The controversy over the University of Maryland’s decision to retain Athletic Director Damon Evans and football coach DJ Durkin following the death of a football player last spring instantly became an issue in the gubernatorial election Tuesday.
In a statement, Democratic nominee Benjamin T. Jealous suggested that Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) had not done enough to demand accountability from university officials for the death of football player Jordan McNair, who died after suffering from heat stroke following a grueling team practice in hot weather.
“Under direction from the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, the University of Maryland has become a national embarrassment for putting the agenda of a few wealthy football boosters ahead of the health and safety of its student athletes,” Jealous said.
Jealous’ statement was just part of the political firestorm set off when the regents recommended Tuesday that the university’s president, Wallace D. Loh, along with Evans and Durkin, retain their jobs even though a report prepared for the regents found “problems that festered” within the football program.
However, Loh, 72, announced at a news conference that he would retire in June, and hinted that the regents had rejected his recommendation that Evans and Durkin lose their jobs.
The board of regents ended its four-month-long investigation into the culture of the Maryland’s football program by finding that the university’s leadership shared “responsibility for the failure to supervise” strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, but found no direct link between the dysfunction of the athletic department and McNair’s death in June.
“We are not saying people didn’t make mistakes,” board Chairman James T. Brady said at the news conference. “We are saying that, despite those mistakes, our judgment is that these individuals are best-placed to immediately carry out the reforms necessary to safeguard the well-being of student-athletes.”
The board also recommended implementing an oversight board that will closely monitor the steps taken to improve the culture within the football program.
Hogan openly wondered whether these moves would be sufficient to restore the athletic department’s reputation – and by extension, the university’s.
“The addition of an oversight board seems to be a positive step, but many will understandably question whether enough has been done to address the serious concerns that exist among many in the College Park community — I am one of them,” the governor said in a statement.
Hogan also pledged that “in the weeks ahead, we will be pushing for assurances that the issues outlined in the report will be effectively addressed.”
But Jealous noted that Hogan has appointed most of the current regents – though some are appointees of former Gov. Martin J. O’Malley (D) – and ought to have demanded more accountability.
“If the Regents won’t do the right thing on their own, Governor Hogan—who appointed the vast majority of the current Board—should step in and call on them to fire Evans and Durkin,” Jealous said. “It is not enough for the leader of our state to simply shift blame and throw his hands up, yet ultimately do nothing.”
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III – runner-up to Jealous in this year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary – lamented Loh’s imminent departure.
“Throughout this situation, Dr. Loh displayed a level of candor and courage that are a testament to his character,” Baker said in a statement. “I applaud him accepting moral and legal responsibility for Jordan McNair’s death. It was a sign of true leadership, guts and integrity. It is unfortunate that instead of rewarding him for his courage, Dr. Loh was punished for doing the right thing. Leaders like him are hard to find and the university is truly losing a great man.”
Baker also asserted that Loh was a valuable ally as county leaders looked to redevelop the College Park area and improve government services countywide.
“From supporting and fighting for the Purple Line to creating an economic development boom in College Park, Dr. Loh has done more to unite the University with the County in his eight years than his predecessors over the preceding decades,” Baker said. “Additionally, the academic partnerships and resources that the University developed and worked on with the County has helped create unprecedented health, public safety, and educational outcomes.
McNair’s family, which has publicly called for Durkin to be fired, was not pleased with the Board of Regents’ decision. McNair’s father, Marty McNair, said he felt like he had been “punched in the stomach and spit in the face.”
When asked about the McNair family’s demands, Brady said he and his fellow regents were “very aware of that.”
Durkin will be reinstated immediately, and it is expected he will be on the sidelines for Maryland’s game against Michigan State on Saturday after being on administrative leave since Aug. 11.
Under interim coach, offensive coordinator Matt Canada, the team is 5-3 so far this season.
Hogan said that the school’s leadership has a responsibility to maintain the university’s high reputation as a “world-class” institution.
“It is incumbent upon the regents, President Loh and the College Park athletic department to build a stronger athletic program where student-athletes are always treated with dignity and respect,” he said.
This article includes reporting by Zach Selby from the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service.