Less than 30 hours after Maryland had announced D.J. Durkin would return from administrative leave as Maryland’s football coach, athletic director Damon Evans informed him he was being dismissed.
And with that, Maryland officials threw a fresh bucket of kerosene on what will long be remembered as one of the biggest administrative dumpster fires in the history of both college athletics and higher education. At Maryland, whose football program has never sniffed the highest levels on the field, they’ve managed to crack the highest echelons of incompetence. If they gave out College Football Playoff bids based on leadership voids, the decibel of public-relations disasters and complete tone-deafness in the wake of a tragedy, Maryland would be unanimous No. 1 seed in 2018. It’s hard to imagine this effort not putting them in the conversation for an All-Century team.
After more than 24 hours of caustic columns, the promise of student protests and an admonishment from the governor – THE FREAKING GOVERNOR, think about that – Maryland finally did what was so obvious to everyone but the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents. They parted ways with Durkin, who they’ll still end up owing $5 million, and let searing public embarrassment finally yield to some common sense.
From the moment Maryland put Durkin on paid administrative leave in August, anyone with a brain and a thimble full of emotional intelligence could discern there was no way he could continue to function as Maryland’s football coach. A player named Jordan McNair died in June. Durkin wasn’t found responsible in any way for that. And one of the few things the university handled well in this was accepting “legal and moral” responsibility.
But things got so ugly around the Maryland program, including ESPN branding it as having a “toxic culture,” there was no way Durkin could have come back and resumed any type of normal coaching responsibilities there. His future there was untenable, and when they couldn’t find reason to fire him for cause they should have sent him his money and hired a search firm to get the next guy.
In the wake of the death of a player, dueling investigative reports into the culture of his program and a near-three-month suspension, the only people dim-witted enough to think Durkin could return to the sideline without complete chaos were those Maryland regents. They did it clearly against the wishes of Maryland president Wallace Loh, who ended up announcing he’ll be stepping down in June in the wake of this whole mess.
And he managed to do it at one of the most awkward news conferences in recent memory. Loh refused to dignify Durkin by name. In an awkward speech fraught with nautical metaphors, the only fitting one for Maryland would have been the Titanic.
But Captain Loh got the final jab, as he exacted his revenge on the board by firing Durkin one day after the regents forced him to take the coach back. Loh hasn’t exactly brandished exceptional leadership here, but credit him for having the foresight to see the tsunami of negative press and horrible optics that others failed to. He attempted to save Maryland from itself, but the regents pushed onward, through equal parts cattiness and obliviousness. “The overwhelming majority of stakeholders expressed serious concerns about Coach D.J. Durkin returning to the campus,” Loh said in a statement released on Wednesday.
Why board officials went to all these lengths to bring back Durkin, who’d been 10-15 at the school and had just two years remaining on his contract, may be the most baffling part. Success was never an option for Durkin once he was initially suspended. First off, from a pragmatic standpoint, he’d have needed a contract extension in the next few months. Even the blind mice on Maryland’s board could have seen how well that would have gone over.
It makes sense now why the clown-car driver on the board, James Brady, made a wildly inappropriate joke about drinking gin when he grabbed a bottle of water in the news conference on Tuesday. Mass consumption of alcohol could have been the only reasonable explanation of how Maryland’s regents – alleged leaders with vision and common sense – could have fathomed Durkin’s return working for any extended period of time. Thankfully, the right answers came with such white-hot fury from the media, students and government, that the obvious decision finally arrived.
But not before Maryland earned a 24-hour news cycle of ignominy. Congratulations to Maryland football, you can finally claim your place in the rarest air of big-time college football.
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