The University of Maryland’s embattled athletic director, Damon Evans, and head football coach, DJ Durkin, will remain in their positions, officials announced Tuesday, even after the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair and a damning investigation into the university’s football program.
While leadership within the athletic department will remain intact, university President Wallace Loh will retire at the end of the school year, he announced Tuesday.
The University System of Maryland’s 17-member Board of Regents has spent much of the past two weeks behind closed doors, discussing the futures of three of the most powerful men in College Park following the release of a roughly 200-page report detailing widespread dysfunction within the athletic department and allegations of player abuse. All three men met with the regents in person last week.
Board members decided their first priority was to return Durkin to the sidelines, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. He has been on administrative leave since August.
Loh expressed deep reservations about this, the source said. Regents made it clear that either he could put Durkin back on the field, or they would act to replace him with someone who would, the source said.
Loh, 72, announced that he would be leaving effective in June. The source said this move was at the insistence of the board.
“For more than eight years, I've served as the captain of the ship — not any ship, but the flagship,” Loh said Tuesday. “It’s relatively easy to be the captain of the ship so long as the ship is sailing through calm waters, but eventually at some point, that ship may run into a storm. ...
“It’s an abdication of the responsibility of the captain to abandon ship in the middle of the storm. And I don’t know many new captains who will want to join the ship while it’s in the middle of the storm.”
Loh said his goal before he leaves in June will be to implement recommended reforms, stabilize the athletic program and set the stage for a successor to take over.
Board of Regents chair James Brady said Tuesday that the governing body would soon appoint an independent monitor to oversee reforms in the athletic department.
"There will be no third chance for any of those involved to get this right," he said.
McNair’s parents, and the lawyers they’ve hired to represent them, slammed the regents for keeping Durkin on the sidelines. The McNair family had publicly called for the head coach to be fired, saying he should not be allowed to work with anyone else’s child.
“I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach and somebody spit in my face,” McNair’s father, Marty, said about the decision to retain Durkin.
His mother, Tonya Wilson, said she misses her son every day — and the regents’ actions didn’t help.
Baltimore-based lawyer Hassan Murphy said the board validated the actions of Durkin and his staff by “continuing the employment of the man who failed in his primary responsibility to Jordan.”
“Coach Durkin had an obligation to keep his players safe and he failed,” Murphy said. “Yet, he remains.”
A lawyer representing Durkin declined to comment.
As of Tuesday, Murphy said, the only person who has paid for the athletic department’s failings is McNair.
“Jordan paid with his life,” he said.
The Murphy, Falcon & Murphy law firm will continue exploring legal options for the family.
Brady said the regents were cognizant of the McNair family’s feelings toward Durkin.
“We made a decision based on a very strong belief amongst the regents that DJ is absolutely prepared,” he said. “His presentation to us and what we have heard from others would suggest he is absolutely committed” to adhering to university values.
The regents have overseen two investigations into the football team, stemming from McNair’s death in June. The 19-year-old suffered heatstroke during a May 29 practice.
The first investigation was commissioned to look into the athletic department’s procedures and protocols on the day McNair fell ill.
That inquiry, led by sports medicine consultant Dr. Rod Walters, found staff made a host of errors — including failing to immerse McNair in cold water, which experts say is the best practice and could have saved his life.
Longtime trainer Wes Robinson and Steve Nordwall, who oversees the trainers and strength and conditioning coaches, have been on administrative leave since August. Their futures remained unclear Tuesday.
Loh has publicly said the school takes “legal and moral responsibility” for mistakes in treating the teenager, a former McDonogh standout. He said Tuesday that he stands by that “100 percent.”
The second investigation was tasked with digging into the football team’s culture after media reports labeled it “toxic.”
One day after the explosive ESPN article in August detailing charges of verbal and emotional abuse by Durkin and his staff, in particular strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, Durkin was placed on administrative leave. Court, who was at the center of many players’ stories of abuse, resigned.
An eight-person commission determined the program “fostered a culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out.”
Its roughly 200-page report highlighted instances of the mental and physical abuse of players, and delved into two years worth of problems within the athletic department. The commission found that the department “lacked a culture of accountability” and was plagued by frequent turnover, dissension and infighting.
Loh, Evans and Durkin all share some blame for the “dysfunction” plaguing the high-profile athletics department, the report found.
Durkin met with his staff and players before football practice Tuesday, scheduled around the same time the Board of Regents was holding its news conference in Baltimore to discuss the recent commission report looking at those allegations. A few players walked out of the meeting, according to media reports. Some took to Twitter to express their dismay about the decision.
“Every Saturday my teammates and I have to kneel before the memorial of our fallen teammate,” offensive guard Ellis McKennie wrote in a tweet. “Yet a group of people do not have the courage to hold anyone accountable for his death. If only they could have the courage that Jordan had. It’s never the wrong time to do what’s right.”
The 40-year-old coach will be back on the sideline Saturday in College Park for his team’s game against Michigan State.
According to a source, Durkin “moved the needle” toward his reinstatement with his defense during the in-person meeting with the regents last week.
Brady said the board was impressed by Durkin’s passion for the team and believed he had players’ best interests at heart.
"He is a good man and a good coach,” said Brady, who acknowledged that the first-time head coach still had a lot to learn.
Brady said that the board is also convinced Evans, 48, “is the right person to move this department forward at this critical time."
Loh also praised his athletic director, calling him “one of the finest athletic directors in this country.” But he didn’t mention Durkin during his remarks or express confidence in the coach.
Before the regents’ decision, a coalition of state lawmakers mobilized in support of Loh.
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 were worried Loh would be made into a “scapegoat” by the media and the regents.
Rosapepe issued a statement Tuesday urging Loh to reconsider his impeding resignation.
“The Regents decided to keep the athletic director and the coach after big problems in the athletic department were discovered,” he said in an interview. “I’m asking Dr. Loh to rescind his retirement, and I’m asking the Regents to beg him to stay. Having Dr. Loh on the job, focused on the mission of the university is the most important thing at this point.
“What’s really is going on here is there’s a bunch of infighting between big-donor sports fans.”
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker and U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer also spoke out in defense of the university president.
Del. Erek Barron, a Prince George’s County Democrat, echoed the other lawmakers and praised Loh’s tenure.
“The university system had a teachable moment and they failed,” he said. “Ultimately it just seems like football takes precedence over academics.”
Longtime athletic booster and 1983 graduate Steve Baldwin highlighted the decision in pointing to the “incompetence” of university leadership and said, “Today’s decision is about money and not what was in the best interest of the kids.”
Some regents have strong ties to College Park and the Terps football program. Vice-chair Barry Gossett, along with his late wife, Mary, gave $10 million in 2007 to build the football team house that now bears their name. Also on the board are Maryland Agriculture Secretary Joseph Bartenfelder and Robert Neall, Maryland health department secretary and a senior adviser to Gov. Larry Hogan.