Marking 5 Years as Athletic Director, Damon Evans Reflects on Achievements, Challenges and What’s Next
Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics
As the Barry P. Gossett Director of Athletics, Damon Evans doesn’t coach any teams at the University of Maryland, but he easily conjures a highlights reel: Fans storming the Xfinity Center court after the men’s basketball team upset No. 3 Purdue last season; the men’s lacrosse team completing a perfect 18-0 season with the 2022 national championship; Maryland volleyball defeating No. 2 Wisconsin in 2021, the program’s first win over a top-10 team and what Evans called one of the best events he’s ever attended.
Evans can also tout more concrete measures of success during his five years in the role: three national titles, more than 20 Big Ten regular-season and tournament championships, and the growing prominence of several programs. The Terps have won Big Ten titles in seven sports, and the football team is poised to play in its third consecutive bowl game—a feat not repeated in the past 15 years.
Beyond all that, he’s also led Maryland through the rapidly evolving landscape of college sports, from the lifting of restrictions on student-athletes monetizing their name, image and likeness (NIL) to the shifting memberships in the Power 5 conferences.
“This is a great business, working with young people and coaches, but you never know what’s around the corner,” said Evans, who oversees 20 varsity programs, 500 student-athletes, 200 staff members and an annual budget of over $100 million. “The challenges that we face, I look at them as opportunities.”
Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff Michele Eastman, who has worked with Evans since he served as Maryland Athletics’ chief finance officer, said she appreciates his balance of “extraordinary vision and fiscal responsibility.”
“He's a great leader, a steady hand, and is always quick to partner with all areas of campus, from Student Affairs to our colleges and schools,” she said. “Maryland is lucky to have someone like Damon leading our athletic department."
He spoke with Maryland Today about how he’s tackled some of the biggest challenges and how he hopes to score more victories:
Name, Image and Likeness
Since a summer 2021 rule change, the NCAA has allowed student-athletes to earn money through endorsements, social media promotions, camps and other activities independent of their colleges. Under Evans, UMD has been a national leader in this bustling arena, launching initiatives including the Maryland NIL Marketplace, a single platform for fans and brands to book and pay student-athletes, and the just-launched One Maryland Collective, which pools money from boosters and sponsors to support NIL opportunities across sports.
As a result, Maryland student-athletes disclosed more than 1,110 NIL deals in 2022-23, a 227% increase from the previous year, and 207 student-athletes had inked at least one NIL deal, more than double the number a year earlier.
But the system is far from perfect, said Evans, one of only five athletic directors on the NCAA Division I Transformation Committee that addresses such topics. He’s seen the new NIL rules combine with the transfer portal, which since 2021 has allowed student-athletes to change schools without sitting out a year, to create a “free-agency-type market.” Those athletes can now “shop” themselves and bounce between programs based on the money they can earn, resulting in obstacles for recruitment and retention—chaos that could be reined in, Evans said, by federal legislation that establishes a consistent, fair set of guidelines.
“I’m glad that student-athletes have opportunities that they didn’t have before. It’s just, how do we effectively manage all of that?” said Evans, a former University of Georgia football player. “I want us, as an athletics department, to do all we can within the rules and regulations to promote NIL, and I want us to stay at the forefront of what’s going on around the country.”
In 2024, four West Coast teams will join UMD in the Big Ten: the University of Oregon, the University of Washington, the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles. While that will add some curveballs to Terps’ travel schedules, Evans said, he knows conference expansion is inevitable—especially after Maryland was in the same cleats when it left the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2014.
“I don’t think we knew how powerful the Big Ten was going to end up,” he said, noting the financial benefits of joining the conference and its lucrative media rights deal. “There are two conferences that everybody talks about joining: the Big Ten and the SEC. The additions of Oregon, Washington, USC and UCLA are great additions to an already elite conference.”
Leading Through Adversity
Since the start of Evans’ tenure, Maryland Athletics and the university community have experienced much deeper difficulties. In 2018, offensive lineman Jordan McNair collapsed from heatstroke during a team workout and died 15 days later.
Two independent external reviews helped change the course of Maryland Athletics. The department removed the football coach and two members of the training staff and implemented a series of 41 reforms, including developing venue-specific emergency action plans and making cold-water immersion available for all athletic activities. Passage of a state law, the Jordan McNair Safe and Fair Play Act, followed, and in 2021, UMD partnered with the Jordan McNair Foundation, founded by his parents, Tonya Wilson and Martin McNair, to further raise awareness of student-athlete health and safety.
“Through tragedy, we learned some things about ourselves, some areas in which we needed to improve,” Evans said. “I’m grateful for what the McNair Foundation is doing, and that we can help out in some sort of way and honor his memory and legacy.”
Protecting student-athletes’ health—including their mental health—was of the utmost importance for Maryland Athletics during the COVID-19 pandemic. Amid a shortened season, empty stadiums, daily antigen testing and enhanced cardiac screening, communication was key to Evans’ approach.
That went beyond conversations with student-athletes to frequent Zoom calls with parents, staff, medical professionals and other Big Ten athletic directors to keep everyone informed of the latest guidance and decision-making. Evans made clear throughout that any student-athlete who didn’t feel comfortable playing would remain on scholarship.
“Damon is very decisive and thoughtful and has high emotional intelligence, really all the traits you want in a leader,” said Gene Smith, director of athletics for Ohio State University. “In a world where we’re dealing with so many issues, like COVID, he knows how to adjust and adapt.”
Striving for Equality
Around the same time, the United States experienced a racial reckoning in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police. Joining the conversation and advocating for change became a priority for Evans and the department, whether through adding antiracism messages to playing fields and jerseys or launching the VoTERP voting initiative, which led to the Xfinity Center being selected as a polling center for the 2020 presidential election (and ultimately becoming the state’s largest polling site). Maryland Athletics also strongly supports the Social Justice Alliance, a partnership with Bowie State University to promote equality in honor of 1st Lt. Richard Collins III, who was killed in College Park by a University of Maryland student.
For Evans, representation is crucial in the fight for social justice. UMD is the first Power 5 school with a Black president (Darryll J. Pines), head football coach (Michael Locksley) and athletic director, a trifecta Evans hopes becomes more common.
“I understand the significance. I understand the role models that we ought to be,” he said, “and I know that I have a lot more to do in this area to help others who look like me or other minorities get opportunities.”
Earning the As
Understanding the new emphasis on academic achievement during Evans’ tenure starts with a walk through Gossett Hall. The former football facility was transformed into a single dedicated location to support student-athletes, including academic advising, career readiness and leadership education. It’s outfitted with a variety of unique study and tutoring spaces, a study lounge and an array of programming, and its Barry and Mary Gossett Center for Academic and Personal Excellence is one of the nation's most innovative college athletics programs in the space.
The numbers bear out the improvements: Maryland in 2022
earned its best Academic Progress Rate score with a 985 per NCAA data,
and eight programs posted perfect 1,000 scores. UMD also earned a school
record for institutional Graduation Success Rate of 88% in 2022, and
Maryland's student-athletes combined for a 3.217 grade point average
during the spring 2023 term, the sixth semester in a row with a GPA of
better than 3.0.
Being able to trust and lean on staff throughout Athletics has been a game-changer, Evans said. To ensure the right fits—like Locksley, who’s coming off back-to-back bowl game wins, or Kevin Willard, who led the men’s basketball team to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in his first year at UMD—Evans treats head coaches like the CEOs of their teams and invites feedback.
“He’s super open to real conversations. His door is always open to us,” said Missy Meharg, Maryland’s longtime field hockey head coach. “He’s someone you want to work with. And it’s with, not for.”
He’s demonstrated his commitment to their programs by prioritizing state-of-the-art facilities under the Building Champions fundraising campaign. It led to the 2021 opening of Jones Hill House, the state-of-the-art football practice facility named for Black trailblazers in Maryland Athletics, and the renovation of Gossett Hall.
Just last summer, the Barry P. Gossett Basketball Performance Center, a practice facility for the men’s and women’s teams, broke ground, and the new Field Hockey and Women’s Lacrosse Complex will host a ribbon-cutting later this fall. Next up: construction of the Stanley Bobb Baseball Player Development Center and the Softball Player Development Center.
Having the right people and resources is part of Evans’ long-term strategy for creating a winning atmosphere and fostering excellence.
“Culture leads to success. I’ll ride that all day long,” he said. “We’re going to have some bumps in the road, and some things aren’t going to go right. But I’m going to preach culture, culture, culture until my time here is up.”
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