In the year that has passed since the senseless death of Maryland football player Jordan McNair, the university and its athletic department have engaged in a long process of institutional self-examination and effected some real change.
Of course, nothing is going to bring back the young man who collapsed and died of exertional heatstroke or take away the pain his family continues to endure. But an out-of-control football program was brought to its senses and set on a new course that, hopefully, will prevent anything like that from happening again.
Whether or not former coach DJ Durkin was directly responsible for the negligence that contributed to the tragedy, he had to go. Whether or not Michael Locksley was the most qualified candidate to replace him, he was clearly the right choice to help the school heal and move football forward.
If it were merely a matter of X’s and O’s, that might not have been the case, but Locksley’s close relationship with the McNair family and, also sadly, his ability to identify with such a horrible loss after the murder of his son less than a year earlier put him in a unique position to change the perspective of the program.
The goals might not change. Maryland moved to the Big Ten Conference to raise the athletic profile of the university and tap into a larger sports network revenue stream that would also benefit the school’s academic reputation. But the unrealistic institutional pressure to push the football program to the same level occupied by the Ohio States of the super-conference era has — at least for a respectful period — been replaced by the necessity to rebrand it as a more progressive, student-centered entity.
Ultimately, Locksley will still have to build a team that can look those conference giants in the eye, but it will be quite a while before he’s in the position that led to Randy Edsall’s quick firing after lopsided October losses to Michigan and the top-ranked Buckeyes in 2015.
Right now, it’s all about rebuilding the image of the program after the death of a student-athlete, and its aftermath had to have a significant impact on Maryland’s ability to compete with those schools in the living rooms of top-flight recruits.
That’s another reason why the unfathomable decision of the Board of Regents to reinstate Durkin last year had to be overturned by university president Wallace Loh. The football coach is the guy who has to close the deal with the parents of a recruit, and that often means convincing them he’ll take personal responsibility for the safety and education of their son.
Durkin somehow convinced the regents he accepted responsibility for the tragedy after testifying before the commission investigating the football program’s alleged “toxic culture”, and that he wasn’t the one to blame for the handling of McNair’s conditioning program and resulting death.
The actions of the regents only made things worse. Their Oct. 30 news conference spread accountability for the tragedy so thinly over everyone connected to it that it left the appearance of no one being held accountable at all. Loh announced his eventual retirement and both Durkin and athletic director Damon Evans were left in place.
Loh’s bold decision to fire Durkin the next day dramatically changed that narrative. Choosing Locksley at the end of the season to replace him created the opportunity for a new beginning, which was represented by a poignant introductory news conference that was attended by McNair’s father.
It is against that backdrop that the football program has begun preparing for Locksley’s first season as full-time coach. Though it probably won’t include any realistic hope of competing for the Big Ten title, at least it will allow the Terps to dream of a time when that might be possible.
Evans, who kept his job through the scandal, oversaw the implementation of a long list of reforms suggested by medical experts hired to review the football program in the wake of the tragedy. He said the athletic department is committed to going even further to ensure the program evolves into something worthy of McNair’s memory.
“In the environment I work, it’s about teams. And our team, our staff has come together to work hard and work diligently at making sure we do right by our student-athletes, which is something we’ve always talked about,’’ Evans said. “But where I feel that we are now, we’re even more focused and more intent on becoming a leader in so many different facets of our program. It goes beyond just winning championships. It goes beyond the academic arena. It goes to the personal development and well-being of the student-athlete.”