Md. lawmakers demand answers from regents over football decisions

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Chancellor Robert Caret and University System Regents Chair Linda Gooden testify at the House Appropriations Committee Thursday Nov. 15. University of Maryland College Park President Wallace Loh waits to testify at the upper right. Screen shot from House video stream

By Brooks DuBose

Capital News Service

Lawmakers on Thursday admonished the chancellor and chair of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents for the panel’s lack of transparency and overreach in a controversial decision to retain the University of Maryland, College Park football coach and athletic director, while accepting the university president’s resignation.

The House Appropriations Committee asked repeatedly for Chancellor Robert Caret and newly appointed board Chair Linda Gooden to explain the decision-making process into how the body concluded that retaining Head Coach DJ Durkin and Athletic Director Damon Evans, in the wake of the death of Maryland football player Jordan McNair, was the right decision.

“There were several reports … on this incident that I find particularly horrifying,” said Del. Reznik, D-Montgomery. “The Board of Regents did not want (DJ Durkin) to lose his job, because he had a bright future. … I also suspect that, and as do you and everyone else here, that Mr. McNair had a bright future (that) was no less valuable than Mr. Durkin’s.”

“We agree (retaining Durkin) was a poor decision,” said Gooden, who has served on the board for almost a decade before becoming chair on Nov. 7.

“It was not a unanimous decision. When the entire board looked at the entire body of work, they believed he (Durkin) could move forward. That was a mistake. Dr. Loh took the exact right action and released him.”

University of Maryland President Wallace Loh fired Durkin on Oct. 31, one day after the regents recommended that the embattled coach return to the team and Loh announced his early retirement, slated for June.

Forced to retire?

At the hearing, the committee asked Gooden and Caret whether Loh had been forced to retire early.

“You’re not going to like this answer,” Caret said, declining to discuss a personnel decision made in an executive session of the regents.

“I’m a little aghast at that,” said Del. Ben Barnes, D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel, whose districts includes the university campus.

Loh told the panel how he ultimately fired Durkin, and indicated he was forced to accept the regents’ recommendations, despite university bylaws dictating that the university president is responsible for all personnel decisions, not the Board of Regents.

“I completely accept that the board has authority to hire and fire a president,” Loh said. “So, when there is a recommendation to the president — well I’m not so sure under the circumstances … whether I really had a choice in the matter.”

The hearing comes five months after McNair, 19, a redshirt freshman, collapsed following a team workout on May 29. He died two weeks later of complications from heat stroke suffered at the workout.

“This hearing was called because of a tragedy,” said committee Chair Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore. “Our hope today is to walk through the events and shed some light and increase transparency” on what has happened since McNair’s death.

In the intervening months, McNair’s death has sparked two external investigations — both eventually overseen by the Board of Regents — into the circumstances surrounding his death and allegations of a “toxic” culture in the Maryland football program, stemming from several ESPN reports. Durkin and two trainers — Steve Nordwall and Wes Robinson — were placed on administrative leave on Aug. 11.

Walters Inc., a sports training consulting firm, released a report on Sept. 21 highlighting several mistakes made by the football team’s training staff while treating McNair. The university fired Nordwall and Robinson on Nov. 7.

Coach Busch weighs in

Speaker Michael Busch questions the university officials.

House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel — a surprise attendee to the hearing — asked how the Board of Regents could conclude that Durkin would be retained, while Loh was penalized — essentially forced into retirement.

“I don’t know what (Durkin) could have said (to the regents) that could have convinced them that he should stay on as head football coach,” Busch said, praising Loh for his “courageous decision” to fire Durkin. Busch was a Temple University football star before a knee injury and a coach of high school football and basketball.

The speaker is an ex-officio member of all House committees, and in this case took a very active role in questioning the university officials.

“It seems to me they missed all the things they should have done,” Busch told the university officials.

Refuse to reveal regents’ vote

Gooden and Caret refused multiple requests by the committee to reveal the regents’ vote total.

“I was wondering if you could tell us what the vote was on keeping the coach (Durkin),” said Del. Shelly Hettleman, D-Baltimore County.

A majority of the board voted in favor of the recommendations, said Gooden, who was not in attendance when the vote was called. She declined to say what the specific vote totals from the 17-member board were, but said it was “not unanimous” and that not all members were in attendance, but there “was a quorum.”

Later, Delegate Marc Korman, D-Montgomery, asked whether Gooden and the regents would agree to make vote totals public moving forward.

“That’s something that we’re talking about … something we’ll look at,” Gooden said “I won’t promise that today.”

The regents’ have previously made vote counts public. For example, the vote to change the name of the university’s football stadium was a 12-5 vote.

“It’s not acceptable” that the regents haven’t announced the vote, Korman said in an interview with Capital News Service after the hearing. “We just need to change how the Board of Regents operates legislatively so that … vote totals on major personnel decisions are public and available, just as a lot of other major decisions they would do are available under the Open Meetings Act.”

He continued: “I think on this particular situation, individual regents should step up and explain how they voted. They should probably feel obligated to do that, given how significant the decision is and how it was reversed ultimately.”

Lack of transparency, student president complains

In a statement, University of Maryland Student Government Association President Jonathan Allen expressed his deep concern with the board’s “decision-making process and lack of transparency.”

“This was on display once again at today’s hearing,” Allen wrote. “The University of Maryland’s student body, campus, community, and citizens of the state of Maryland deserve answers.”

McIntosh and Korman said legislation could be introduced in the upcoming 2019 General Assembly session to address the regents’ transparency issues.

“I think on a go-forward basis you could do that (introduce legislation) to make the votes more transparent,” Korman told Capital News Service. “I don’t think we can legislate that they come out now and say how they voted. I think there should be some public expectation that they do that on their own, and I think some will, frankly, if they’re offered the opportunity.”

McIntosh questions board capability

McIntosh further questioned whether the board — an institution that has been in place for three decades — was even capable of fulfilling its duty to oversee the universities and colleges within the system.

“For past 30 years we’ve got many things right,” Gooden said. “Clearly we got this one wrong. … We stepped out of our lane and it didn’t serve any of us well.”

After the board concluded its second probe — into the football team’s culture — including Durkin and his staff’s conduct, then regents Chair James Brady recommended on Oct. 30 that the university retain Durkin and Evans. Loh announced his June resignation that same day.

This announcement was followed by an immediate wave of public criticism. University of Maryland students planned a protest, while stakeholders and politicians, like Comptroller Peter Franchot and Gov. Larry Hogan, criticized the decision.

A day later, on Oct. 31, Loh went against the board’s recommendations and fired Durkin.

Following Brady’s resignation on Nov. 1, Gooden was elected to replace him last week.

“The chair, the former chair (Brady) made the completely wrong call in his initial vote, but I think made the right decision to come out, admit it, and resign,” Korman said.

At a press conference on Aug. 14, two months after McNair’s death, University of Maryland President Wallace Loh took “moral and legal responsibility” for McNair’s death. It was announced that strength and conditioning coach Rick Court — who was repeatedly mentioned in the report as participating in alleged abusive behavior — would resign.

Court was accused of insulting players and hurling weights at them, among other abusive behaviors.

“If throwing weights is motivational, then I’m a rocket scientist,” Busch said.