The University of Maryland may never be absolved of its moral responsibility for the death of 19-year-old football student-athlete Jordan McNair. But maybe the last shoe has finally dropped in this tragic debacle.
The University System of Maryland Board of Regents has elected its new chair, Linda Gooden, retired Lockheed Martin executive already serving as regent. The announcement followed the firing of the athletic trainers who treated McNair. After a long and torturous process, those most directly responsible for his death now have parted ways with the university. Previously, Rick Court, the strength and conditioning coach identified by ESPN as instigator of the “toxic culture” surrounding the football program, was forced to resign.
Last month, on the heels of two investigations—one ordered by the regents—into the heatstroke death of McNair, the board recommended that head football coach D.J. Durkin and athletic director Damon Evans be retained while accepting the retirement of University President Wallace Loh. (Evans, formerly acting athletic director, was not fully in charge of athletics until after McNair’s death.) The regents lack authority to fire the football coach or athletic director, both hired by Loh. But they do have authority to fire the university president. So they gave Loh an ultimatum: Let Durkin and Evans return from administrative leave, imposed while circumstances of McNair’s death were investigated, or the regents would find a president who would. From his subsequent praise for Evans and silence about Durkin, we can surmise that Loh held the coach at least partly responsible for McNair’s death. (An ice-water immersion for overheated athletes is a proven remedy. McNair never received such treatment and the football staff waited an hour to call 911.)
The damage inflicted by the regents’ initial decision remains incalculable. But thanks to Loh’s defiant firing of Durkin one day after the verdict delivered by then board chairman James Brady, the university’s academic standing is on a path toward restoration.
Brady, former Larry Hogan campaign chair, resigned following widespread outrage over the board’s favoritism of football over academics. What a gift it might have been for Hogan’s gubernatorial opponent, Democrat Ben Jealous.
It had taken generations for the university to dispel its former reputation as a jock school. H.C. “Curley” Byrd, a Maryland alum from back when it was known as Maryland Agriculture College, was head football coach (1911-34) and university president (1936-54). Near the end of his presidency, the Terps won their only football national championship.
Byrd was succeeded by Wilson Elkins, president until 1970 before stepping up to head the University of Maryland System. A Rhodes Scholar, Elkins instituted more rigorous academic standards resulting in probation for students earning less than a C average and establishing a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, which had twice spurned Maryland. Success in athletics declined sharply in my Class of ’70 time at Maryland, but a bachelor’s degree was more highly regarded.
During Loh’s watch, a degree earned at College Park became even more prestigious. Maryland is regularly ranked in the top 25 nationally among public universities. Off-campus, the most visible changes since Loh took the reins in 2010 have transformed the school’s College Park doorstep. Route 1 was lined with seedy bars, strip malls and no-tell motels in my years at Maryland. Today, it’s booming with stylish high-rise hotels and apartment buildings for students, staff and visitors, plus inviting shopping and dining experiences.
Some observers suspected that a few regents held a grudge against Loh for renaming Byrd Stadium in response to a student resolution citing Curley Byrd’s “separate but equal” stance barring African-Americans from admission until 1951 and Loh’s decision to leave the Atlantic Coast Conference for the more lucrative Big 10 athletic conference. Others second-guessed his acceptance of “moral and legal responsibility” for the university in McNair’s death.
It’s possible that Loh, who will be 73 next year, might have retired at the end of his contract anyway. But I urge the regents, under its new chair, to offer Loh a contract extension. Maryland could hardly have expected to lure a stellar academic to succeed him as president in a climate that suggested even a tainted head football coach had more clout than the boss.
Loh has since shown who’s boss.
I’ll always be a Terp fan. (Yes, fear the turtle!) I rooted in vain for the Terps to secure bowl eligibility with a victory on either of the last two Saturdays. I still hope for a long-shot end-of-season win this Saturday over Penn State. But regardless of wins or losses, I’m even more appreciative of the academic integrity that made my daughter’s 2011 degree a star on her resume.
Steve Parks, now living in Easton, is a retired journalist who worked for Newsday on Long Island and The Sun in Baltimore among other newspapers. He is a still-proud Maryland alum.