Inside the strife of the Maryland athletic department, building up to — and beyond — McNair's death

The upheaval in the University of Maryland athletic department had begun to take shape by the time the coaches, staff members and senior administrators gathered last fall for their annual back-to-school staff meeting.

According to several people who were there, university President Wallace Loh spoke glowingly of Damon Evans. Evans was not the athletic director — he had come to Maryland nearly three years earlier to be AD Kevin Anderson’s second-in-command.

Loh ignored Anderson.

“All Dr. Loh talked about was what a great job Damon was doing and how lucky we were to have him,” said a person who was present. “People left the meeting perplexed, asking each other if Damon was going to be the next AD.”

By mid-October, Anderson began a six-month sabbatical from which he never returned. And Evans, who already had the title of executive athletic director, was given the power to run the department as he saw fit.

Last fall’s staff meeting was one of a series of episodes that indicate some of the jockeying and strain within the department leading up to — and beyond — June 13, the day football player Jordan McNair died after suffering heatstroke during a team conditioning test.

Since that moment, various weighty moves have been evident to the wider world: Evans was promoted to the permanent athletic director job, with a six-year contract that guarantees him $720,000 annually. ESPN has reported that a “toxic” culture surrounded the football team. Football coach DJ Durkin was placed on administrative leave. Strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, one of three support staff members also placed on administrative leave, resigned. Loh and Maryland took “legal and moral responsibility” for McNair’s death at age 19.

But some of the activity has been equally fraught — and less outwardly visible.

Sports attorney Don Jackson, who has represented four Maryland student-athletes over the past three years on eligibility issues, said his interaction with those in the athletic department was not always pleasant or professional.

“It’s the most dysfunctional athletic department I have ever worked with,” Jackson said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun. “It’s like a viper pit. They [senior staff] were figuratively carrying daggers looking to put it in someone else’s back. They don’t care about the student-athletes, only about themselves and their survival.”

Long before he came to Maryland in 2014, Evans had enjoyed a successful six-year tenure at the University of Georgia that ended in July 2010 after an arrest for driving under the influence. He pleaded guilty, was sentenced to 12 months of probation and 40 hours of community service and fined $750.

He has been getting a shot at redemption at Maryland, where Loh quickly befriended him and became his biggest champion. But even before McNair’s collapse, things were complicated with Evans — including allegations of an affair with a subordinate, a claim of an improper termination and complaints about the search process that helped land him the job.

Included in a 14-page letter that 1980 Maryland graduate and active donor Barry DesRoches sent in early May to Loh, University System of Maryland Chancellor Robert Caret and the Board of Regents, there were allegations that Evans was involved in a romantic relationship with a female subordinate.

The alleged relationship between Evans and the woman was also mentioned in a grievance filed in November by a former staff member.

The former employee claimed in the grievance that several athletic department staff members warned him of not “messing with [Evans’] girl” after hearing Evans had gone to the former employee’s office to talk about a dispute the former employee had with the woman over a department project.

In the grievance, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun, the former employee wrote his firing nine days after Anderson went on sabbatical was unjust, writing it was “wrongful termination through retaliatory means that were hostile and premeditated.”

The former employee and the university reached a settlement, according to multiple sources.

The alleged relationship, first reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education two days after Evans was introduced as athletic director in late June, was denied by Evans and in a subsequent email to The Sun from a university spokeswoman.

“We are disappointed that The Chronicle chose to move forward with a story based on unfounded rumors from anonymous sources,” the statement read. “As we made clear to The Chronicle on multiple occasions, the university looked into these allegations, and the human resources department found no evidence of an improper relationship. We are confident that the appropriate protocols were followed.”

A university spokeswoman reiterated the statement this week.

Sources said the former employee was one of several ex-senior staff members, including Anderson, to sign nondisclosure agreements that prevent them from publicly discussing Loh, Evans or their exit from Maryland. Senior Woman Administrator Lori Ebihara went on personal leave in December and also never returned.

Assistant Vice President for Human Resources Jewel Washington and former Title IX officer Catherine Carroll did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Other current and former athletic department staff members either couldn’t be reached for comment or declined to comment.

Those who support Evans spoke at his introductory news conference of what they admire about the 48-year-old administrator and why they were happy he had been hired, including longtime field hockey coach Missy Meharg and prominent university donor Barry Gossett, both of whom served on the search committee.

They praised his ability as a fundraiser and his being more open to their ideas and needs than Anderson. Evans was also clearly more comfortable facing reporters than his predecessor.

In an interview with The Sun in early December, Evans acknowledged that Anderson’s abrupt departure had deepened the factions for and against his candidacy.

“You’re not going to make everyone happy,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you’re not going to try. Everything I do since I’ve been in the business is to try to do what’s in the best interest of the institution, so those individuals who are associated with that institution can have a sense of pride that the institution is moving forward.”

The promotion of Evans in late June came despite pleas from several members of the school’s board of trustees who believed the “fix was in,” as one put it recently when speaking about the makeup of the search committee.

It included not only Meharg and Gossett, but also Loh’s chief of staff, Michele Eastman, and Senior Associate Athletic Director Cheryl Harrison.

Gossett, who in 2007 gave $10 million to help build the football team house that bears his family’s name and in April, only days after Anderson resigned, committed $21.25 million for a learning and development center for athletes as part of the Cole Field House project expansion, has been one of Evans' biggest advocates.

In an interview after the news conference to introduce Evans, Gossett said he and his wife, Mary, have always been more comfortable around Evans than they were with Anderson during his 7½ years in College Park.

“I’ll tell you what my wife said: ‘Kevin was a nice guy, but he was never approachable,’ ” Gossett said. “Damon is approachable. My wife calls Damon, and Damon answers the phone. My wife called Kevin, and he would have to get back to her. That kind of says it all in a lot of ways.”

In introducing Evans from the podium, Meharg said she and track coach Andrew Valmon, who was also on the search committee, were asked by another member of the search committee to talk about Evans.

“He’s really confident,” Meharg recalled saying. “When we're confident in what we do, it’s easy to be great. ... He communicates. He gets respect because he earns it, he gives it. He respects all of us. … He gives you the reality. He understands money. He understands vision. … He’s compassionate to the nth degree. He sees no color. He sees no gender.”

Harrison, who worked in the athletic department from 1996 to 2013 under ADs Debbie Yow and Anderson before returning to the university’s central development office in June 2017, said she didn't know Evans when she became a senior staff member.

"He's got a great business acumen, he understands our financial situation and the challenges we face financially," Harrison said Thursday. "He's inspiring us all to figure out how we not only meet those challenges but we exceed what we need to do in order to move the program forward."

Acknowledging the “second chance” Evans was receiving after being fired at Georgia, Loh said he needed to get along with his athletic director, something that sources familiar with their relationship said wasn’t often the case with Anderson.

“It’s not just about capability. It’s really about something intangible called institutional fit and chemistry,” Loh said after Evans’ introductory news conference. “I can have the very best dean, but if we don’t get along, it ain’t gonna work.”

Asked that day about the search process, which cost the university a reported $120,000 for the outside firm it hired to identify potential candidates, Loh said it was an “open and national search” that eventually brought six finalists among the 30 who applied for the job to the committee.

Loh said hiring Evans went against a trend of the 25 searches Loh has conducted for senior administrators at Maryland.

“Anybody who is going to take a major, senior role has to compete against everybody who applies. The fact is that they have an advantage because he’s well-known. But very often, in academia, people don’t hire from the inside,” Loh said. “They hire from the outside because they get too [much] baggage if they have made hard decisions. I think someone from the inside has a higher hurdle to surmount.”

Several hurdles remain for Evans. Durkin is still on leave with the football season starting Saturday. The athletic department has two ongoing investigations — one into the circumstances surrounding McNair’s death and the other reviewing the culture of the football program. The Board of Regents has seized control of both investigations from Loh and Evans.

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