This Is Why
How could Maryland keep a coach who built such a toxic culture? How does a coach - present at a conditioning practice where a player was forced to run until heat stroke took over, killing him - keep his job? Why bring him back? Well, look at Illinois.
Maryland and Illinois played a football game on Saturday. Both teams are in the third season of a rebuild, but one team was clearly ahead of the other. Recruiting is a big part of that, and Matt Canada's offense clearly dominated Lovie Smith's defense the entire game (one was playing chess, the other was playing checkers). But at the core of "why are things fairly hopeful for Maryland and bleak for Illinois?" is one thing: Tim Beckman's dismissal, followed by the athletic director's dismissal, followed by a double-interim coach, followed by a lost recruiting class, followed by more upheaval.
Pause. I'm not saying what you think I'm saying. If you're an Illinois fan, you have your list ready:
- Lovie hasn't recruited like he should.
- Lovie made bad hires with Garrick McGee and Hardy Nickerson and that's why it's checkers/chess.
- Lovie is unable to motivate his team before games.
- Too many players left because of Lovie's discipline style.
I'm not really making that argument. I'm answering the question "why in the world would Maryland give Durkin his job back?". To me, the answer is simple: they want to avoid a post-Beckman Scandal hole. The one Lovie is still trying to climb out of.
A quick recap in case you're not an Illini fan and you landed on this article: On Mother's Day 2015, offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic, who had quit the team midway through his senior season the previous fall, took to Twitter to talk about why he quit the team: coaches forcing players to play with injuries, players verbally abused at practice - generally, a toxic culture surrounding Illinois football. After an independent investigation, in August, one week before the first game, when the preliminary findings were released, Tim Beckman was fired. That same August, the Chancellor resigned (partially related, partially unrelated). After the full report was released, three years ago next week, an exit was negotiated for the Athletic Director (fired without cause).
Illini fans know the rest. It was November, the football team was still under the direction of the offensive coordinator, and there wasn't an Athletic Director to hire a new coach. So the interim coach was given an extension on his interim deal, dealing a deathblow to recruiting, and once the new Athletic Director was hired in March he fired that interim coach on his first day and hired Lovie Smith.
The hole facing Lovie Smith was fairly massive. Players had left. The roster was extremely senior-heavy, meaning that player departures + seniors graduating (and the NCAA maximum of 25 players per class) meant that he'd go into his second year with 74 scholarship players. Effectively, as I wrote at the time, it was like probation.
To make matters worse, Tim Beckman had relied on junior college transfers (18 total in his 2013-2015 classes), and as any college football fan knows, when go hop on the juco train, and then you hop off the juco train (Bill Cubit only added one juco in 2016), you're left with seniors graduating and no developed-for-three-years high school players behind them. You either replace them with more jucos or you bite the bullet and play true freshmen. Lovie decided to bite the bullet.
I'm getting too lost in the weeds here. This could all be summed up with some blind math. I've referenced this many times, but entering the 2017 (seniors had graduated, Lovie had recruited his first class, only 74 scholarship players on the roster), Matt Hinton tweeted that according to his numbers, Illinois ranked behind 10 of the 12 MAC teams. His "numbers" don't do any projecting. They simply look at how you've performed the past four seasons, how you've recruited, how many of those players are left on your roster, and how much experience those players have. What program was Lovie Smith handed for his first "full season"? A roster worse than 10 of the 12 MAC teams.
Again, because I know you're emotions are high... I'm not discussing what he's done since. I'm not talking about a 46-7 homecoming loss to Purdue, followed by five turnovers at Wisconsin, followed by 712 yards to Maryland, what I believe to be the worst three consecutive Illini football games of my lifetime. The answer can be "both". I'm simply pointing to the hole, and Maryland's attempts to avoid it.
That hole - that 11th-best-roster-in-the-MAC hole - is why I believe Maryland did what they did. It's why schools will go to great lengths to not fire the AD and the head coach at the same time. They know what one year of not being able to recruit will mean. They know they'd have to hire an AD and then hire a coach, which would likely mean an Illinois scenario of an off-cycle hire next spring. They know how removing one peg sends the whole thing tumbling back down to the ground.
In other words, the Illinois team they played on Saturday was a cautionary tale for them. Six Illini seniors, smallest number in the country. 79 scholarship players. When including the walkons as well, 76% of the players on the roster are underclassmen. And perhaps most importantly, only five third-year players from that "lost" Bill Cubit recruiting class were contributing: Doug Kramer, Jake Hansen, Tymir Oliver, Stanley Green, and Kenyon Jackson. Fire the coach and AD at the same time, Maryland, and that's your future roster.
Many will say that Durkin won't be able to recruit after a report like this is released. Opposing recruiters will have a field day. "You really want your son to sit there and watch films of drills going into eyeballs while eating breakfast?" and whatnot. But I believe that recruiting against something like that is far easier than recruiting with a post-Beckman-scandal crater. Remember the quote from the interim AD that drove us all nuts? "It's not ideal but I don't think it will put a dagger in the heart of the program"? How we were screaming "but it WILL drive a dagger in the heart of the program"? And then how it did? That, to me, is way worse than a coach trying to recruit after keeping his job after a scandal.
That's why I believe the Maryland board did what it did. I believe this move was 100% to prevent a dagger to the heart of the program. It's certainly disgusting, protecting the program after a student athlete DIED. Honestly, it makes me proud of the Illini trustees for moving to clean house (with less of a scandal) instead of protecting the football program. But remove all of that noise and that's where I land: they did this to avoid a dagger.
Which means they chose football over player safety. Which means I'm pretty much done thinking any nice things about Maryland for decades. The whole Big Ten East, really (Penn State, Michigan State, Ohio State). West is best.
And I can't wait for 2026 when we stop digging this hole and start dominating.