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Terps decision on Durkin highlights politics inside higher education

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After months of twisting in the wind, Maryland Terrapins head coach D.J. Durkin now knows his fate. The embattled head coach will return to his position after a 10-week absence according to multiple reports. 

Durkin was caught up in a pair of brutal situations this fall, coming under fire after one of his players, Jordan McNair, died following complications after a work out and ESPN reporting on a “toxic culture” inside the program as a whole. 

But, reports indicate that the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents have not found a “toxic culture” to exist nor blame to be placed on Durkin for McNair’s death. 

Instead, the recommendation is to keep Durkin around. Additionally, university president Wallace Loh and athletic director Damon Evans appear to be sparred from the chopping block as well…at least for now. 

That’s where things get interesting here, because a look inside the reporting shows that politics, more than anything else, may be at play here. 

It started with the report on McNair’s tragic death, where there was clearly an attempt to excuse the lack of monitoring of the athletic training staff by Durkin. 

The biggest failure appeared to be with his head strength and conditioning man, Rick Court, and that much was noted in the report in to McNair’s death: 

We must acknowledge factors that likely played a role in Mr. Durkin’s failure to adequately address Mr. Court’s behavior. As a first-time head coach, Mr. Durkin heavily modeled his program after coaches for whom he previously worked—most notably, Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh—who have achieved great success as tough, no-nonsense leaders. Mr. Durkin was hired under high-pressure circumstances and tasked with turning a struggling football program into a Big Ten contender, with less funding and fan support than other conference programs. The Athletics Department provided little education around, or support to handle, the myriad administrative responsibilities of a head coach, tasks Mr. Durkin had not been delegated in previous jobs as a coordinator or position coach.”

Not only did the report go after Court and cushion any blow to Durkin’s credibility, it also began the process of shielding Durkin from any potential liability or scrutiny internally or externally. 

That’s politics at work. 

Further, reports indicate that Durkin may have saved his job with his own politicking last Friday. He had a meeting with the Board of Regents and apparently impressed them with whatever went down. 

One would expect Durkin to fight for his job given all that is on the line. The man’s reputation as not only a coach but a human being is on the line. 

But, all of his words aside, this is a decision made by a group of people with plenty of political motives all over the place. Such is the nature of just about any board room in any company, university or organization in the world. 

The biggest indicator that politics may have been at play here is that there was allegedly a large financial consideration at work as well. 

Firing Durkin could be a very expensive proposition and Maryland isn’t exactly in great financial shape in the athletic department. 

Sure, they could try to eat his salary and fire without cause, but that would cost the Terps 65 percent of his remaining contract. Firing him for cause, should the investigation found cause, would’ve likely meant a lengthy legal battle over his salary. 

Is the external pressure to fire Durkin so great that eating his remaining salary and not fighting a long legal battle worth it? Would anyone step up to the plate with the money to make it happen?

Clearly the answers were no and no, because if they were yes and yes or even no and yes, this decision would’ve been much easier and made much quicker. 

Giving the Board of Regents cover to make this difficult decision is one way that the politics could’ve played out here. 

Then there is the internal factor of how the team reacts to whatever move is made. Eating over $5 million of salary is one thing, losing a locker room and a program having to start from scratch just two years after a hire is another thing completely. 

Reports indicate that the Terps locker room is divided over Durkin’s return. Some believe his no-nonsense approach boarders on abusive and they would’ve liked to see him gone. Some have lined up steadfastly behind the head coach. 

Much will be made of how Durkin goes about getting his team to play on Saturday’s the rest of the year. However, the real work is going to be in healing this program after six months of brutal division and strife. 

Despite all of that, interim head coach Matt Canada has the Terps just one game away from bowl eligibility. How does Durkin’s arrival back to the program play out? 

Those are the calculations that seemed to be at play here, even if the USM Board of Regents won’t admit to it publicly. In this case, the decision that was made was one that appears to have shown internal politicking trumps any outside optics that were at play. 

How else does someone who oversaw a program and a workout schedule that allowed someone to die keep his job? How else does it make sense that it takes 10 weeks to really figure out if a “toxic culture” exists as reported? 

We’re likely to never get the real reason “why” this was the decision. Just remember, that’s the nature of a political entity making these types of decisions. 

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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