Contrary to what you might read and see in the next few days, the decision by the Maryland Board of Regents to reinstate DJ Durkin as the University of Maryland’s football coach is not an example of college football’s win-at-all-costs culture. It’s an example of a Board of Regents that apparently doesn’t grasp how college football works.
Joan Niesen wrote very capably about the more important, real-life issues in play in this case. I’m going to explain why this was a terrible decision from a practical standpoint. The regents buried the football program at their flagship school on Tuesday. Either they know this and don’t care or they don’t understand the sport well enough to know what they’ve done. Either way, the regents will have to wear this one at some point in the future when Durkin’s tenure ultimately ends in the firing that could and should have taken place now.
The death of Maryland offensive lineman Jordan McNair in June is a tragedy that should have been avoided. Maryland’s administration already has admitted fault, and one report commissioned by the school outlined all the ways in which Maryland failed on that front. Another report was commissioned by the school following an ESPN report in August that alleged Durkin fostered a “toxic culture” within the football program. That report, which leaked last week but was released by the school this week, detailed issues in Maryland’s football program but—and this was apparently critical to the regents—didn’t call it “toxic” despite a list of problems that could certainly be characterized with that word.
Neither report blamed Durkin for the death of McNair. Nor should they have. The employees at the May workout who failed to properly diagnose and treat McNair’s symptoms are the ones ultimately at fault. But the second report correctly pointed out that Durkin is responsible for the culture within the Maryland program. And that 192-page report lays those flaws bare for the world to see. McNair’s parents have said Durkin should never coach at Maryland again, and they now likely will offer no quarter in their inevitable lawsuit against the school with the president and the athletic director who have already said the school is to blame for their son’s death.
It should be noted a number of players and their families also expressed their support for Durkin, which is to be expected. Embattled coaches always have their supporters. But that doesn’t necessarily mean those embattled coaches should keep working. If Maryland’s regents believe Durkin is the coach who can lead their program to national titles or even Big Ten respectability, then they are sorely mistaken. Even if he was before—and his 5–13 Big Ten record in two seasons suggests he wasn’t — he stands no chance now.
After this, Durkin will struggle to recruit the kinds of players Maryland needs to compete in the rugged Big Ten East. In a few years, Maryland officials likely will wish they had paid the $5 million buyout to jettison Durkin, because the program likely will fail to attract any more fans to beef up game attendance that already ranked No. 12 in the in the Big Ten. Depending on the kind of teams Maryland fields moving forward, this move may wind up costing more money in the long run.
Maryland already struggled on the field, but Durkin was supposed to be the guy who could mine the abundant talent in the District of Columbia/Maryland/Virginia area and raise the Terrapins to a new level. And it seemed he would fulfill that promise. Maryland’s 2017 signees, the first full class Durkin recruited, ranked No. 18 in the country and No. 4 in the Big Ten according to the 247Sports composite. The 2018 class dropped to No. 25 in the country and No. 5 in the Big Ten, but both are perfectly acceptable numbers for a program that hasn’t enjoyed the kind of on-field success Ohio State and Penn State have.
After these past few scandal-plagued months, Maryland’s 2019 recruiting class—most of which will sign in late December—ranks No. 71 in the nation and No. 13 of 14 in the Big Ten. This is almost certainly the result of the scandal, but here’s the problem: It probably won’t get much better because opposing coaches are going to use all the information gathered in the investigation against Durkin on the recruiting trail. Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, one of Durkin’s former bosses, can weather a scandal and still attract top talent because he wins championships. Durkin doesn’t have the wins under his belt to convince players and their parents to look past everything else.
Imagine you’re a coach at Virginia Tech or Virginia or Penn State and Maryland is recruiting a player you want. Here’s all you have to say.
• Do you want your son forced to watch drill-going-into-eyeball videos at breakfast?
• Do you want your son to play for a guy who claims to have an open-door policy but only opens it for players who agree with everything he does?
• Do you want your son to play for a coach who allows his strength coach to chuck weights around the weight room when he gets mad?
A lot of this has been laid at the feet of former Maryland strength coach Rick Court, who was paid the balance of his contract in August to go away. Regents chair Jim Brady went out of his way Tuesday to blame Court, a jumbled reporting structure and the fact that Durkin was a first-time head coach for these issues. This is either further proof that the regents don’t understand how college football works, or it’s willful obfuscation of the facts.
Any Power 5 head coach who says he doesn’t have ultimate sway over what his strength coach does is a liar. A strength coach acts as the right hand of the head coach. Just listen to this head coach talking about his strength coach. “It’s so important, I believe, that the strength coach and the head coach are directly in line with one another in terms of what’s important, what’s the message we’re delivering, and [the strength coach] and I are,” [the head coach] said. “We’re totally synchronized in that and so he’s huge. He’s critical to all we do.”
Who was that head coach? It was Durkin, talking to the Carroll County Times in 2016 about Court. What Court did was what Durkin wanted Court to do, and coaches who recruit against Durkin will eagerly inform recruits and their parents about how these relationships actually work in college football. Their implication will be that Durkin will hire another guy who does exactly the same things, because that’s the program Durkin wants to run. Will that be true given that Maryland is implementing multiple changes to protocols and reporting structures in the wake of the scandal? Probably not. But opposing coaches will have a document Maryland paid for that casts Durkin’s program in a pretty terrible light.
Then there is the matter of the product Durkin puts on the field. Interim coach Matt Canada, who had never acted as a head coach before, went 5–3 with Durkin’s players. To use an advanced baseball stat, that means Durkin’s Wins Above Replacement—the measure of how much better someone is than the average available replacement—is effectively zero. Durkin can blame ACL tears for his two top quarterbacks for his 4–8 record in 2017, and he’d probably be correct, but the fact is he didn’t distinguish himself as an on-field head coach in his first two seasons. That record plus all the documented negative information opposing coaches have at their disposal will make it very difficult for Durkin to recruit the kind of players who can turn around the record on the field.
Maybe you think Maryland deserves what’s coming for the choices made Tuesday. Maybe you think all of this is unfair to Durkin because he was made a very public scapegoat for a very unfortunate tragedy. But it doesn’t really matter either way. The reality is the scandal made Durkin’s tenure at Maryland untenable, and nothing the regents say to explain away their decision will stop the failures headed their program’s way.