Football has taken some hits in the past couple of years, between the concussion controversies and the NFL’s tendency to step into political messes. And this week, the University of Maryland Terrapin football program created a public relations nightmare when it reinstated disgraced head coach D. J. Durkin only to fire him the next day.
Durkin presided over a culture where abuse was rife. Players reported that from the beginning of his career at Maryland in 2016, verbal abuse of players was common, and Durkin’s staff – particularly strength and conditioning coach Rick Court – involved players in bizarre punishments.
In May of this year, Maryland player Jordan McNair collapsed during a practice with a body temperature of 106 degrees Fahrenheit and died two weeks later. ESPN launched an investigation into the football program under Durkin and determined that a toxic culture existed at Maryland.
The Board of Regents fired Court in August and placed Durkin on administrative leave and conducted its own investigation. The 192-page report, released last week, acknowledged the severity of the problems at Maryland but stopped short of calling the culture toxic.
“If the culture had been ‘malicious or harmful,’ Mr. Durkin would not have earned the loyalty and respect of many of his student-athletes and coaches,” the report stated. “Many players interviewed by the Commission felt Mr. Durkin’s and Mr. Court’s coaching tactics reflected those of a ‘big time football program.’”
Current and former players had mixed reactions to the report, with some showing their support for Durkin and others expressing disgust at the findings. One player even said that the coach “should never get another coaching job.”
The Maryland Board of Regents decided to reinstate Durkin on October 30. James Brady, the president of the board, said in a statement, “We believe that Coach Durkin has been unfairly blamed for the dysfunction in the athletic department. And while he shares some responsibility, it is not fair to place all of it at his feet.”
Additionally, they announced that athletic director Damon Evans and University of Maryland president Wallace Loh would keep their jobs, although Loh is set to retire next year.
Durkin issued a statement shortly after the announcement:
“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,” Durkin said. “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.”
Some players weren’t happy:
Every Saturday my teammates and I have to kneel before the memorial of our fallen teammate. 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. pic.twitter.com/AaZVmLGTtS
— Ellis McKennie (@ellismckennie) October 30, 2018
At the end of the day, a YOUNG life was lost. My brother, teammate. And to boil it down to even horrific matters, a paycheck was chosen over that life. Through whatever and forever, I live for Jordan Martin McNair. https://t.co/YX18QH6Pl5
— Tyran Hunt (@tyranjhunt) October 31, 2018
The uproar over Durkin’s reinstatement reverberated all over campus and throughout Maryland’s fan base (even Governor Larry Hogan weighed in), and it only took a day for the university to see the mistake it had made. The school fired Durkin on Wednesday.
Since returning to campus after yesterday’s press conference, I have met with the leadership of the Student Government Association speaking on behalf of numerous student organizations; the Senate Executive Committee; Deans; department chairs; and campus leadership. The overwhelming majority of stakeholders expressed serious concerns about Coach DJ Durkin returning to the campus.
The chair of the Board of Regents has publicly acknowledged that I had previously raised serious concerns about Coach Durkin’s return. This is not at all a reflection of my opinion of Coach Durkin as a person. However, a departure is in the best interest of the University, and this afternoon Coach Durkin was informed that the University will part ways.
To say that firing Durkin was in the university’s best interests is an understatement. All you have to do is read the accounts in the committee’s report – the same report in which they concluded that Maryland football did not have a toxic culture – to see that serious issues were taking place and that Durkin had the responsibility for putting a stop to them, which he didn’t.
Some are calling for the heads of the Board of Regents, as well as for Evans to step down. The main criticism, which is warranted, is that the school didn’t do the right thing until it became a clear public relations issue. USA Today’s Christine Brennan hit the nail on the head when she wrote:
Only when voices from the worlds of sports, academia and Maryland politics were raised, creating a cacophony of outrage, did Maryland finally do the right thing and dump Durkin.
Maryland didn’t do the right thing because it was the right thing to do. It doesn’t appear to possess that kind of moral compass. No, it had to be forced into doing what was right by the outside world.
At the end of the day, players underwent humiliation and abuse in a culture that Durkin oversaw. Jordan McNair is dead – senselessly, needlessly. The least the University of Maryland could have done was ensure that Durkin would no longer coach there. Sadly, it took a day too long for them to recognize that fact.