The beat goes on with administrative leaders and coaches in college football embroiled in case studies of poor leadership. First, the Notre Dame scandal, then Ohio State and Urban Meyer, now The University of Maryland and head coach DJ Durkin.
Maryland fired its head football coach on Wednesday after an investigation of a “toxic culture” driven by the coaching staff. Many blame a culture of fear, intimidation, and shaming for pushing 19-year-old player Jordan McNair to a tragic death, caused by complications of heatstroke following an intense May 29th practice.
If the story stopped there, perhaps you could commend the brain trust, The University System of Maryland (USM) Board of Regents and the University President, Wallace Loh, for acting decisively to deal with multiple reports of a “toxic culture”.
But alas, such is not the case.
The Board of Regents fired Durkin only after tremendous public and internal backlash, incredibly doing so just 24 hours after reinstating Durkin from paid administrative leave.
The backlash was broad-based. Marty McNair, father of Jordan, said of the board’s initial recommendation to reinstate Durkin, “I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach, and somebody spit in my face.” Several football players walked out of practice upon Durkin’s return. Students organized a November 1 protest on campus, calling for Durkin’s firing. Maryland Governor, Larry Hogan, even weighed in saying he was “deeply concerned at how the USM regents could have possibly arrived at the decision (to reinstate Durkin).”
Hogan called for a public meeting with the USM to get them to reconsider their decision, saying they “had let down the University of Maryland community and the citizens of Maryland”, and that, “now is the time to fix it.”
The debacle serves as a primer for leaders on what not to do when finding a toxic employee in the ranks. Here’s what Maryland leadership did wrong in hopes that you can get it right in your own circumstances.
1. Slow to react
Jordan McNair tragically passed away on June 13. The USM Board of Regents didn’t take over the investigation of the tragedy and the reports of a toxic football culture until August 17. For something of this magnitude, the Board should have assumed control much sooner.
You should move even faster when you hear of a toxic employee. The multiplicative effect that one negative employee can have on a culture can’t be underestimated.
2. Unduly influenced
Incredibly, the Board of Regents interpreted a damning (albeit conflicting) report in favor of coach Durkin. As ESPN reported, the investigation concluded that there wasn’t a toxic culture nor did one directly contribute to McNair’s death, and that “a dysfunctional athletic department didn’t serve Durkin well in his development as a first-time head coach.” However, there were disturbing instances uncovered including the use of bullying and humiliation tactics by strength coach Rick Court and the fact was that players didn’t feel comfortable going to Durkin with their concerns.
Sounds toxic to me.
The Board sided on making excuses for Durkin, despite having plenty of evidence to the contrary. They were hoodwinked by a report and/or likely hearing what they wanted to hear versus holding high-standards and taking the action that was required.
When faced with a toxic employee, keep a clear, unbiased head and start with what you know to be the right thing to do despite spinning and positioning you’re presented with.
3. Lack of unity
Loh was told by the Board of Regents (against his wishes) he’d be fired if he didn’t reinstate Durkin.
The way to address toxic behavior in a culture is not to engage in toxic, bullying behavior yourself. Such sensitive matters require leadership to be arm in arm in their intervention.
4. Influenced by screwed-up priorities
Before the reinstatement of Durkin, The Chair of the Board of Regents, James Brady, said, “We believe that Coach Durkin has been unfairly blamed for the dysfunction in the athletic department. While he bears some responsibility, it is not fair to place all of it at his feet.”
While the Board hid behind a cry for “fairness”, you can’t help but wonder if their tolerance for Durkin had to do with the fact that he was such a prized coaching recruit, snatched from the University of Michigan. At a minimum, there was a misplaced priority on protecting a coach versus holding a head coach accountable for everything that happens on his staff.
5. Let political pressure be the driver versus doing what’s right
Loh had to intervene on what he should have done in the first place, likely highly influenced by the political pressure he was facing. Be better than this in your own scenario.
When it comes to dealing with toxic employees, don’t do as Maryland did. Follow the right playbook.