Maybe coach DJ Durkin’s supporters are correct about the anonymous sources behind ESPN’s shocking report on Maryland’s football program.
Maybe the current and former players who claim a toxic culture exists are disgruntled. Maybe they’re underachievers who rebelled against pushing themselves. Maybe their descriptions of life under Durkin and strength and conditioning coach Rick Court are blown way out of proportion.
Maybe the former staffer who said “you wouldn’t want anybody talking to your son that way” was overly sensitive. Maybe a second former staffer who said he’d “never, ever, ever” allow his son to play for Durkin was upset that things didn’t work out professionally in College Park.
Each of the above suppositions could be absolutely true. But that wouldn’t make the following automatically false:
Durkin needs to go.
Players can be displeased with their personal status and still paint accurate pictures of their environment. Those who lack the drive and/or physical ability to meet the coaching staff’s demands still can be correct in deeming the demands excessive.
Assistants who prefer that players receive less degradation and derision, less humiliation and intimidation, still can be right in declaring that a program is out of control.
Durkin and his staff might be over the line in how they operate. In a normal situation, the question for university president Wallace D. Loh would involve nuanced degrees. Has the program crossed the acceptable boundary by just a smidgen?
Or has it gone so far that the line is no longer visible in the rearview mirror?
But these aren’t normal times. Lest we forget, the Terrapins are enveloped by extraordinary circumstances: A player died on this staff’s watch.
If a fraction of the allegations in ESPN’s startling report are true, it’s easy to draw a dotted line between the Terps’ culture and Jordan McNair’s death.
According to multiple reports, McNair exhibited visible signs of distress while running a set of 110-yard sprints May 29. Malcolm Ruff, an attorney for the family, said the 19-year-old offensive lineman was walking or jogging “at the best” on his final run and teammates had to carry him across the finish line. ESPN reports that McNair, who died of heatstroke June 13, had difficulty standing upright and his body temperature was 106 degrees when he reached a local hospital.
Durkin and Court were present at the workout. But ice baths, which can save the life of an athlete suffering heatstroke, reportedly weren’t.
Ruff said head athletic trainer Wes Robinson yelled “drag his [butt] across the field” after the sprints. The family’s attorneys contend that nearly an hour elapsed between the time they say McNair suffered a seizure and the time Maryland staffers called 911.
At a certain point, imploring players to be tough and “suck it up” can morph into complete indifference and disregard for players’ well-being.
“There’s a difference between coaching hard and developing young people for life,” former Terps basketball star Len Elmore told the Baltimore Sun. “There’s a bright line you can’t step over because hard coaching turns into abuse. That’s totally unacceptable. Coaches have to be smarter than that.”
This isn’t 1954 when coach Paul “Bear” Bryant tortured his “Junction Boys” at Texas A&M. Being smarter doesn’t mean being softer — although some Neanderthals disagree. In their worldview, there’s nothing wrong with an “old school” coaching staff behaving like Durkin’s reportedly behaves.
I don’t believe programs must operate like that to compete against powerhouses in Alabama, Ohio and elsewhere. If Durkin disagrees, he should relocate to a school that shares his warped philosophy because Maryland isn’t supposed to be one of them.
“I have been clear in the values that should define everything we do, and these reports are not reflective of the culture we seek to build here,” athletic director Damon Evans wrote Saturday in a letter to the university community. Durkin was placed on administrative leave later that day, joining three other staffers (allegedly Court, Robinson and an assistant trainer).
A second external investigation will be launched and conducted concurrently with the probe into McNair’s death. Evans himself might have reason to worry.
Although he was named permanent AD just a couple of months ago, he has been on campus since the fall of 2014 and served as liaison to the football program. He better have good answers for what he knew and didn’t know.
Loh doesn’t need much corroboration to decide that Durkin’s absence should be permanent. Maybe under different circumstances, the coach could be shown the error of his ways and be retained after apologizing and promising to do better.
But McNair’s death made Durkin’s approach a fatal mistake.
And nothing can change that fact, no matter the level of disgruntlement or number of complainers that led to the revelation.
⦁ Deron Snyder writes his column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.
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