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Bacon: Maryland gets it wrong before they get it right

John U. Bacon

D.J. Durkin coached for Jim Harbaugh at Stanford for three years, and at Michigan for one. I liked him, but I didn’t play for him. Among the Michigan players I know, 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.

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 were actually responsible. 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 administrative leave while it conducted an 80-day investigation.

The report largely confirmed ESPN’s findings, which would seem to make the next step obvious: fire Durkin.

But instead, on Tuesday, the trustees threatened to fire President Loh if he did not keep Durkin. 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, and the public, are three things to which the trustees 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. That the trustees were surprised by this only confirms how out of touch they must be. The tsunami of outrage was so great, President Loh felt compelled the very next day to fire Durkin.

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 situaton, 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 cynical as they were stupid – and utterly unhelpful.

The Maryland leaders might have come up with a worse way to handle this crisis, but it does not immediately come to mind. Here’s hoping they all resign, along with the other failed leaders listed above.

It cannot happen fast enough.

John U. Bacon is the author of ten books, six of them national bestsellers. His latest, Best of Bacon: Select Cuts, is out now. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this essay reported the Maryland Board of Trustees fired football coach DJ Durkin. He was actually fired by Maryland President Wallace Loh. The text has been corrected.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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