At Maryland, no accountability, only shame as DJ Durkin gets absolved
The chair of the Maryland Board of Regents told the school, the state and the world on Tuesday that football coach DJ Durkin deserved another chance to coach the team.
Durkin was inexperienced as a head coach because it was his first time holding the title, chairman James Brady said. Durkin needed more guidance, and the school would give it to him, Brady said. Durkin was “unfairly blamed for the dysfunction in the athletic department,’’ Brady said.
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Durkin was getting a second chance, Brady said. But “there will be no third chance for any of those involved to get this right.”
Jordan McNair won’t get a third chance, either. He certainly didn’t get a second chance, that’s for sure. But Durkin, the coach on whose watch the 19-year-old McNair was worked to death, is getting his. Never has a more disgraceful concept been put forth by a university regarding the blatant disregard for its students’ lives, although there’s plenty of competition from within Maryland’s own Big Ten conference (thank you, Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State).
The University of Maryland shamed itself on Tuesday, worse than it had in the five months and one day since McNair was belatedly taken to the emergency room after collapsing from heat stroke during a workout. It shamed itself worse than it had in all the subsequent passings of the buck leading up to Tuesday’s announcement — rather, the official abdications of responsibility for a teenage student’s death. It shamed itself worse than it had since at least 1986, when it wrestled with the cocaine-overdose death of Len Bias and the consequences that followed.
Those who made the cowardly decisions on Tuesday share that shame — the decisions to keep Durkin in place as football coach, to keep athletic director Damon Evans in place, to threaten school president Wallace Loh’s job security for properly demanding Durkin’s departure (he announced an early retirement as part of the fallout) and to dump as much blame as possible on two now-absent parties in the athletic director who hired Durkin (Kevin Anderson) and Durkin’s handpicked strength coach (Rick Court).
At least some of the shame is now carried by students. It lands on alumni, too. Full disclosure, that includes me, class of 1985: a student most of the time Bias played there and barely past graduation when he died and the multiple connected scandals were unmasked.
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Righting the ship (to borrow a metaphor Loh used) felt like it took forever. It was righted eventually: the increases in investments and endowments, the rise in academic reputation locally and nationwide, and a cleansing national championship for the men’s basketball team in 2002.
It all left the feeling that Maryland had learned a harsh but necessary lesson about perspective and priorities that would not be forgotten regardless of the highs and lows the school and sports programs went through. And they went through a lot of them, from more national championships to entire sports getting dropped en masse for financial reasons.
From the moment the truth began trickling out about how and why McNair died, however, it became increasingly clear that my alma mater didn’t learn a damn thing.
The McNair family lost Tuesday in ways that are incomprehensible to everybody involved.
“I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach, and somebody spit in my face,” Marty McNair, Jordan’s father, said in reaction to the Maryland capitulation, according to the Baltimore Sun.
But also losing big was the notion of accountability. The decision-makers at Maryland sounded as if, despite their carefully chosen words, they didn’t believe they owed anything to anybody except the glory of the football program.
(Speaking of carefully chosen words: They could not have tried harder to avoid labeling what the various investigations uncovered in the football program as “toxic.” Thus, they never had to cop to the description applied by the scathing ESPN report that triggered the investigations long after they should have been started).
So they spared Durkin, who appears to have sold the highest-ranking officials in the state university system like he’d sell parents on a recruiting visit. The athletic director was spared. The president more or less fell on his sword. Some of the players’ families and some of the program supporters clearly like what Durkin’s doing, even though he now has a body on his resume.
On to Michigan State.
The players made it clear they are suffering, and have during every moment of this mournful journey, including in their first game, at FedEx Field against Texas. Reports had it that several players walked out on Durkin when he met with them Tuesday. They’ve taken ownership, for themselves, on behalf of their fallen teammate.
Somebody had to. Nobody else was, and nobody else will — that was made clear.
The powers that be at Maryland are seemingly fine with all this. They believe Durkin can still be the face of the program, which is the face of the athletic department, which is the face of the university, which is the flagship of the state. Players will come there. The ones already there will submit to what the staff tells them. They’ll reach the level to which the school clearly aspires.
The emptiness so many others will feel about it all, about who got away with it and who paid no price, will be an afterthought. A catastrophic loss, and no one in charge will have learned anything from it.
Of Durkin, Board of Regents chairman Brady said, “We believe that he is a good man and a good coach.’’
May this never leave their minds, their legacies and the legacies of all who committed that public betrayal: Jordan McNair was a good man, too. He just didn’t get to be one for long enough.
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