In a ballroom at The Hotel at the University of Maryland filled with donors, coaches, athletic department staff and his family, Damon Evans was introduced as Maryland’s athletic director Tuesday morning.
A new chapter in Terrapin sports history has begun.
After several weeks, an advisory board made up of coaches, university faculty, and representatives from an outside agency determined that Evans, who’d taken over the day-to-day duties of the athletic director last fall when Kevin Anderson started a six-month professional sabbatical, was the man for the position.
University President Wallace Loh took to the podium to kick things off, touting Evans’ personal qualities of perseverance, compassion and integrity.
“I am confident that we have found the right person, [at] the right time, to lead Maryland athletics,” Loh said. “Damon was an outstanding athletic director at the University of Georgia. I am very confident he will be an outstanding athletic director for the University of Maryland.”
Evans was a good athletic director at Georgia. Its financial situation went from good to the most profitable in the country. He was a hot name, and still in his 30s.
But his very public exit from that position has given people pause. After being arrested and charged with driving drunk, Evans was out of the business for roughly four years. However, a call from then-Terps athletic director Kevin Anderson changed Evans’ life path, and in turn, the future of Maryland. He’s held several titles at Maryland, most recently serving as the school’s executive athletic director and chief financial officer before taking over as interim and now full-time athletic director.
‘I can’t let this define who I am’
The first days following his departure from Georgia were dark for Evans, spent sitting alone after he’d hurt people close to him. He eventually built himself back up to the point where he wanted to get back into the business.
Even when the time came, though, he wasn’t sure he was ready. He told his wife, Kerri, that he’d gotten a call from Maryland, but that he was going to call back the next day and tell them no. She convinced him that it was time to “get back in” to the business that made him who he was. Four years later, he’s the athletic director of a Power 5 school once again.
“It is truly a human story, a very typical human story of fall and redemption,” Loh said. “From mountaintop to valley bottom and then over eight years of slow, painful ascent back to the top.
“That tells me something about his personal qualities of perseverance, of striding forward, of never giving up. And I hope that personal story of redemption is also telling us something about the values of the University of Maryland. We are committed to excellence and we are committed to inclusion.”
There seemed to be no worry of Evans’ past, only praise for how he’s made the most of the second chance he earned. In that way, hiring Evans to be the new athletic director does reflect one core Maryland value: it is a Fearless Idea.
“I always tell people, what happened at Georgia, I’m fully culpable for,” Evans said. “I opened up with the committee. I just opened up and I told them that I made a mistake some eight years ago—my fault. But that’s not who I am, it’s an aberration of who I am.”
After taking time to regroup and rebuild himself, Evans was ready to take the next step.
“You start to look around and you’re kind of sitting there by yourself,” Evans said. “But then I said, ‘I’ve got to get myself together. I can’t let this define who I am.’ So I got up.”
‘A trying time’
Much like his past, current events in the Maryland community are unavoidable topics of conversation at the time of Evans’ hiring.
This introduction comes just weeks after the death of Jordan McNair, a 19-year-old on the Terps’ football team. For the coaching staff, his teammates, the athletic department, the greater Terps community, and most of all his parents, Tonya and Marty, it’s been a surreal time.
“This announcement is perhaps a little more somber, a little more quiet, than we would otherwise do because we are all still grieving for Jordan McNair,” Loh said. “This is a very happy day, but at the same time, all of us are mourning for him, his family and his friends.”
There is an external investigation occurring related to McNair’s death, conducted by Walters Incorporated. It was announced Tuesday that the investigation will be approximately a 90-day process. That means there likely won’t be any new findings on that front until football season has already started.
That also means it would have been impossible to hold off on hiring a new athletic director until the investigation’s conclusion. Should the investigation find this wasn’t a freak accident, it’s likely that somebody will have to be held accountable for this tragedy. Who that somebody would be is also in question, and would have to be determined after the firm makes public its findings.
Irrespective of what’s already transpired, it appears the athletic department is handling this the right way. DJ Durkin made practices voluntary for the time being, and athletes are being provided counseling and supportive resources if they need it. Some players, Evans said, simply couldn’t practice until their friend, brother and teammate was laid to rest.
“It’s something that you just never imagine or expect to happen at your institution,” Evans said. “It really makes you understand what we are here for. We lost a member of our family, a young man who, just with his smile [lit] up a room; a young man who loved Chipotle Thursday.
“Let us not forget Jordan McNair, because he will forever be a part of who we are.”
‘He’s confident because he’s good’
The past year in Maryland athletics was rough almost universally. Be it injuries, down years, failing to meet expectations—fair or not—or disappointing postseason exits, the 2017-18 athletics season bore little fruit for the Terps.
With a new face at the helm, the hope is that reality will change.
“Let’s not sugarcoat it. We want to win. We want to compete at the highest level,” Evans said. “Because when we win, people will follow us. We’ve had great success in our sports programs, but we’re gonna take it to another level.”
The two most recent times Evans has stood at a podium could not be more in contrast. Last time, it was at a press conference announcing the external review into McNair’s death. He was stiff and sounded like he was repeating prepared, legally safe remarks. His demeanor fit the tone of the event. Tuesday he was smiling, talking with his chin up and chest out and presenting a rough outline of his vision for the future.
“I am going to work hard to put us at the forefront,” Evans said. “I want people to know who we are and what Maryland is about, not just athletically, but academically. We are going to take over this conference and we are going to do some things that other people might say, ‘how in the heck did they do that?’”
His exuberance was matched by the committee members who helped select him. Committee Chair Darryl Pines and Field Hockey Coach Missy Meharg were present to speak on the process that went into selecting Evans and the qualities they saw that led them to him.
“I have to say that from the beginning of our process, it was clear that Mr. Damon Evans was committed to our student-athletes in their work both on and off the field,” Pines said. “He has done a tremendous job in strengthening the relationship between the athletic department and the various academic units on our wonderful campus.”
This is in line with Evans’ foremost view that student-athlete development and academics will always be his department’s No. 1 priority. Priority 1A, so to speak, will be fundraising. It was a strength at Georgia, and it will have to be a strength at Maryland.
“He’s really confident and when we’re confident in what we do, it’s easy to be great,” Meharg said. “He knows the business. He absolutely knows the business.
“He’s confident because he’s good.”
He’ll need that confidence in the coming months and years that follow. Maryland still does not receive a full payout from the Big Ten’s lucrative television deal, and won’t for another two years. Funding for finishing Cole Field House is not complete, and there’s talk of upgrading facilities elsewhere across the athletic spectrum in College Park. Evans knows what has to be done.
“Fundraising is significant. It presents an outstanding opportunity. Fundraising is not just about the dollars you generate, though I know we need that money,” he said with a laugh, “but it’s about the relationships you build. It’s about the branding, it’s about the perception of the institution as a whole. We will get out and we will grow these things.”
Only time will tell if this hire was the right one for Maryland, but for right now, it seems to be one to get behind.