On Tuesday, the University of Maryland board of regents decided to reinstate suspended head football coach D.J. Durkin. But after the board was skewered for doing so by the national media, Maryland students, and even the Governor himself, the President reversed the board and fired him. Michigan Radio sports commentator John U Bacon sorts out the utterly avoidable mess.
D.J. Durkin coached for Jim Harbaugh at Stanford for three years, and at Michigan for one. I liked him, but I never played for him. Among the Michigan players I know who did, some liked him, some didn’t, but I never heard any of them say they thought he was dangerous.
In 2016, Durkin accepted the head coaching position at Maryland, which was entering its third season in the Big Ten. The year before, the Terrapins had finished dead last in the Big Ten East Division.
In Durkin’s first two seasons, it seemed like he was turning the program around. But during an intense practice this spring, a 19-year old offensive lineman named Jordan McNair collapsed due to heat exhaustion. Medical staff and teammates witnessed him suffer an apparent seizure.
One hour later – yes, one hour later – somebody finally saw fit to call 911. In the hospital doctors discovered McNair’s temperature had shot up to 106 degrees. 15 days later, he died.
To his credit, Maryland President Wallace Loh gave the family an unqualified apology, and took full responsibility. It seemed to come from the heart, not a team of lawyers.
But no similar sentiments came from the people who actually were responsible. As the weeks passed, it was not clear what Maryland was going to do about the tragedy, if anything. Then ESPN published a report two months later exposing a toxic culture of coaches bullying their players, and even endangering their health.
This forced Maryland to suspend Durkin and his strength coach, Rick Court, who was soon let go. But the University kept Durkin on paid administrative leave while it conducted an 80-day investigation.
When the report came out in late October(), it largely confirmed ESPN’s findings, which would seem to make the next step obvious: fire Durkin, and keep his replacement, Matt Canada, who had been doing a surprisingly good job.
But instead, on Tuesday the regents threatened to fire President Loh if he did not keepDurkin. This defied all common sense and all common decency. President Loh told them he would resign. The board accepted President Loh’s resignation, in order to keep Durkin.
How Durkin would be received by the players, the parents of future recruits (let alone McNair’s parents), and the public, are three things the regents apparently gave no thought. I cannot for the life of me fathom what they were thinking.
The board’s decision was so careless, so heartless, and so mind-numbingly stupid, that it created an overwhelming backlash from Maryland students, faculty, alumni, and even the Governor of the state – not to mention many of the players. That this surprised the trustees this only confirms how out of touch they must be. The tsunami of outrage was so great President Loh ignored the board’s decision and proceeded to fire Durkin the next day.
In 1999, former Michigan athletic director Don Canham told me the key to crisis management: “Never turn a one-day story into a two-day story.” It’s very simple, but no one seems capable of following it.
In the past decade, in the Big Ten East Division alone, we’ve seen Penn State’s trustees mishandle the Sandusky tragedy, Michigan’s former athletic director blow the Shane Morris situation, Michigan State’s board, president, and interim president screw up the Larry Nassar scandal, Ohio State’s board mishandle their abusive assistant coach, and now this. These situations have little in common except their responses, which were all as cynically self-interested as they were stupid – and utterly unhelpful.
The Maryland leaders might have come up with worse ways to handle this crisis, but none immediately come to mind. Here’s hoping they all resign, along with the other failed leaders listed above.
It cannot happen fast enough.
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Radio stuff: On Friday mornings, these commentaries run at 8:50 on Michigan Radio (91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit and Flint, and 104.1 Grand Rapids), and a few minutes later, I join Sam Webb and Ira Weintraub LIVE from 9:05 to 9:25 on WTKA.com, 1050 AM.
I also join Michigan Radio’s great Cynthia Canty on her afternoon Stateside show every Monday for a few minutes, and occasionally on NPR’s Morning Edition, and the afternoon Here & Now show. Check ’em out!
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