DJ Durkin disaster reminds Maryland that Big Ten is too big for it

The identity of the University of Maryland as a full-fledged member of the Big Ten conference is now chiseled in stone. That was the intention from the time Maryland’s move from the Atlantic Coast Conference to the Big Ten was first reported in 2012 and completed in 2014. But on Tuesday, the bond became unbreakable for the worst of reasons.

When the chair of the school’s Board of Regents explained on Tuesday why football coach DJ Durkin got to keep his job despite the preventable heatstroke death of Jordan McNair, the magnitude of that Big Ten membership was cited as a reason. The support of some players and parents for Durkin was rooted in the need to compete at the level of the Big Ten. The institutional support Maryland provided Durkin was insufficient for a program in the Big Ten.

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And when the chair, James Brady, said Durkin was “unfairly blamed” for the “dysfunction in the football program and athletic department,” he made clear the standard Durkin, the program and department were expected to meet. Much was demanded of Durkin, Brady said, “especially in a conference such as the Big Ten, which, as you know, is a very big-time conference.’’

Another full day passed before Durkin was held fully accountable; he was fired Wednesday night, reportedly without the input of the board. The overdue move, though, did not lighten the burden the university felt from the decision it made even before it hired Durkin.

Too much was demanded and expected — of Maryland itself as much as of Durkin — said several observers who spoke soon after a school commission began investigating McNair’s death and ESPN reported “toxic” culture in the program and department.

Many of the same onlookers and others had said at the time Maryland began its move from the ACC to the Big Ten that the school was in over its head, that the money it would get from the move would not compensate for what would be lost — and that hooking the salvation of the university and the athletic department on football was a disaster waiting to happen.

McNair’s death on June 13 after his collapse at practice on May 29 was never expected to be one of the outcomes. Nor was that ever foreseen when Durkin was hired as head coach after the 2015 season, two years into the Terrapins’ official Big Ten membership. However, hiring Durkin was a transparent move to make the Maryland program fit the Big Ten. But as attorney, lecturer and former Maryland basketball star Len Elmore said — and as many have echoed — “We don’t belong in the Big Ten.

“That’s something I said when we first made the move,’’ added Elmore, an All-American in the 1970s under coach Lefty Driesell and now an announcer for ESPN and sports management professor at Columbia University. Back in 2012, Elmore told the Washington Post, “Anything that’s driven solely by dollars, it’ll turn out badly.”

(Driesell, inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame last month, also objected to the move when it happened: “Maryland seems to do a lot of things for money. They’re really in trouble,” he told Sporting News then).

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The Big Ten leap was driven by the athletic department reportedly being in debt by $4 million in the 2012 fiscal year, with eight programs scheduled for elimination (seven were eventually cut). The move was engineered by former athletic director Kevin Anderson, who hired Durkin, and school president Wallace Loh, who on Tuesday announced his retirement next June after clashing with the board over bringing Durkin back.

The move was expected to add $12 million in Maryland’s debut season of 2014 alone, with the windfall multiplying from then on through television revenue, primarily from the Big Ten Network. (Besides games and Maryland-related programming, that network has been busy televising news conferences related to McNair’s death the last three months).

Despite the infusion of money, Elmore asked, “What have we accomplished? We’re in limbo.” According to a Washington Post report last month, the university “essentially broke even” in fiscal 2017, despite some $37 million in Big Ten revenue that year.

This season would have been Durkin’s third in charge, and before the tragedy that engulfed the university in late spring, the widespread belief in the department — at least as far as the public was told — was that he was instilling the mindset and attitude needed to play with Big Ten royalty. That supposedly is what was lacking in 2015, when his predecessor, Randy Edsall, was fired in midseason.

The need for that upgrade was specifically referenced in the commission’s report on its investigation into the program. “The importance of providing more robust support for football was heightened by Maryland’s entrance into the Big Ten Conference in 2014,’’ the report reads on Page 6.

When Durkin was hired, there were still bad feelings over Edsall’s tenure, solely from his replacing the popular alumnus Ralph Friedgen. Mixed with that, though, was a clear sense that Maryland needed to raise the level of the program to where its new conference was.

From that standpoint, then, Durkin was a natural, specifically because of his Big Ten pedigree: He had been on the staffs of current Ohio State coach Urban Meyer while at Florida, and was Jim Harbaugh’s defensive coordinator at Michigan (after also being on his staff at Stanford). Of his 15 years in college coaching, his time under Meyer and Harbaugh, and his prowess as a high-level recruiter, were promoted as the experience the program desired most when it hired him.

Allowing for the usual new-hire hyperbole, Anderson’s words when Durkin came aboard were telling: The new coach was “a perfect fit” because of his “qualities that aligned with our vision for the football program.’’

The idea was to get the anti-Edsall, largely because the ACC for Edsall was beyond his abilities, never mind the Big Ten. Plus, his own borderline-authoritarian ways had come off badly with his bans of headwear, jewelry and certain hairstyles around the football building, recalled former Maryland offensive lineman Akil Patterson: “He started the future of rebellion at Maryland.

“Then we get Durkin in there, and Durkin’s got a couple of top-20 recruiting classes coming in — but there was a lot of pressure on the coaching staff and the administration, to win.’’

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Besides that, alumni had stubbornly let go of the 60-year-old geographic, historic and emotional bonds with the ACC. That included the former athletes, like Patterson, who were born and raised in the state and played football and wrestled at Maryland in the early 2000s. As a community social and political activist, Patterson keeps up with the mood of Maryland residents, and as a former player, he stays in touch with other former players and coaches, boosters and other supporters.

“Dr. Loh, although he’s a very smart, intelligent man,’’ Patterson said, “I don’t think he understood the regional loyalty to ACC sports for Maryland fans, and how we had developed rivalries, kinship, camaraderie. It’s all part of the conference.

“Since we’ve lost these rivalries, it’s hard. Even trying to make a rivalry up with Rutgers and Penn State, it just seems unnatural.’’

It’s also been inconvenient and expensive. Non-revenue sports, like wrestling, found themselves on conference road trips to Lincoln, Neb., and Iowa City instead of Charlottesville and Chapel Hill, trips that were not cost-effective or helpful to class schedules. It also affected the success of many of those programs to suddenly compete against far-better funded competition.

Football, however, was the motivating factor — and it ended up inspiring a fundamental change to one of the most historic sports venues on campus, Cole Field House, the longtime home of the stories men’s and women’s basketball programs. It had been replaced by what is now the on-campus Xfinity Center. But with the Big Ten raising the bar for football, Cole began a renovation into an indoor football facility, the price of  skyrocketed to $196 million. It’s been money spent to justify the money coming in.

The renovation has become symbolic of the divided emotions over what has been an often-clumsy transition. The payoff certainly has not come on the football field, including in Durkin’s first two years in charge. But the belief in him, and the support for his style of coaching and preferred type of player, remained consistent — even with combined 10-15 overall record and 5-13 record in Big Ten play.

Thus, it appeared to Elmore, the lack of Durkin’s oversight that came to light wasn’t a surprise.

“Somebody had to be watching the whole thing, and I don’t think they were,’’ he said. “The laissez-faire approach is coming back to bite them now.’’ Conflicting with the terrible revelations that have emerged, he added, “There is a lot of currency built into that guy.’’

All in the service of making a university — which bore little resemblance to a Big Ten school — look and perform like one in its marquee sport.

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