D.J. Durkin is, unfathomably, still the Maryland football coach
The sum total of professional employees of the University of Maryland held accountable for the completely preventable death of football player Jordan McNair is now known.
That total is one.
Strength coach Rick Court, a proud troglodyte who frequently degraded players by calling them vile names, including antigay slurs, is the only employee known publicly to lose his job in this entire tragedy. And part of the process of getting rid of Court was giving him a $315,000 settlement to go along with his August resignation.
The primary powers within the athletic department are back, per the school’s announcement Tuesday afternoon. At the reported insistence of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, head coach D.J. Durkin, suspended since mid-August, is back —a decision railroaded past school president Wallace Loh. Athletic director Damon Evans is back.
Jordan McNair is never coming back.
The regents are shrugging off that little detail, moving past the worst thing that could possibly happen in a college athletic program, keeping intact a leadership team that fundamentally failed the student-athlete welfare test. A young man dies because of the football program and everyone goes marching along to victory, as the school fight song goes.
“We believe that Coach Durkin has been unfairly blamed for the dysfunction in the athletic department,” Maryland Board of Regents chairman Jim Brady said. “And while he shares some responsibility, it is not fair to place all of it at his feet.”
We’ve all become numb to the tolerance of aberrant behavior in college sports, to the point that it’s hard to be shocked by it anymore. But this is shocking.
There were many expressions of sorrow when McNair died in June of heat stroke after an offseason conditioning workout — a workout in which Maryland officials publicly admitted they did not adequately treat McNair. There were tributes and symbols and gestures. There was a lot of talk.
But after ESPN reported in August about a “toxic culture” within the football program in regards to player welfare, where did all that talk lead? Not to any truly significant action. Millionaire football coaches seem increasingly harder to terminate for anything other than losing games.
D.J. Durkin is, unfathomably, still the Maryland football coach — although if another kid dies, by golly, that’s where they draw the line.
“There will be no third chance for anyone to get this right,” Brady said.
How the university intends to stand behind that message to the world, I have no idea. How Durkin is ever going to successfully recruit another player, I have no idea.
Maryland did the right thing in commissioning a thorough review of the program. The commission took its time, asked smart people to conduct more than 150 interviews, and created an in-depth report. But the conclusions of that report seem at odds with the information in it, and certainly at odds with the university’s decision to basically give Durkin and other leaders a do-over.
Report: Maryland football “fostered a culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out.”
Report: The Maryland athletic department “lacked a culture of accountability” and was plagued by dysfunction.
Report: Court, who was Durkin’s first hire and right-hand man, was “effectively accountable to no one” and “engaged in abusive conduct during his tenure at Maryland.” He threw a garbage can full of vomit. He threw weights. He fat-shamed players. There was a disputed allegation by two players that he used a pull-down bar to choke a player in the weight room.
Commission conclusion after digesting report: Hmm, troubling. Harrumph harrumph, need to do better. Here are a few procedural changes. But despite everything our interviews produced that suggests a toxic culture, we do not agree with ESPN’s magic word. Not toxic. C’mon back, D.J.!
There is a disconnect here.
The rational conclusion to draw from reading the Maryland report is that an old-school, demeaning, meathead mentality proliferated in the football program. Court ruled throughout the offseason — when the rest of the coaching staff is limited in its contact with players — by fear and intimidation, and did so with the full backing of Durkin. If that’s the climate a coach wants to foster, he’d better pray at night that nothing terrible goes wrong.
And then a player died during a running workout due to heat stroke and staff malpractice — including a trainer yelling to “drag [McNair’s] ass across the finish line,” when the offensive lineman was struggling. A reasonable person can draw a direct line from program mentality to individual tragedy. And yet, the powers that be won’t extend that line to leadership accountability.
Instead of finding a toxic culture, Maryland aligned itself with the cult of football. The money associated with Big Ten membership, the allure of a promising coach like Durkin to elevate the program into competitive alignment with the rest of the powerhouse Big Ten East division — the university found a way to keep those things intact instead of finding its way to substantive change.
We’ll see whether Durkin is worth the collateral damage to Maryland’s rep. His record as head coach at Maryland is 10-15. It’s not like the school was trying to save Nick Saban.
If this is an economic decision based on what it would cost to buy out Durkin, Evans and Loh — who reportedly wanted to fire Durkin and, it should be noted, did not mention his name once during Tuesday’s announcement — shame on Maryland. It’s no secret that the school moved to the Big Ten because it was drowning in athletic department red ink, and while annual conference revenue eventually will balloon to more than $50 million, Maryland hasn’t been in the league long enough yet to get its full share. That will come in 2020-21.
Was that part of the motivation behind keeping its individuals with big salaries in place? Nobody would dare say so publicly.
There is no expense that makes it permissible to view this as an economic transaction instead of an institutional reputation decision. You cannot put a price on what you stand for.
Throughout this entire ordeal, which stretched from late May until late October, the regents listened to a chorus of voices. There were impassioned defenses of Durkin and his staff, and impassioned condemnations.
In the end, the regents chose to ignore the voice of the man most affected by this avoidable tragedy — the voice of Martin McNair, father of Jordan McNair. His August appraisal of D.J. Durkin: “He shouldn’t be able to work with anybody else’s kid.”
And yet he will.
D.J. Durkin is back.
Jordan McNair, dead on a Maryland football field on Durkin’s watch, is never coming back.
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