Less than an hour after they were informed that DJ Durkin had been fired as Maryland’s football coach, more than 100 Terrapins players spilled out of the team’s facility Wednesday evening and pondered their new reality. Some were stunned, and some had scoffed at Athletic Director Damon Evans when he delivered the news shortly after their practice, according to multiple people with knowledge of the situation.
The future of Maryland football will remain in flux beyond this season, but the current team must find a way to navigate the uncertainty with four games remaining on its schedule. The previous 48 hours had only heightened a sense of whiplash.
The Terrapins’ locker room had been roiled when Durkin was stunningly reinstated by the university and returned to practice on Tuesday after 80 days on administrative leave, only to watch three players walk out in protest.
At that day’s practice, two other players, one who has been described by teammates as pro-Durkin and another as anti-Durkin, engaged in a physical confrontation.
Conflicting accounts of the incident emerged Thursday. A person with knowledge of the situation alleged junior Matt Barber was assaulted by a teammate during Tuesday night’s practice, which Durkin attended. In a statement released Thursday on Twitter, junior punter Wade Lees acknowledged he was involved in an altercation with Barber, his backup.
Barber had been accused by some teammates of being a whistleblower who had interviewed with investigators probing the culture of the program, and he was allegedly confronted near the end of the practice by Lees, who has publicly endorsed Durkin. Billy Murphy, an attorney for the McNair family, alleged in an interview with WUSA Channel 9 on Wednesday night that Barber needed stitches and an MRI exam for a separated shoulder as a result of the altercation.
Barber did not practice with the team Wednesday or Thursday. It was not immediately clear if Lees practiced.
Lees said Thursday in a statement posted on Twitter, “The altercation had nothing to do with Coach Durkin’s reinstatement.”
University police said an officer was on site at the time of the altercation and that there was video of the incident. An investigation is underway, according to a spokeswoman.
Evans released a statement saying: “This is an incredibly difficult time for our football student-athletes. However, we take any matters involving physical altercations extremely seriously. Our priority is to understand fully what transpired and we have referred this matter to the Office of Student Conduct to look into the detail.”
In the hours after Durkin was reinstated, some staffers wondered how they would be able to trust Durkin again and recruit players in the wake of Jordan McNair’s death and allegations of abuse within the program, let alone how they were going to be able to coach in Saturday’s game against Michigan State.
So there was at least some sense of relief from players and coaches when the school reversed course and fired Durkin shortly after 6 p.m. Wednesday night. “It’s a blessing,” one assistant coach texted a person close to the program who was granted anonymity to freely discuss the situation. A number of players felt not only that the move had provided a degree of closure after watching their season become hijacked by controversy but also that justice had been served for McNair and his family.
“I definitely did want justice for Jordan. I think the right decision was made for justice for Jordan and for everything to be easier for us as players,” Maryland offensive lineman Johnny Jordan told reporters outside Gossett Team House shortly after Durkin was fired.
Interim head coach Matt Canada and his assistants have been praised for galvanizing their grieving players and leading them to a 5-3 record, one win away from bowl eligibility, even with some of the roster split on supporting and opposing Durkin throughout the past two months.
“The last three days, much like the past several months, have been challenging for everyone involved. There has been a lot written and a lot said about our program,” Canada wrote Thursday in a letter to players’ parents. “Our young men have been forced to deal with intense distractions and speculation, none of which they asked for. We can’t change that and we don’t control it — what’s being said, how it’s being written, any of it.”
As players left the facility on Wednesday night, staffers stayed and continued preparations for Michigan State. Some assistants remained past 10 p.m. and planned to return to their normal routine on Thursday. As some players tweeted responses to the Durkin firing, most assistants stayed off social media. Durkin’s profile was erased from the staff directory, and the team’s Twitter account sent out a photo of players hugging as a message of unity.
Evans told Canada on Wednesday night that he would finish the season as interim head coach, and the two met again Thursday morning, according to a person familiar with the situation. Canada then met with his staff. Players held meetings at their regular time in the early afternoon. A closed practice was held at Maryland Stadium instead on the team’s outdoor practice field but otherwise proceeded normally.
They came together even as questions continued to swirl about their program, including the status of trainers Wes Robinson and Steve Nordwall, both of whom remained on administrative leave on Wednesday. It was revealed earlier in the day that the University System of Maryland Board of Regents had recommended that both, along with Durkin, return to their positions.
“The mood of the team is the same since the situation started. They’re coming together. They’re playing for each other,” said one Maryland football staff member. “They want support from the fans.”
Canada did not mention the incident at Tuesday’s practice in his letter to parents, in which he wrote that the players’ resolve “is incredible.”
“We will stick together,” he wrote. “We will lean on each other. We will continue to honor Jordan. We will play hard as a team. We will make you proud.”
Emily Giambalvo, Sarah Larimer and Rick Maese contributed to this report.