doesn’t it??” To which McKennie tweeted, “Most certainly does!! Don’t let anyone tell you your voice doesn’t matter!!” before he tweeted, “ITS NEVER THE WRONG TIME TO DO WHATS RIGHT!”
Junior wide receiver DJ Turner appeared to vent his frustration on the fans, as well as on the Board of Regents and Loh.
“It’s funny how we have all this ‘support’ now, but I haven’t seen the stadium full since I got to the University of Maryland!” Turner tweeted Wednesday. “Please keep all the fake love, we’re good! We stuck together when this mess started, and we will stay together now that it’s over!”
A little later, Turner questioned the timing of the decisions, given how late in the season it is and how important Saturday’s game could be.
“As players we had very little control over any decision that was made, and they were all made with terrible timing!” Turner tweeted after the announcement of Durkin’s firing was made public. “Which makes it hard for me to believe that the best interest of the team was in mind at all through this whole process. But we will be fine!”
Former Maryland star Torrey Smith, now with the Carolina Panthers, tweeted his opinion Thursday, one that seemed to be shared by the commission looking into the culture of Durkin’s program.
“My unpopular opinion about the state of Maryland football. 1. There Coach Durkin wasn’t to blame for Jordan’s unfortunate death. That was the medical staff. 2. The strength coach was clearly a clown but that still wasn’t enough in my opinion for Durkin to be fired.”
Toward the end of Canada’s Tuesday news conference, the interim coach was asked why he thought he was the right coach to lead the Terps through this difficult time and what “special things” he was doing to bring the team to the brink of bowl eligibility.
“I don’t think there’s anything special I’m doing,” he said. “I think our entire building has done a great job of sticking together. Everybody’s got a job. And we’ve made a big deal about not only everybody doing their job, but appreciating the job everyone else does.
“Our players have a focus, and they’ve been the focus. And that’s how it always has to be and always has been — it’s about the players. Everybody is doing their job. There’s nothing special about me. I think our entire building has done a heckuva job.”
As Saturday’s game approaches, Canada said he will try to do his best to keep the players focused, hoping they turn the emotion from a tumultuous few months — particularly the past few days — into tackles, turnovers and touchdowns.
Until then, the mood of this Maryland team is uncertain, much like the future of two coaches whose careers have now been intertwined by tragedy and tension, with one leaving and the other hoping to turn his interim title into one with more permanency.