Former University of Maryland football coach DJ Durkin continued to communicate with assistant coaches and develop game plans for the team after being placed on administrative leave amid media reports alleging abusive treatment of players, according to multiple sources.
The sources said Durkin told a task force that assistant coaches sent him game film to review so he could help create game plans.
Sources also said Durkin’s continuing role was shared with and discussed by the state university system’s Board of Regents, which cleared him Oct. 30 to return as coach before he was dismissed one day later by university president Wallace Loh.
Whether university officials approved Durkin’s involvement while on leave is in dispute. Durkin told the regents his activity was approved by athletic director Damon Evans, two sources said. And Durkin told the task force he was responding to requests for advice from the assistants and that the university had not limited such contact.
But in a statement late Wednesday, a university spokeswoman said Durkin “was not to perform coaching duties while on administrative leave” and that neither Evans nor Loh had granted permission for him to do so.
“Matt Canada was performing all head coaching duties during this interim time and continues to lead the team,” spokeswoman Jessica Jennings said.
The university declined to make Evans available to be interviewed. Durkin’s attorney Jeffrey Klein said his client would have no comment. Former regents chairman James Brady and vice chairman Barry Gossett also declined to comment for this article.
The sources who told The Baltimore Sun of Durkin’s involvement while on leave declined to be named because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.
"Raises questions:" Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College who has written extensively about the sports industry, said Durkin’s continued involvement with the team while on leave “raises questions.”
“The reason why somebody is put on administrative leave is because they are being investigated for possibly violating some rules or doing something that was unethical,” Zimbalist said. “What it means to be put on administrative leave is that you are on leave and that you can’t work with the team.”
Karen Weaver, a sports management professor at Drexel University, said it would be "troubling" if a university allowed a coach to remain involved with game strategy while on administrative leave.
"You're on leave for a reason," Weaver said.
The background: Durkin was placed on leave Aug. 11, three weeks before the team’s opening game. Despite the regents’ recommendation last month that he return to his job, Durkin was dismissed a day later by Loh, who said students, faculty and other stakeholders “expressed serious concerns about coach DJ Durkin returning to the campus.”
The College Park football program has been under scrutiny since the death of 19-year-old offensive lineman Jordan McNair in June. McNair, a former McDonogh School standout, suffered heatstroke during a team workout May 29 and died two weeks later.
Durkin remained on the job while the university hired a consultant to investigate what happened during the workout. But after ESPN reports in August that described a “toxic” atmosphere in which staff bullied and intimidated players, Durkin was placed on leave and the task force was formed to review the football program’s culture.
The consultant’s report about the events of May 29 eventually concluded that team staff failed to immerse McNair in cold water, a treatment that experts say likely would have saved his life.
The conclusions: The task force concluded that the program was not “toxic” but that it had “a culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out.”
Members of the task force included former Gov. Robert Ehrlich, retired U.S. District Court judges Ben Legg and Alex Williams, and attorney Charlie Scheeler.
The task force report said Durkin, who was entering his third season as a first-time head coach, was not provided adequate support and guidance by the athletic department. It said McNair’s death was not attributable to the team’s culture.
Durkin told the task force, according to the sources, that while on leave he helped create the game plan for the season opener against nationally ranked Texas, Maryland’s biggest win of the year. The team was coached in that game — and is still — by Canada.
Sources said members questioned Durkin about whether he remained in touch with players while on leave, and he replied that the university had not told him to avoid such contact or not to help the assistant coaches.