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In a new year, Maryland football hopes to recover from its off-field chaos

The fallout from Jordan McNair’s death dominated Terps headlines in 2018. Now it’s time for Maryland to show it’s bigger than what happened.

NCAA Football: Texas at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Six and a half months ago, the world of Maryland football was rocked by the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair. The 19-year-old redshirt freshman had a promising career and a full life ahead of him. On June 13, two parents lost a son, and Maryland football lost a family member.

Shock and heartbreak are the immediate reactions to any such tragedy. But the circumstances of this death—McNair suffered heatstroke at an organized team workout on May 29, and heatstroke is only fatal if treated improperly—left the possibility that things would take an ugly turn. That’s exactly what happened.

After scattered details of the workout and McNair’s medical treatment trickled out over a two-month stretch, the hammer dropped in August. In the same afternoon, one ESPN report painted a disturbing picture of the events of that workout, and another alleged a “toxic” culture within DJ Durkin’s program. Durkin was placed on administrative leave less than 24 hours later, as were two athletic trainers; the school parted ways with strength and conditioning coach Rick Court within days; and the futures of athletic director Damon Evans and university president Wallace Loh were suddenly in question.

The next couple months were more of a waiting game than anything else. New accounts and perspectives only added to the chaos rather than sending the story in a particular direction. The external review into McNair’s death, which was launched in June, took three months to complete. The investigation into the program’s culture began in August, and while university president Wallace Loh expressed intentions for the investigation to be quick, it took two-and-a-half months. Maryland had already played eight games when the time came to make pivotal decisions.

But when that time came, everyone somehow screwed up. The University System of Maryland Board of Regents, which took control of both investigations in August, recommended retaining Durkin and athletic director Damon Evans. Backlash from all angles—players, students, fans and even lawmakers—prompted Loh to fire Durkin just over 24 hours later. Board chairman James Brady resigned the following day. In the midst of all this, Loh announced he’d be retiring in June. Evans, whose interim AD tag was removed two weeks after McNair’s death, returned to his job like nothing happened. The board even recommended retaining the two trainers, whom the September report pinned the bulk of the blame for McNair’s fatally poor treatment (they ended up being fired too).

The whole thing was a mess, and every attempt to clean it up only made matters worse.

No fan wants to see their team caught up in something like this. No alumnus wants their school in the headlines for the wrong reasons. As a group of student journalists, it’s the toughest subject any of our writers have ever covered.

It didn’t take long for this to become a divisive issue. Players pushed back on ESPN’s culture report the following morning. Fans quickly formed two sides of an opinion spectrum. One side was appalled by the allegations and wanted the troubling behaviors (and the coach behind them) wiped away. The other was skeptical of the reports and believed Durkin was being unfairly scapegoated for actions they argued were commonplace in football.

The truth, of course, was nestled somewhere in the middle. So we had to do our best to report as objectively as possible. That wasn’t easy. It was rarely obvious which stories or which sources were worth putting stock in, or how many times we needed to hear something for it to likely be true. I wish we’d done a few things differently, but I’ll take the lessons I learned from all this into my post-graduation career, and I know the others share those sentiments.

The gray area, specifically as it related to Durkin, was captured well by the two investigations. Rod Walters’ report confirmed that Durkin was at the fatal workout, but wasn’t in charge, nor was he involved in the medical treatment. The commission report seemed to portray him as part of a larger problem. He didn’t supervise Court because Maryland’s athletic department (specifically former AD Kevin Anderson) didn’t make it clear he was supposed to. Player and parent survey responses were mixed, with some extreme positive and some extreme negative reviews.

Personally, I got so caught up in trying to report facts that I never formed a strong opinion one way or another regarding what should happen. As a Maryland student, I wanted to see the right decisions made. For months, though, I didn’t know what those actually were.

The October commission report, which largely affirmed a lot of what I had read, written and heard over the preceding months, left me believing the only solution for Maryland was to completely hit the reset button. Start fresh with a new coach. Overhaul the training staff and medical procedures. Move on from Evans and revamp the whole athletic department. Change university leadership at the top.

Of course, nobody even tried to press that reset button. I’m still not sure what button they were trying to press. None of the decision-makers seemed to stand for anything. They just did what they thought would be in their own best interests.

That’s what made the games themselves so refreshing. Maryland’s football players never lost sight of what was important. They knelt around a circle with McNair’s No. 79 before every home game. The 21-yard lines at Maryland Stadium became 79-yard lines. The Terps came out with 10 men on their first offensive play. And after any game, win or lose, that No. 79 flag would be flying.

You might have seen the hashtag #FEBU from a few player accounts during the season. Canada seemed to be the man behind it; he even tweeted it when Locksley was hired. It stands for “Fuck Everybody But Us.” Harsh diction, sure, but it’s rooted in the same control-the-controllables motif as everything a football team does. The players didn’t have a say in the bureaucracy’s decisions or whether fans bothered to show up to their games. With how careful the program was about making players available to the media this season, they didn’t have much of a say in what was written about them, either. All they could control was how they prepared for each game and how they kept McNair’s spirit alive. So that’s what they focused on.

The season itself showed promise, but after a 5-3 start, Maryland lost its final four games to come up just short of bowl eligibility. The Terps had their highlights, beating Texas for the second straight year and going blow-for-blow with Ohio State, but the lowlights included four different games without an offensive touchdown. Ultimately, the season was somehow an inspiration and a disappointment at the same time. While Maryland didn’t fall apart when it easily could have, the Terps are still looking to take a step forward in the daunting Big Ten East.

This new year will give Maryland’s football program a chance to prove it won’t be defined by everything that happened in 2018. It’ll give those who made mistakes a chance to show they’ve learned from them. It’ll give Maryland as an institution a chance to make headlines for more positive reasons.

Because nobody ever pushed that reset button, Maryland does enter 2019 with some of the same pieces in place. Loh will remain as president through June, assuming he doesn’t try to cancel his retirement plan and stick around even longer. Evans has essentially been given a third chance as athletic director, so for better or worse, he’s got a chance to implement his vision for the athletic department as its permanent leader.

There is a new football coach, although it’s also an old football coach. Mike Locksley is now in his third stint at Maryland, but everything’s obviously different as the man in charge. His coaching past isn’t spotless—his tenure at New Mexico ended with a 2-26 record and multiple off-field controversies—but he’s respected in the area and has the trust of top stakeholders and many players and their families. His early moves have been well-received, although there’s so much work still to be done.

Change will take time, and in this case, the important part will be hard to notice. Departmental structure and procedures don’t stand out like a win-loss record does. And trust is an intangible thing. But it was on display at Locksley’s introductory press conference, where Jordan McNair’s father Marty, who had publicly called for Durkin’s firing, attended in support. Locksley lost his own son Meiko to a murder in 2017, and said his family and the McNairs had helped each other through their grieving processes.

This was a small part of a grandiose ceremony, but it felt important. If the McNairs—who have every reason to hold what happened to their son against Maryland—believe in the Terps’ new leader, maybe the rest of us can have faith for the future too.

So here’s to a new year filled with positive change. Here’s to a year filled with Maryland pride. Here’s to a great 2019.