Before anything else, before debating what the word toxic means or whether Maryland football coach DJ Durkin can change his ways, let us not forget just how spectacularly Durkin failed: 19-year-old Jordan McNair is dead, and his mother and father are left to grieve their son for eternity.
“I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach, and somebody spit in my face,” said Marty McNair, Jordan’s father after Durkin was reinstated as Maryland coach on Tuesday.
The University System of Maryland Board of Regents and its hand-picked commission to investigate the football culture at Maryland have acknowledged that: The university bears responsibility for McNair’s death from heatstroke on June 13 following a May 29 workout; that the athletic department was “dysfunctional”; and that a strength coach, Rick Court, berated, demeaned and humiliated players. Despite this, the regents decided it was in the school’s best interest to keep Durkin on the sideline.
And now we are supposed to believe what happened under Durkin at Maryland is not his responsbility. The commission charged with investigating Maryland’s football culture issued a report last week, which was obtained by ESPN, that concluded that while there were abuses within the program, the culture was not “toxic.” It made a list of excuses for Durkin that were echoed by Board of Regents Chair James Brady on Tuesday.
The report claims Durkin was not given the proper training to do his job as a first-time head coach, despite it being the one thing he has studied for his entire adult life — under two of the most high-profile coaches in the country, Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh. How could Durkin have known to keep his players safe?
Durkin told the commission he had no clear idea about who should be supervising Court, his handpicked strength and conditioning coach, despite the fact he was the first hire Durkin made at Maryland. Durkin once told Sports Illustrated, “Rick and I are as about in line with how we see things as you can possibly be.”
Anybody who believes these excuses has no understanding of how much control a football coach has over his entire program.
During a train wreck of a media conference Tuesday, Brady said, “We believe Coach Durkin has been unfairly blamed for the dysfunction in the athletic department.” In the next breath, he said the board believes Durkin is “a good man and a good coach who is devoted to the well-being of the student-athletes under his charge.” Though Brady says Durkin, athletic director Damon Evans and university president Wallace Loh all accept some responsibility for what happened, that message was lost as soon as Brady tried to justify the decision to keep Durkin.
The McNair family says it wasn’t nearly enough. McNair died a preventable death, thanks in large part to negligence and the bully culture that existed under Durkin. As McNair struggled for breath, trainers either ignored or berated him, failing to understand the consequences until it was too late.
“I don’t think that he should be allowed to coach anyone else’s child, in an environment like this,” McNair’s father, Marty, told ESPN back in August. “My child died there. That’s something we’ll never get back. That’s a wound that will never heal.”
Herein lies the underlying theme we see repeatedly through each collegiate scandal that passes: The leaders in these programs don’t want to actually lead, or take responsibility, or mete out accountability. All these platitudes they teach their players simply do not apply to them, a shameful double-standard that serves only one selfish cause.
While Durkin and Evans would be expected to fight for their jobs, the regents and university administrators are the ones who should be standing up and looking out for the best interests of the school and its students. In the end, the personal preference of influential boosters, board members and university administrators outweighed justice for Jordan McNair.
“The only person who has paid for those failures is Jordan McNair,” said Hassan Murphy, a McNair family attorney.
Meanwhile, the only person to take full responsibility, university president Wallace Loh, who said in his initial August media conference that the school accepted full “legal and moral” responsibility for McNair’s death, will be retiring in June. Loh couldn’t even say Durkin’s name during the media conference.
And moving forward, you must wonder how much Durkin’s presence will damage Maryland. Just imagine how easy it will be for a rival Big Ten coach to stroll into a recruit’s living room, take out the commission’s report and not even have to say a word.
How many parents are going to send their sons to play for Durkin, knowing he broke every promise he made to the McNair family to keep their son safe?
Where does Durkin even begin to fix schisms inside his own locker room, where several players reportedly walked out Tuesday when the coach held his first team meeting since he went on paid leave? Ninety-four players participated in a survey conducted Sept. 8 by the independent commission. The commission then compared the results to similar surveys 32 Division I college football teams took during the 2016 and 2017 football seasons (the same period for which the commission surveyed).
Durkin’s rating on “coaching style” was 2.7, which was 0.9 below the average from other schools. On the question about culture/values, Maryland ranked 31 out of 32 teams.
Court is now gone, but there is no way he operated in a vacuum, given how close he was with Durkin. Take it from current players who spoke to the commission anonymously for its report. One current player said, “It is a somewhat toxic culture. It is an alpha male one. And if you don’t buy in to what they are saying they find a way to weave you out. They use humiliation and talk down to players. Some coaches are good, though, and show the players mutual respect.”
Another current player said, “I have heard players and myself called ‘p******’ for being unable to complete workouts and the constant foul language has become accustomed to our culture. It has been incorporated into how we spoke to our teammates and coaches, but it isn’t seen as a negative because we are so numb to it now.”
To be sure, there are Maryland players and parents who gave positive reviews about Durkin. They believe the culture he brought was meant to toughen players up. If demeaning or humiliating someone taught some harsh lessons, then so be it. To many, profanity is part of the football culture.
One current player said, “I’ve talked with guys at other schools, and I think that what UMD is doing is not far off what other programs are doing. This is D1 football.” Another praised the family atmosphere and said he was treated with “utmost kindness.”
But there are clear lines between pushing a player to maximize his potential and intimidating players with over-the-line bullying tactics to the point that, as the report clearly states, “problems festered because too many players feared speaking out.”
The report blames Court for “acting in a manner inconsistent with the university’s values and basic principles of respect for others” on too many occasions. But make no mistake, this is not a one-man problem.
The solution should start with Durkin never being allowed near Maryland again. But it appears the board of regents is as dysfunctional as the university it represents.
Now they must look Tonya Wilson and Marty McNair in the eye and explain why Durkin deserves a second chance their son will never get.
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