Coach DJ Durkin reinstated at Maryland, expected to be back on sideline against Michigan State

More than two months after being placed on administrative leave amid allegations of a “toxic” environment surrounding his football program, third-year Maryland coach DJ Durkin was reinstated Tuesday and is expected to be back on the sideline Saturday when the team faces Michigan State.

In a statement released by a team spokesman Tuesday night, Durkin said, “I’m grateful for the opportunity to rejoin the team and very much appreciate having the support of the Board of Regents. Our thoughts have and will continue to be with Jordan’s family.

“I am proud that the team has remained united and represented themselves and the University well during this difficult time. As we move forward, I am confident that our team will successfully represent the entire University in a positive way both on and off the field.”

According to sources, Durkin met with his staff and players before Tuesday’s practice, which was scheduled around the same time the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents held a news conference in Baltimore to announce its recommendation to reinstate the 40-year-old coach.

It was later reported by a few news outlets that some players walked out of the meeting.

Maryland junior offensive lineman Ellis McKennie, a high school teammate at McDonogh of Jordan McNair, who suffered heatstroke during a May 29 practice and died two weeks later, voiced his reaction to the decision on Twitter after the news conference Tuesday.

“Every Saturday my teammates and I have to kneel before the memorial of our fallen teammate,” McKennie wrote. “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.”

Durkin was placed on administrative leave Aug. 14, one day after an explosive article by ESPN detailing charges of verbal and emotional abuse by Durkin and his staff, in particular strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, who was also placed on leave before accepting a settlement and resigning.

According to James Brady, the chairman of the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents, Durkin’s appearance before the regents Friday in Baltimore played a significant role in the third-year coach returning to the team.

“Our meeting with DJ Durkin was very instructive,” Brady said during Tuesday’s news conference in Baltimore. “His passion for the university, for the football team and for the players was absolutely impressive and very believable, and very consistent with what was mentioned in the commission report as well.”

The decision by the Board of Regents seemed to be against the wishes of university president Wallace Loh, who didn’t refer to Durkin by name during Monday’s news conference and who directed a question about his coaching Saturday to athletic director Damon Evans.

Brady referred to the 10 hours of testimony Durkin provided to the commission, in which, according to Brady, "his commitment to the players and to their success and their safety was absolutely genuine. And we had that same impression after we met with him.”

As for the ambiguity regarding the responsibility Durkin had over Court, Brady said that much of it had to do with the overall instability in the athletic department during Durkin’s first two seasons, including athletic director Kevin Anderson, who hired Durkin, taking a leave of absence last fall before resigning in April.

Anderson and Evans, who served as the senior staff liaison with the football program when Durkin was first hired and through much of the coach’s first two years before Evans was promoted to athletic director in June, were criticized in the report for a lack of oversight in guiding the first-time head coach.

“There was confusion, and that was part of the problem,” Brady said. “What we’re going to put into place — what the university will put into place as Dr. Loh suggested — was clarity in terms of those reporting responsibilities so that confusion would no longer exist.”

After there was speculation of Evans’ tenure being short-lived, Brady said the 48-year-old administrator was equally impressive in talking to the regents about how he planned to fix the turmoil in his own department.

“He had talked about what he had done in the last several months in addressing the dysfunction in the department, and he had a plan that made sense to us and a plan that we think can restructure the athletic department in a way to make it what we expect an athletic department at the University of Maryland to be,” Brady said.

“But it was that commitment, the level of detail, all of the input he provided in terms of how he was going to do this. It’s one thing to be able to say, ‘I’m going to fix it.’ It’s another thing to have a plan that makes sense in getting to that point. And he accomplished that.”

Asked when it will be implemented, Brady said, “It has to be implemented as quickly as possible, and I think Dr. Loh agrees. That will be very clear very soon.”

In a letter Evans sent to Maryland boosters and was provided to the media, he said: “While the Commission’s word did not find a toxic culture, it is clear in reading the report that there were some inappropriate and unacceptable behaviors. Coach Durkin and I both agree that mistake were made.

“I take responsibility for those mistakes and as Athletic Director, commit to you that we will do more. We have begun to implement every recommendation from the external review, led by sports medicine expert Rod Walters. We will also implement each of the recommendations made by the Commission.”

There is certainly a question about the trust — or lack of trust — that might now exist between Durkin and Evans. The day that Durkin was put on leave, Evans told the coach before he went out to run a practice that “I’ve got your back,” according to a source familiar with the situation. After the practice, Evans told Durkin he was being put on leave.

Brady said it was now up to Evans and Durkin to coexist.

“I think they both understand the realities of all of that,” Brady said. “They both understand where the shortcomings of what they did were. And they all committed to getting it right. Damon was in a difficult situation in that he came into this role in an unusual manner. He was associate athletic director and interim athletic director. As you know, those are very different positions from being the top dog. Now that he is the top dog, I think that provides him with what is needed to get this stuff done.”

Durkin was not made available to comment about his relationship with Evans.

In a statement released through a team spokesman, Evans said Monday night, “DJ Durkin is our head football coach and has all the customary responsibilities along with it. Coach Durkin is focused on ensuring that there is a smooth transition and his priority is the well-being of our student-athletes.”

More immediately, how Durkin can go back to work with the players he coached the past two years might be an issue. Several media outlets reported Tuesday that some players walked out of the meeting before practice. Their status with the team is not known.

In the report on the team’s culture by the commission, Durkin was criticized by players whose comments echoed those by unnamed sources in both the initial ESPN report and a subsequent story by The Washington Post. But he also received high marks from many players, both in what they told the commission and in the surveys taken before McNair’s death.

What impact Durkin’s return will have on the football team remains in question. Despite the potential for distractions since the season began, the Terps have played consistently hard and at times performed at a high level under interim coach and offensive coordinator Matt Canada.

According to several parents of current players, there was tremendous support for Durkin when he was first placed on administrative leave. But as the weeks turned into months, the support seemed to fall toward Canada, whose coaching style and personality seem to be a lot more laid-back than Durkin’s.

One parent, who asked to remain anonymous, seemed ambivalent about Durkin’s return despite the fact that the parent likes the coach personally.

“It is what it is. At the end of the day, football has to go on,” the parent said Tuesday after the decision was announced. “To me, the players just have to move on from it. It's going to be interesting to see what happens now as far as the players and the coaches.

“Truthfully, it didn’t bother me one way or the other if he came back or not. If he did, great. If he didn’t, OK. Like I told my son, football goes on regardless of whether Durkin is there, whether Canada is there or whoever is there after the season.”

The decision to retain Durkin comes as the Terps are on the brink of bowl eligibility. Maryland’s 63-33 win last Saturday over Illinois at home was its fifth in eight games this season, meaning that one win in the last four games would make the Terps eligible for their second bowl game in three seasons.

“That is the challenge and I think that Damon Evans, as president Loh indicated, met with the team today and they will do everything they can, and DJ Durkin has to do a major job in terms of winning the confidence of people,” Brady said.

“I will tell you. There are a lot of folks on the team that are very supportive of DJ Durkin. He’s got to make sure he brings all of that together and creates the confidence level that we all need. And that is a challenge, I grant you that. It is a challenge we think he can meet.”

don.markus@baltsun.com

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