Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., the president of the Maryland State Senate and a rabid supporter of the University of Maryland’s athletic program, said the athletic department has been “adrift” since the June 13 death of football player Jordan McNair — especially as a result of the player’s family hiring prominent Baltimore attorney Billy Murphy Jr.
Calling McNair’s death “a tragedy that occurred on university property with university personnel involved,” Miller seemed exasperated with the stories he believed are being leaked to the media from both sides — and the personnel moves that the university has taken in response.
“There are so many issues,” he said. “We’ve got to get some finality to this. The bleeding’s got to stop because it’s been hemorrhaging all summer long. It’s catastrophic in terms of the public relations aspect.”
Miller praised university President Wallace Loh for the strides Maryland has taken academically during his tenure, as well as for trying to develop College Park into “a college campus town” but said Loh is in a losing battle with Murphy, who has secured settlements and waged public-relations battles while representing high-profile clients such as the family of Freddie Gray.
“He thought he could deal with Billy Murphy. He can’t,” Miller said. “In that case, College Park is hopelessly outgunned.”
Murphy did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Baltimore Sun. Through a university spokeswoman, Loh declined to comment for this article.
Miller’s criticism joins a chorus that has arisen as the university faces its biggest athletic scandal since the death of All-American basketball player Len Bias from a cocaine overdose in June 1986.
Last week, two prominent sports commentators with Maryland degrees — Scott Van Pelt and Boomer Esiason — came down hard on Loh and new athletic director Damon Evans.
On his ESPN television show early Saturday, 1988 graduate Van Pelt said the “fallout [from McNair’s death] might be an entire reset of the culture across the university. They talk [in College Park] of fearless ideas. Right now it requires that.”
Van Pelt’s comments echoed those of Esiason, a 1984 graduate. The former Maryland and NFL quarterback said on his nationally syndicated radio show that Loh and Evans have demonstrated a “shameful lack of leadership” in their slow response to McNair’s death.
Yet others argue against a rush to judgment.
Marcos Bronfman, who has been president of the Terrapin Club Scholarship Fund since June, said Saturday that he thinks the media coverage involving Loh and Evans has been “unfair” and that he would like the facts to come out before a final judgment is rendered.
“From what I can see, everybody is doing the best they can [at Maryland] given a very difficult situation,” said Bronfman, who supports not only Loh and Evans remaining on the job but also returning football coach DJ Durkin to his job.
Durkin has been on administrative leave since Aug. 11.
The external review looking into the circumstances surrounding McNair’s heatstroke, conducted by Walters Inc., a South Carolina-based medical consulting firm, is expected to finish its investigation by Sept. 15. There is no timetable for a commission hired to look into ESPN’s report of a “toxic” culture surrounding the football team.
Both inquiries are now being run by the Maryland System’s Board of Regents after initially being under the guidance of Loh and Evans. It was announced this week that the regents will meet Thursday to get updates on the investigations.
In a telephone interview with The Baltimore Sun on Tuesday, Evans said his focus is on helping the football team, as well as the athletic department and university, recover from McNair’s death.
“When you hold positions like this, criticism is part of the job,” Evans said. “What concerns me is just making sure that our student-athletes are OK.
He said he wanted to ensure that the university provides student-athletes “with the resources they need to get through this very difficult time, as well as making sure that we take measures and take steps where something like this never happens again.”
Maryland begins its 2018 football season against Texas on Saturday at FedEx Field with offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who was hired in January, as its interim coach.
McNair died two weeks after suffering heatstroke during a team conditioning test.
More recently, The Sun and The Washington Post reported Loh had rejected a proposal in May 2017 by former athletic director Kevin Anderson and others to move the care of athletes by trainers in College Park under the direction of the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.
Days after Loh announced the university would accept “legal and moral responsibility” for McNair’s death, the Board of Regents took control of the investigations.
While Loh received the support from McNair’s parents in a statement their attorneys shared with ESPN, Loh has long been Evans’ biggest champion.
Now there seems to be a growing number of critics who believe Maryland needs to make a clean sweep, starting with Loh and Evans, and sever ties with Durkin as well if it turns out the ESPN report was accurate.
Steve Baldwin, a longtime donor and 1983 Maryland graduate, said Thursday that he considered the hiring of Evans to be risky shortly after McNair’s death, then watched in disbelief as Evans allowed Durkin to use the same strength staff and trainers when the players returned to workouts later in the summer.
“I find that judgment to be unconscionable and lacking,” Baldwin said. “Given the fact that Jordan McNair’s death occurred under the supervision of Maryland personnel, I believe that his death has the potential of having an impact more damaging than what occurred when Len Bias died.”
Barry DesRoches, a 1980 graduate and longtime booster, said he thought about one of Loh’s favorite metaphors at the time DesRoches wrote a 14-page letter he sent to University System of Maryland chancellor Robert Caret, the Board of Regents and Loh, spelling out the reasons the school shouldn’t hire Evans — including the manner in which the search was conducted and the baggage Evans carried with him from the University of Georgia as well as the rumors about his personal life spilling into the workplace.
“If you want to make the candidates he interviewed for that job analogous to volcanoes, he picked the one that looked the most likely to blow,” DesRoches said Thursday. “When I wrote that letter, I thought, 'When there’s lot of smoke, there’s likely a fire.' And unfortunately that has turned out to be the case.”
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the external reviews, Evans appears confident in his future at Maryland.
Asked at a news conference whether he should be held responsible for the culture allegedly established by Durkin, Evans said he would look into the allegations that came mostly from unnamed players and former members of Durkin’s staff.
“My plan moving forward is to ... make sure the environment we provide for our student-athletes is one that is safe and conducive for them to learn and to grow and develop and overall they have a good experience,” he said. “I believe I’m the one that can lead us through these very difficult times.”