By Mark F. Gray, Special to the AFRO
Death and toxicity are traits that should never be associated with a football program but now they hover over the University of Maryland’s as it prepares to kickoff a new season. After an ESPN report outlined a toxic culture which may have contributed to the former McDonough offensive lineman Jordan McNair’s death during spring workouts, the entire athletic department may have hit rock bottom.
The school – which is already $50 million short on the renovation of Cole Field House into its new state of the art athletic performance facility – has placed head coach D.J. Durkin, along with members of its football athletic training staff, on administrative leave while an independent investigation into McNair’s death continues. Meanwhile, the FBI’s investigation into illegal recruiting by the basketball program involving former player Diamond Stone is ongoing. Not since the dark days following the death of Len Bias have things been this grim in College Park and they could get worse.
As the investigation continues, the culture of Maryland football has been exposed. The exposure may end the career of Durkin before it even began. Durkin, and his strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, have embarrassed the program and brought unnecessary scrutiny to the University. This “environment based on fear and humiliation” hasn’t made the Terps anymore competitive either. They’ve won only 10 of 25 games in the Durkin era, though last year the team was hit with more injuries than a M.A.S.H. unit.
Durkin and Court’s alleged barbaric incompetence is what may have led to this avoidable tragedy. If published accounts of what happened to McNair when he showed the initial signs of heat stroke are true, they aren’t fit to be leaders of young men.
ESPN reported players were routinely cursed, demeaned and humiliated in an effort to toughen them up, standard operating procedure for football coaches on every level. However, to wait nearly an hour before calling first responders or not immediately put McNair into a cold bath to bring his body temperature down is bordering on criminal negligence.
Through their attorney, Billy Murphy, McNair’s family is preparing a lawsuit and have called for Durkin to be fired. Governor Larry Hogan has reportedly found the initial reports “deeply troubling” but expects “a wide ranging and thorough investigation.” Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous said newly minted athletic director Damon Evans should be placed on leave as well.
“The athletics director and head coach are ultimately responsible for ensuring the safety of our student athletes,” Jealous said.
Nothing good ever happens to a big state university’s athletic program when high profile attorneys and politicians unify as adversaries in the court of public opinion. During an election year, with each candidate expressing opposite views on public education funding, this is the wrong time for the type of scrutiny Maryland’s athletic program now faces.
In three years, Durkin hasn’t changed the culture of the Maryland program, but he’s adversely affected its brand. Recruits are rescinding their commitments, season ticket sales are stagnant and the shadow over the program now is one that won’t lift overnight. The highly anticipated September 1 season opener against Texas at FedEx Field in Landover is now an afterthought.
Durkin was groomed by Ohio State coach Urban Meyer at Bowling Green, then University of Florida. He then worked for Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach after following him from Stanford. Evans, who led the search for Maryland, thought he had found a coach that could compete with those elite B1G programs, but Durkin and company may have fumbled away the chance already.