Maryland’s decision to reinstate head football coach DJ Durkin is indefensible
A little over two years ago, University of Maryland head football coach D.J. Durkin successfully recruited offensive lineman Jordan McNair into the program, in part by assuring McNair’s parents that he would watch over their son.
“He promised that he would treat Jordan as if Jordan was one of his kids, and make sure nothing happens to him, make sure he’s okay,” Tonya Wilson, McNair’s mother, told HBO Sports.
Instead, her 19-year-old son died two weeks after suffering heatstroke during a practice on May 29.
Durkin has been on paid administrative leave for the last couple of months while McNair’s death and the toxic culture of Maryland’s football program were investigated. But on Tuesday, Maryland President Wallace D. Loh and the Maryland Board of Regents announced that Durkin and Athletic Director Damon Evans would not be losing their jobs; Durkin will return to the team immediately, and Evans will resume his role as director.
The news comes despite the fact that in August, Loh said the school accepted “legal and moral responsibility” for McNair’s death. Despite the fact that in September, the university released a report detailing the many ways that Maryland officials failed to properly treat McNair after he began showing signs of heatstroke, an illness that is survivable if properly cared for in a timely fashion. Despite the fact that last week, a 200-page investigation documented an extremely toxic culture within the Maryland football program, a culture that stemmed directly from Durkin.
It is an indefensible decision, but one the board adamantly insisted upon. The board only has the authority to hire or fire the presidents of the state’s public universities — in this case, Loh. According to the Washington Post, Loh wanted to fire Durkin. But the board told him that he would be fired if he acted on that desire. (Loh, instead, said he will retire at the end of the year.)
“The board has no authority to hire and fire a football coach, but they made clear that returning DJ to the field was their highest priority,” a source told the Post.
Let’s just take a moment to digest that quote. A 19-year-old player died due to the neglect and inefficiency of the Maryland football program, and the highest priority of the board of regents is to get Durkin back on the sidelines.
And, according to Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic, it’s not going over well with the players — three of them reportedly walked out of a team meeting with Durkin this afternoon. Earlier this month, Auerbach reported that a group of Maryland football parents was strongly against Durkin’s return.
“We are worried that this narcissistic sociopath is going to come back,” one parent told the Athletic. “To me, he should never coach again.”
Three players walked out of the Maryland team meeting with DJ Durkin this afternoon, a person with knowledge of the situation told @TheAthleticCFB.
— Nicole Auerbach (@NicoleAuerbach) October 30, 2018
All of this anger makes complete sense. Sure, Durkin was not the coach who was overseeing the practice that killed McNair. That was strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, who resigned in August, with a healthy severance in hand.
But Durkin was the boss. He was given the keys to the kingdom, and Court was his first hire at Maryland. He was the one sitting in living rooms, guaranteeing he would take care of players. He absolutely, positively has to take responsibility and suffer consequences for the death of a player under his care.
Last week, a nearly 200-page report detailed many ways in which Court was verbally and at time allegedly physically abusive to players. And it also detailed ways in which Durkin was directly complicit in that behavior. He witnessed Court bullying players, but did not believe Court “crossed any lines.”
In the report, another anonymous player told investigators, “[U]nder Durkin, you weren’t allowed to be injured… You weren’t injured unless you couldn’t walk.”
He oversaw a program that taught players through fear, intimidation, and bullying. This treatment occurred on and off the field. The coaching staff would even subject players to graphic and disturbing images while they were eating.
“According to [one player], this included videos of serial killers, drills entering eyeballs, and bloody scenes with animals eating animals. Another player says that there were videos of rams and bucks running at each other at full speed,” the report says.
“Mr. Durkin maintains that horror movies were sometimes shown at breakfast to motivate and entertain players.”
Why do these things matter? Because McNair was pushed well beyond his limits during practice; his anguish was not taken seriously; and he was afraid to complain because he didn’t want to be seen as weak; his humanity was overlooked.
And as a result, he died.
That’s not in question. Maryland is openly accepting responsibility for McNair’s death. But apparently, they’re saying that Court was the only one to blame. And they’re saying that Durkin can move forward, not only coaching this year’s team, but continuing to recruit players to come to the program in the future. You can imagine how the next parent is going to feel when Durkin guarantees that he will take care of their son.
“He shouldn’t be able to work with anybody else’s kid,” Martin McNair, Jordan’s father, said in August.
Unfortunately, due to the spineless decision by Loh and the Maryland Board of Regents, he will.