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Why did it take so long for the University of Maryland to fire its football coach?

It’s been a chaotic few days for the University of Maryland football program. In the fallout since the June death of player Jordan McNair, who became overheated during a practice, the school’s football coach, DJ Durkin, was placed on administrative leave, reinstated and finally fired. Sportswriter John Feinstein joins Amna Nawaz to discuss how this saga represents the politics of college football.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, how a prominent college football program has responded to the tragic death of a player.

    It's renewed questions yet again about the extent to which athletics can rule above all else on some college campuses.

    As Amna Nawaz reports, the University of Maryland's string of decisions in this case have angered many.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's been a stunning 36 hours.

    Just one day after the University of Maryland reinstated its suspended football coach, the school's president fired him. Coach DJ Durkin had been on administrative leave following the death of 19-year-old Jordan McNair. McNair was an offensive lineman who died in June, two weeks after suffering from heat stroke in practice.

    His death led to an investigation about other problems in the program. While that investigation led to disturbing findings, the school's board of regents stopped short of holding Durkin responsible for some of those problems.

    Initially, the board reinstated Durkin on Tuesday. That went against the recommendation of university president Wallace Loh, leading to a backlash on campus and statewide. Loh, in turn, announced he would retire after the current academic year.

    Last night, Loh said that he fired Durkin.

    Joining me to talk about this is John Feinstein, sportswriter, columnist and author. His upcoming book is called "Quarterback."

    Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • John Feinstein:

    Good to be here, Amna. Thanks.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It has been an incredible couple of days to follow all of this.

    Back it up for just a second and explain to us how a man who we now know oversaw a pretty toxic culture and who oversaw, was in charge of a program where a 19-year-old player died, how did he get his job back in the first place?

  • John Feinstein:

    Well, the honest answer from me is, I have no idea, because none of us could believe it when the news broke that DJ Durkin was being reinstated by the board of regents on Tuesday.

    But what apparently happened is, it became a political battle. In the wake of a tragedy, it was turned into a political battle between Wallace Loh, the president, and James T. Brady, the chairman of the board of regents.

    The two of them were sort of avowed enemies over other issues at Maryland. And Brady decided that, since Loh wanted Durkin fired, believed Durkin should be fired for what had happened, the death of a player under his watch, that he was going to find a way to keep Durkin on the job.

    And Durkin came in and met with the board of regents, and apparently gave a rah-rah speech about what he was going to do at Maryland if he was reinstated that was reminiscent of Ronald Reagan playing Knute Rockne in the old 1940 movie, you know, win one for the Gipper.

    The regents, I guess, bought into it, at least temporarily, and decided to reinstate DJ Durkin, which I think stunned everybody in the state. And it finally got to the point where Governor Larry Hogan, who appointed 13 of the 17 regents, wrote them a note, saying, you need to reconsider.

    And that was a clear message, especially six days before an election, that this could not be allowed to take place.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, his reinstatement caught a lot of people by surprise, a lot of Maryland fans, people who have been following the story, the players themselves, too, it seemed.

    After DJ Durkin was reinstated, there were reports of players about tweeting their displeasure, about players walking out of the first meeting.

  • John Feinstein:

    Right. Right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What do you know about what happened in the day after he was reinstated?

  • John Feinstein:

    Well, you are right. DJ Durkin went to meet with his — re-meet with his team when he had been reinstated on Tuesday.

    Three players got up and walked out of that meeting in protest of his being allowed to return to his job. Many others were clearly upset. The student senate was planning a rally on campus. Usually, when you have rallies involving students on campus, it is to tell the team to go win a big game. This was entirely different.

    And I think the sense was that the reinstatement in many ways devalued Jordan McNair, the young man who had died, that he died on DJ Durkin's watch. DJ Durkin was on the practice field when he became overheated and when, for some reason, the training staff took 45 minutes before 911 was called.

    And here is where I think Wallace Loh, the president, made his biggest mistake. On August 11, the last time I was here with you, he held a press conference. And he said — quote — "The University of Maryland is responsible morally and legally for the death of Jordan McNair."

    That is the day he should have fired DJ Durkin. DJ Durkin was in charge.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Here is the bigger question here. Obviously, football is a big-money sport, right, a lot of resources going into it, not just in Maryland, but around the country.

  • John Feinstein:

    True.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    How much of a role did that play in all of this decision-making, in standing by Durkin in the first place, and how much of a problem could this shall at other programs?

  • John Feinstein:

    It is a problem at other programs.

    Now, they didn't — hadn't reached the point of a player dying because of a lack of care. But we all know that the most powerful person at big-time college football and basketball programs is a successful coach in either sport. They are the highest paid by far. They make well into the millions of dollars.

    Mike Krzyzewski at Duke makes $8 million a year. Nick Saban, the football coach at Alabama, makes close to the same. They're also the biggest fund-raisers for the school, through the success of their programs.

    And I think the headline in yesterday's Washington Post, when Durkin had initially been reinstated, sums it all up. It said, Maryland board of regents sides with football coach.

    So, in other words, given a choice between a football coach who had allowed a player to die under his watch and the president, who was saying we can't have this, they chose the football coach because they believed, somehow, that he was going to come back and lead them to victory.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Very quickly, now, does this trigger other conversations in other programs, where players will now feel empowered to speak out about similar problems?

  • John Feinstein:

    Well, I would hope so.

    I would also hope what it would do is, it would remind other football coaches and trainers and doctors that you have got to take good care of your players. You can't allow this to come close to happening.

    Jordan McNair didn't have to die. If they had gotten him into a tub of ice right away, which is standard procedure when a player is overheated, he wouldn't have died. I would hope that all football programs would take steps to make sure that can — this can never happen again.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Can hope that, for sure.

    John Feinstein, thanks for being here.

  • John Feinstein:

    Thanks, Amna.

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