As the months-long controversy surrounding the Maryland football program swelled last week, the situation remained one the players could only endure rather than control. Some spoke out, but the ultimate decision-making power rested much higher.
This week, as the Terrapins prepare for a road game against Indiana, they at least have a sense of normalcy.
“I think we’ve handled it in the best way we possibly can,” senior defensive end Jesse Aniebonam said Tuesday, the first time players had been made available to members of the media since before DJ Durkin was reinstated as the team’s head coach on Oct. 30, then fired a day later. “ . . . What a lot of the younger guys have to understand is when things like this happen, it’s on us to really show our maturity and show our resolve in order to progress through the season with all the turmoil.”
Some players’ parents initially voiced their support for Durkin after the school placed him on leave on Aug. 11. When the coach was briefly reinstated last week, other players and parents shared their dissent. Three players walked out of Durkin’s first meeting with the team. The commission that examined the program’s culture found a similar divide in opinion.
Aniebonam said the players discussed the differing views but shifted the focus back to football when it came time for meetings and practice.
The team has moved through this week of game preparation without the threat of a program-altering development, something it had not previously enjoyed. Even when it wasn’t awaiting sudden, potentially program-altering news, the season has been defined by incremental updates that questioned accountability at all levels in the athletic department and university.
Maryland’s season opened with an upset win over Texas just a few weeks after the school placed Durkin on administrative leave, and Matt Canada, who’s never been a head coach, slid into the interim role. The day before Maryland beat Minnesota, the Board of Regents announced the findings of the external investigation that examined the staff’s failures in treating offensive lineman Jordan McNair, who died 15 days after suffering exertional heatstroke in late May. Two days before Maryland defeated Illinois, The Washington Post and other media outlets published the lengthy independent report about the program’s culture.
Through that lens, last week was certainly a peak in the chaotic season, but it was also just an extension of what the players have faced all year.
“The quickest way that a program can deteriorate is if people start focusing on the wrong things,” Aniebonam said.
Aniebonam praised Canada, who has led the team to a 5-4 record.
“He took along the leadership role head on and didn’t hesitate and I appreciate him for that,” Aniebonam said. “His biggest thing … was keeping everyone together, keeping everyone focused on the right things. He’s done a tremendous job of relaying that message week to week.”
When asked about his aspirations to be a head coach, Canada on Tuesday simply emphasized his focus on the Indiana game, the importance of the team sticking together and his approach of not looking any further into the future.
The team has followed that example, rallying behind the school of thought that always deems the next game the most important one. A win in the trip to Bloomington, Ind., would make Maryland bowl-eligible, something the program has only accomplished three times since Ralph Friedgen’s final season in 2010.
Aniebonam is confident that every member of the team understands the value of earning a 13th game.
“We’ve done well with avoiding distractions,” senior running back Ty Johnson said. “ . . . There’s been a lot that’s gone on in the past five months so just trying to play football and not have the whole world looking at us in a negative light.”
By the time the team met last Thursday, the day after Durkin’s firing, the message to the players was to “stick to the plan, stay the course, tunnel vision,” Aniebonam said. Canada sent a letter to the players’ parents with a similar theme and thanking them for their support.
“Through the mourning process, through all of this, some days somebody’s up, other days down,” Canada said. “We’ve got to grab the guy that’s down and get him, and when you’re down, that’s what a team does. That is the story. I’ve said that multiple times. The story is these kids.”