Maryland president, athletic director, football coach make case to regents after football culture report

The University System of Maryland’s governing board held four marathon meetings in the past week to discuss a damning review of the University of Maryland football team’s culture, but it has yet to announce any personnel decisions in the wake of Jordan McNair’s death and subsequent revelations about rampant dysfunction in the athletics department.

With university leaders’ futures uncertain, Maryland power players have begun pre-emptively mobilizing — rallying around university president Wallace Loh amid rumors that his time at the helm of the state’s flagship could be limited.

Loh, along with athletic director Damon Evans and head football coach DJ Durkin, went before the university system’s Board of Regents Friday to discuss their fates. This more than five-hour meeting, like the three preceding it, was held behind closed doors.

The gathering came a day after a roughly 200-page investigative report was leaked to multiple media outlets, including The Baltimore Sun. The review determined that the football program “fostered a culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out.” It detailed stories of the physical and mental degradation of football players within an athletics department that lacked the systems to root out abuse.

The three men share some degree of blame for the “dysfunction” that plagued the athletic department in the years prior to McNair’s death, according to the report.

First presented to the regents last week, it was catalyzed by media accounts that labeled the program “toxic.” It was prepared by an eight-person commission — which included former Gov. Robert Ehrlich, retired U.S. District Court judges Ben Legg and Alex Williams, and former prosecutor Charlie Scheeler — and overseen by the regents. The group was tasked with investigating the football program’s culture.

The Terps football team has been under heightened scrutiny since McNair suffered heatstroke during a May 29 practice in College Park. He died two weeks later.

The commission’s report made no explicit personnel recommendations.

“These are extremely serious issues worthy of deep and focused attention,” board chair James T. Brady said, reading a brief statement before closing the Friday meeting to media members.

This was the second review instigated after McNair’s death. Sports medicine consulting firm Walters Inc. last month presented a report that determined that trainers made a host of errors May 29, including failing to immerse the offensive lineman in cold water, which experts say is in line with best practices.

On Friday, Durkin spent roughly an hour in front of the regents. When asked about how the meeting went and his employment status, he remained silent and quickly walked out of the university system’s Baltimore headquarters. He has been on administrative leave since August.

While the board of regents has largely been quiet about its deliberations, state lawmakers are filling the silence.

State Sens. Jim Rosapepe and Paul Pinsky, along with six state delegates who represent Prince George’s County, wrote in a letter last week that they are worried Loh would be made into a “scapegoat” by the media and the regents.

The lawmakers praised Loh’s leadership and warned that his removal could damage the university.

“We urge you to fix what’s broken, not break what’s working,” the lawmakers wrote to the regents.

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker also said he is advocating for the board to retain Loh. Baker said he’s discussed with Gov. Larry Hogan about how Loh has “raised the quality of the university.”

“If you look at his leadership, it’s the best I’ve ever seen of a president with his relationship with the state and the surrounding communities,” he said. “It would be a tremendous loss to the state and the county to see him leave.”

Baker said he’s heard talk that some on the board are targeting Loh because of a lingering grievance over the removal of Harry “Curley” Byrd’s name from a stadium on campus because of Byrd’s segregationist history.

But Baker said he and many black Marylanders supported Loh’s role in renaming the stadium and continue to support Loh now. After it was revealed that athletics staff made a slew of errors on the day McNair fell ill — including failing to immerse the teenager in cold water, which could’ve saved his life — Loh publicly took legal and moral responsibility for mistakes leading to McNair’s death.

“With the incident with the football player, that was the single bravest act of courage I’ve seen of a leader,” Baker said. “He said, not only are we responsible, we are morally responsible. It often appears African-American lives are not held in high esteem and Dr. Loh took responsibility. I think he deserves credit for it.”

Baltimore attorney Billy Murphy, who is representing McNair’s parents, sent a letter to Brady on Friday saying the family was “shocked” to read some media reports signaling that the regents intended to end Loh’s tenure in the spring.

Murphy also applauded Loh’s acceptance of responsibility, and he slammed the regents for failing to do the same. He wrote that it appeared that the regents were “punishing” Loh for his statement.

“The McNair family will not rest until you accept legal and moral responsibility for the death of their son,” reads the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun.

The letter also references the Byrd Stadium renaming and the “very public disagreement” that it set off within the university system. “This is no reason to fire Dr. Loh,” the letter reads.

The decision to rename the football stadium, pushed for by Loh, divided the 17-member board of regents in 2015. They eventually approved the change, but Brady was among the five dissenting votes.

The university system issued a statement in response, reiterating that officials were focused on “uncovering and responding to issues related to Terps athletics and football.”

“The serious issues under discussion are solely related to those highlighted by both the Walters and commission reports. Any suggestion or attempt to inject other, unrelated issues, is a disservice to the many talented and honest people involved in these investigations, including Chair Brady and every member of the Board of Regents,” the statement read.

Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks, who won the Democratic primary for county executive, also is advocating on Loh’s behalf.

“Dr. Loh has been a really good partner for many of us in the county. He has been really open to developing a relationship that assists with public safety,” she said, adding that he partnered with county officials on implicit bias training for police.

U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer said he urged the board to “not remove President Loh, who I believe has added very substantively to the University’s status as an academic institution and who took important steps to ensure the McNair family got answers.”

“I believe he will continue to take steps to address this situation and change the culture of the Athletic Department,” Hoyer said. “I believe it is not in the best interest of the University of Maryland College Park to have President Loh leave at this time.”

Still, critics point out that Loh’s announcement accepting responsibility came roughly a month after McNair’s death. Some on campus have been calling for him to be removed.

Two members of the commission investigating the football culture assigned Loh “ultimate responsibility” for the “the ongoing dysfunction of the Athletics Department,” the report states.

Loh was not in attendance as of about 10 p.m. Friday at the university’s Midnight Madness event launching the basketball season, though athletic director Evans was there.

Baltimore Sun reporter Don Markus contributed to this article.

trichman@baltsun.com

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