DJ Durkin Firing Shows Influence of Court of Public Opinion
Maryland’s about-face to fire head coach DJ Durkin, the day after announcing that he would be reinstated from administrative leave and return to the team, proved yet again that fans, players and boosters can affect and alter critical decisions made by people in power. The Terrapins keeping Durkin set off a tidal wave of backlash from a wide range of groups—most notably the parents of Jordan McNair, who have demanded justice for the circumstances that led to the death of their son—which in turn mobilized multiple area politicians, which in turn forced the hand of university president Wallace Loh.
This is not the first time public backlash has dictated the employment status of a college coach, but the next-most recent example came by very different circumstances. Last November, Tennessee had reached the final stages of making Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano its head coach before the Twittersphere erupted in anger, citing Schiano’s alleged role in the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State. An avalanche of UT fans, prominent boosters and elected officials expressed enough displeasure that the school reversed course, nixing a memorandum of agreement Schiano had signed and setting off a chain of events that resulted in athletic director John Currie’s dismissal. The situations at Maryland and at Tennessee are far from identical. Let’s be clear on that.
The masses accused Schiano of failing to report sexual assault while on the same staff as Sandusky at Penn State, a claim rooted in third-hand testimony. In a 2015 deposition, ex-Penn State assistant Mike McQueary testified that another Penn State assistant, Tom Bradley, told him Schiano spoke to him about witnessing Sandusky abuse a boy in the early 1990s. Both Schiano and Bradley have denied the allegation. In the heat of the hiring process, it was unclear which fans were genuinely concerned about Schiano’s background and which were motivated by football reasons to pile onto the criticism of the hire.
At Maryland, Durkin oversaw a program whose failures allowed a 6’5", 325-pound redshirt freshman offensive lineman to die from a treatable condition. McNair passed away on June 13, two weeks after he exhibited the symptoms of heatstroke during conditioning drills. An internal report heavily criticized the school’s care of McNair, identifying trainers and medical staff’s numerous failures to follow industry norms. The McNairs sent their son to Maryland to get an education, play football and, possibly, achieve his dream of playing in the NFL. Parents pray that coaches care for the kids just as much as they do. It seemed obvious that if Durkin were to be brought back, the program would have lost all that assumed goodwill with current supporters or future recruits.
You can imagine the fervent outrage when the university board of regents on Tuesday announced its recommendations to keep Durkin. The former Florida and Michigan defensive coordinator spent about 26 hours back as Maryland’s head coach, but he did not act like it, according to those inside the program. He didn’t lead the two practices he attended and didn’t captain team meetings. He was present but quiet—a bizarre two days, for sure. Athletic director Damon Evans informed him of the news immediately after practice Wednesday before telling the staff and holding a brief team meeting with a group that was "surprised" Durkin was reinstated, a program source says.
Interim coach Matt Canada and his staff must now rally a squad for a noon E.T. kickoff against Michigan State (5-3, 3-2) on Saturday. In some of the most difficult circumstances, Canada and co. have led the Terrapins (5-3, 3-2) within one win of qualifying for a bowl game. Their schedule after Michigan State includes road trips to Indiana and Penn State and a home game against Ohio State. Is Canada an option as the permanent coach? How could he not be? Still, there’s a feeling in College Park that the university will “clean house” after the season, a source says, wiping away all those on staff during McNair incident.
School president Wallace Loh did not agree with the board’s recommendations to bring back Durkin, but he followed them anyhow and now “everybody looks stupid,” says one Maryland insider. Loh changed his mind 24 hours later, but only after the public showered the Terrapins with anger and frustration, the biggest of which came from the state’s highest elected office. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, in a statement, called for school officials “to reconsider their decisions” on Durkin.
The McNair family was outraged. Maryland student government leaders planned a protest for Thursday. Some players boycotted team activities on Tuesday and a few of them were expected to attend protests Thursday, according to sources. Some took to Twitter to vent their frustration. “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,” tweeted guard Ellis McKennie. “If only they could have the courage that Jordan had. It’s never the wrong time to do what’s right.”
About an hour after the governor’s statement, Loh announced his decision to “part ways” with Durkin, citing the public outrage and a group of “stakeholders” that expressed “serious concern” with Durkin’s return. “This is a difficult decision, but it is the right one for our entire university.” It was the right decision for the entire university, but it’s telling that everyone except those actually in control of Durkin’s future knew that long ago.