University of Maryland Backs into a Decent Crisis Solution

A sigh of relief emanated from College Park, Maryland, early on All Hallows’ Eve, when University of Maryland (UMD) president Wallace Loh announced his firing of head football coach DJ Durkin. It was one of the few correct notes sounded during a crisis that centered on the death of student and athlete Jordan McNair.

The 19-year-old collapsed during a practice late in May. He died June 13 in a hospital. The official cause was heatstroke.

The firing of Durkin was a turnaround from the previous day, when a tone-deaf board of regents reinstated the coach, who reportedly impressed its members during recent interviews. The reversal on Durkin is typical of Maryland’s uneven crisis management. In the end, the school backed into a passable result. [See update at the bottom of this story.]

Prior to yesterday, the only adult to depart was strength coach Rick Court, the first man Durkin hired. Court resigned in August amid allegations of his brutal treatment of players. Skeptics at that time claimed that the school was going to paint him as the scapegoat and Durkin would escape. As of Halloween morning, that appeared to be the case.

Some Background

Crisis management basics dictate that someone’s head needs to roll. Court’s departure allowed UMD to check that box.

The next box calls for an investigation, so the school ordered two reports. On June 19, five days after McNair’s death, UMD hired an outside investigator to report on the May 29 workout and ascertain whether McNair received proper and prompt medical attention.

Late in September, the report’s author, Rod Walters, confirmed that trainers failed McNair. He should still be alive, Walters wrote. He found it took more than one hour to call 911 from the onset of McNair’s symptoms. The report also found other best practices for heatstroke were ignored.

Also damning were the report’s interviews with four players. One interview said that coaches had a “no-quit” policy. Another claimed that McNair was gasping after running wind sprints, but trainers were ordered to bring him back on the field. No-quit means no-quit, even if you are gasping for breath.

Toxic Culture?

The second report responded to a charge levied in an August espn.com story about the McNair incident. The story alleged UMD’s football culture under Durkin was “toxic.” Durkin was put on paid leave pending the report’s findings.

The espn.com story did more than prompt a report—it caused the crisis to go national and aroused UMD administrators from a deep sleep.

As many brands and organizations do (see Google+, Equifax and their data breaches, Saudi Arabia and the death of Jamal Khashoggi, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica), Maryland tried to hide the incident at first, figuring it would blow over. That tactic worked for several weeks. Transparency, another tenet of good crisis management, was nowhere to be found.

The silence was broken in August because espn.com asked the school for a comment on an article it was going to publish about McNair’s death.  UMD quickly scheduled a press conference.

Shocking

Loh shocked the Aug. 14 presser when he announced, without equivocation that the school was “morally and legally” responsible for McNair’s death. He also apologized, and assured stakeholders that safety measures were being implemented to prevent future incidents. The start of the toxic culture investigation was announced. Durkin was placed on paid leave pending the report’s findings.

This demonstrated pretty good crisis management, though it took almost two months and the threat of an espn.com story to pry that frank admission from Loh.

Incommunicado

Typical of Maryland’s uneven crisis management, no communication about the incident was sent to alumni, students or their parents. Loh addressed the incident when students returned to campus in late-August.

By that point the story had gained momentum and national coverage. The state’s board of regents got involved, assuming leadership of the McNair death investigation. It would review the “toxic culture” report and make decisions about the football program.

Halloween

Jump to Tuesday, Oct. 30, when the report was released and found plenty wrong with Durkin’s football culture. It was “dysfunctional,” but not toxic; players were afraid to speak out, the report said, so problems persisted. The coach used abusive language excessively. Blame was put on Durkin, the administration, the athletic department and Court.

In the board’s reading of the report, though, nobody was culpable enough to lose their job. It recommended Durkin resume coaching and that Loh and Evans should remain. UMD football would move forward from an awful incident.

Back to Work

Loh was allegedly incensed that Durkin was back. At a news conference to discuss the report this past Tuesday, Loh announced his retirement as president, his silent protest against the board’s decision. The board allegedly threatened to fire Loh if he booted Durkin. Coach Durkin was back at work that day, overseeing his first meeting and practice after months on leave.

One of the few authentic moments in the crisis occurred when three players refused to attend Durkin’s team meeting this past Tuesday. Those three student-athletes, whose identities were not reported, showed more guts than just about any adult involved in the scandal. Ditto for this tweet below.

Things started to change on Halloween. Plenty of critics, including McNair’s father, politicians and a slew of student associations, blasted the board’s reinstatement of Durkin.

Social Listening

Credit Loh for monitoring the situation, another maxim of crisis management, then deciding to go against the board and fire Durkin. The final blow came when MD governor Larry Hogan, who picked 13 of the 17 regents board members, urged the group and Loh to reconsider their decision on Wednesday.

“The overwhelming majority of stakeholders expressed serious concerns” about Durkin returning, Loh wrote in a letter to the campus Wednesday evening.

“Some justice has been done,” McNair’s father said later that night.

Yes, some justice.  The former coach who should be at least partly responsible is gone, albeit his multi-million-dollar contract will continue to be paid. The athletic director remains, though. Also still on the job is a negligent board of regents.

Update (November 2, 2018, 9am ET): The face of Maryland’s board of regents, chair James Brady, stepped down Thursday. “In recent days, I have become the public face of both the board and its decisions related to these matters,” Brady said. “In my estimation, my continued presence on the board will inhibit its ability to move Maryland’s higher education agenda forward. And I have no interest in serving as a distraction from that important work.” He continued to support the board’s decision to reinstate Durkin.

Seth Arenstein is editor of PR News.  Follow him: @skarenstein