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Schmuck: Firing Durkin was right decision, but there's no excuse for how badly situation was handled

It was certainly fair to wonder what the University System of Maryland Board of Regents was thinking when it announced Tuesday that DJ Durkin would be reinstated as Terps football coach.

Now, it has become apparent that the regents were not thinking at all.

If they had been, somebody would have figured out that putting Durkin back on the sideline would divide the student body and alumni before university president Wallace Loh finally did Wednesday what he begged the regents to let him do the day before: fire Durkin.

Loh wanted to fire Durkin earlier and the regents wouldn’t allow it, which created a political firestorm that induced both governor Larry Hogan and Democratic challenger Ben Jealous to blast the decision and call on the board to reconsider.

The original announcement that both Durkin and athletic director Damon Evans would be retained also sparked student protests, social media criticism from some Maryland football players and — perhaps most importantly — condemnation from the grieving parents of Jordan McNair.

Loh apparently was the only one with the foresight to see what would happen, but he had been marginalized by the board way back in August when he stepped up and announced at a news conference that the university would accept full moral and legal responsibility for McNair’s death from exertional heatstroke two months earlier.

Soon after Loh announced that he was forming a three-person commission to investigate the validity of an ESPN article that described a “toxic” football culture at Maryland, the board took over the investigation and appointed five more members to the commission.

It was clear Tuesday that the regents were relieved that their largely hand-picked commission stopped short of calling the football culture “toxic,” though the report that was leaked to several media outlets last week did detail “dysfunction” throughout the athletic department.

That semi-good news either blinded the regents to the obvious problems that would accompany the return of Durkin, or they were just clueless. Board president James T. Brady told The Baltimore Sun on Thursday that he recognized Durkin would face a big hurdle trying to repair the image of his program and recruit quality players in the aftermath of the McNair tragedy.

Brady apparently didn’t know the half of it.

The Terps are already at a huge recruiting disadvantage against the power teams in the Big Ten. Even with the success that Durkin had bringing in the 28th-ranked recruiting class in the nation last year, the Terps’ class ranked only fifth in the conference.

Now imagine you’re the parent of a five-star recruit and Durkin shows up at your home to close the deal. The usual pitch that he’s going to take great care of your son is going to ring pretty hollow once you realize Durkin or someone on his staff probably said exactly the same things to McNair’s parents.

The original decision to impose no disciplinary action on any current athletic department employee sent exactly the wrong message at the same time the board was trying to sell the notion it was acting in only the best interests of the university and its student-athletes.

The result was a convoluted news conference that implied the best people to fix the myriad problems facing the Maryland athletic department were the same people who were responsible for the dysfunctional environment in the first place.

Though it was hard not to suspect the regents convinced themselves the best course of action — or inaction — was also the one that saved the huge expense of buying out Durkin (and maybe Evans) and spending millions more on a new head coach, Brady denied that financial considerations played any role in the decision. According to a copy of his contract, Durkin will be owed $5.4 million for the final two years of what was initially a five-year deal.

Maybe we’ll never know exactly what the regents were contemplating when they took a very bad situation and made it worse.

Ultimately, the right decision was made, but not before the national reputation of a great university took another big hit.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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