BALTIMORE — Maryland football coach DJ Durkin, who was placed on paid administrative leave in August following the June 13 death of 19-year-old offensive lineman Jordan McNair from heatstroke he suffered at a May 29 workout, has been reinstated, the University System of Maryland Board of Regents announced on Tuesday.
University president Wallace D. Loh and athletic director Damon Evans will also keep their jobs, but Loh announced his plans to retire in June 2019. The long-awaited decision on the futures of the three men comes after two separate investigations into the football program, and five meetings and calls between the 17-member board of regents.
“We believe that coach Durkin has been unfairly blamed for the dysfunction in the athletic department,” USM board chair James T. Brady said at a Tuesday news conference. “While he bears some responsibility, it is not fair to place all of it as his feet.”
Durkin returned immediately to his duties Tuesday, leading a team meeting before a regularly scheduled practice. Sources told ESPN that several players, including starters, walked out of the meeting with Durkin.
Sources with knowledge of the process told ESPN that retaining Durkin was the board’s chief objective, and that Loh was forced to keep the coach or risk losing his own job.
“This is really not Dr. Loh’s decision,” a source said.
The USM Board of Regents only has authority to retain or remove a university president. Loh didn’t mention Durkin by name during his opening remarks Tuesday, only saying he accepts the board’s recommendation to reinstate the coach.
“The board of regents insisted that DJ return, and this has been their highest priority,” a source with knowledge of the situation told ESPN. “Some regents appeared to be obsessed with it. The problem is they don’t have the authority to hire and fire DJ, but they made it clear that is their main priority here. Because they can’t hire and fire anybody, which they finally realized, they told Wallace Loh that they wanted him to bring DJ back and the clear message was that if Loh was not willing to bring DJ back right away, they would fire [Loh] immediately and then see who the acting president was and get that person to [retain Durkin].”
On Friday, the board of regents met with Loh, Evans and Durkin at its headquarters in Baltimore. Brady said Durkin was “incredibly forthright” with the regents, after he had participated in more than 10 hours of interviews with an eight-person commission that spent more than two months investigation the culture within the football program. Brady added that even though no personnel changes were recommended, the board “must ensure that the recommendations in these two reports are implemented swiftly in College Park and as appropriated at every campus across our university system.”
Offensive coordinator Matt Canada has served as Maryland’s interim head coach since Durkin was placed on administrative leave in August.
The investigation into the culture of Durkin’s program was initiated after an ESPN report on Aug. 10 that detailed allegations of an atmosphere built on fear and intimidation. While the commission’s report stated the culture was “not toxic,” it concluded there was a “culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out.” The report contained statements from players, parents of players, assistant coaches and others both supporting Durkin and criticizing him.
The findings of the first investigation were released on Sept. 21 and found Maryland athletic trainers did not follow proper protocol and failed to recognize and treat the symptoms of heatstroke that eventually led to McNair’s death on June 13. Two athletic trainers, Wes Robinson and Steve Nordwall, were placed on administrative leave along with Durkin on Aug. 11. Loh on Tuesday deferred the decision on Robinson and Nordwall’s future employment to Evans.
In August, Loh publicly accepted “legal and moral responsibility” for the mistakes the athletic trainers made during the May 29 workout.
“Today I stand by that statement 100 percent,” Loh said Tuesday, “and I will do everything possible to fulfill that responsibility.”
Brady added Tuesday that the board of regents “believes the university bears responsibility for what happened to Mr. McNair.”
Loh added that he and Evans intend to “implement a new culture in football that emphasizes the well-being of the student athletes and their success.”
Brady later said that Durkin, Evans and Loh “have accepted that they share responsibility for the dysfunctions within the athletic department. We also found that all three individuals share our commitment to improving the culture in the university’s football program and to implementing the recommendations from both the Walters report and the independent commission.”
Brady said that as president, Loh bears responsibility for the dysfunction in the athletic department, and has acknowledged this to the board of regents. Since the summer, Loh has begun to implement a series of reforms cited in the Walters report.
Brady said that Evans, both as deputy athletics director and interim athletics director, reported to Kevin Anderson and was in a transitional role.
“We believe that Mr. Evans should be given the opportunity to lead the athletic department,” Brady said, “and accordingly recommend to the university leadership that he be given that opportunity. … We believe he is the right person to move the department forward at this critical time.”
Brady said Durkin “failed to adequately supervise strength and conditioning coach Rick Court,” but also noted that Court has since resigned. Asked about the organizational chart cited in the commission’s report that shows Court directly below Durkin, Brady said there were other charts that indicated confusion in reporting responsibilities. Durkin made Court his first staff hire after getting the Maryland job, and players described the two to the investigative commission as “the same person.”
“We also acknowledge the many individuals who spoke with the independent commission, those comments as detailed by the commission were at times very critical of coach Durkin and his lack of oversight of Mr. Court,” Brady said. “But many others, players and families, spoke very positively and with great affection about coach Durkin and his deep commitment to the football program and his players and their families.”
McNair’s parents, Marty McNair and Tonya Wilson, have repeatedly called for Durkin’s firing. Brady said possible litigation from the McNair family, Durkin or Evans did not factor in the board’s recommendations to Loh.
Asked what message he has for McNair’s family, Brady said, “The regents have looked at this very carefully and are very conscious of [the calls for Durkin’s firing] and we made a decision based upon a very strong belief that DJ is absolutely prepared to move in a direction that is totally consistent with the values of the university.”
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