EDITOR’S NOTE: Maryland head football coach DJ Durkin was fired early evening, about 12 hours after publication of this article, and one day after the reinstatement that prompted this piece.
This time of year, college football coaches are traveling to the homes of high school players. They are meeting with their families and talking about a potential future with their college program. They are promising parents that the young athlete will get a quality education, a chance to play college football, and they, the coach, will look after them. The first signing period for high school football players is December 19-21st. The closing speeches by the coaches and the family sit downs really matter at this point. And if you are a family hosting Maryland football coach D.J. Durkin, how do you for one minute put any faith in his credibility?
Shame on Maryland
Durkin was reinstated as head coach at Maryland Tuesday by the school’s board of regents. He has been on administrative leave since August, following an investigation into the death of a player during “voluntary” workouts in May. Nineteen-year-old offensive lineman Jordan McNair died two weeks after suffering an apparent heat stroke during the workouts. The fallout was both significant and delayed.
An investigation into the death found that McNair showed symptoms of heat stroke for about an hour before 911 was called. It also revealed that an ice bath, or cold water immersion, was never administered, even though it is standard immediate protocol for heat stroke symptoms. McNair died two weeks after collapsing on the practice field.
The CYA Report
Following the medical report, which placed clear blame on the training staff at the workout, the university’s board of regents put together an eight-person panel, allegedly to look into the matter at a deeper level. During that time, Durkin was placed on administrative leave. He was replaced as head coach on an interim basis by offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, who oversaw the workouts, resigned in August.
The commission report was finalized last week. It blamed the university for putting Durkin in over his head with the job. The report said the systems were not in place for him to handle all of the administrative and coaching duties required for a first-time head coach. It suggested the school failed to set him up properly. Upon the findings of the commission, the regents decided that Durkin gets to keep his job. Athletic Director Damon Evans gets to keep his job. Strange enough, school president Wallace Loh is going to take the fall for the shortcomings in the system. He will retire early, no doubt with a healthy golden parachute.
It is at this point that we have to remind ourselves, a 19-year-old student-athlete died! This was not an investigation into NCAA violations or academic malfeasance. This was supposed to get to the bottom of how a football program failed McNair and his family. A young man put in the care of Durkin and his staff is dead. But the president of the university will retire early, so issue resolved? Seriously?
The System Doesn’t Work
No one is under the illusion that “voluntary” workouts are really voluntary. The name alone is part of the hypocrisy of the NCAA system. Spring camp is over, but players need to continue to workout to be ready for Fall camp. No one disputes that. But coaches cannot officially be with the players during the Summer. These workouts, for returning players and incoming freshmen, are usually under the supervision of the strength and conditioning coaches.
In other words, people who often have passed a bare minimum of appropriate first aid training are guiding young men through grueling workouts in the middle of Summer heat. People whose training is often at best how to get more bulk out of linebackers and more first step quickness out of running backs are the only ones standing between a normal workout and complete chaos. All so that schools do not violate an absurd NCAA rule about not having full staffing at the workouts.
Durkin is in his third year as head coach. This is where a good writer would put his record. But seriously, who cares what his coaching record is under these circumstances? He was an assistant under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford, Urban Meyer at Florida, and Harbaugh again, this time at Michigan, before getting the job at Maryland.
During the “investigation” by the regents’ commission, ESPN did its own investigation. The ESPN piece talked to former and current players. Durkin and Court were both accused of fostering an atmosphere of mental and emotional abuse in the training of football players. It exposed an ugly underbelly of a staff and an administration that was much worse off than just “over its head.” The regents’ commission report called the ESPN story “toxic.”
A New Chance For Durkin
Yet, in re-instating the 38-year-old coach Tuesday, Jim Brady, chair of the board of regents, said of Durkin, “We believe he is a good man and a good coach who is devoted to the well-being of the student athletes under his charge.” He emphasized Durkin’s inexperience as the head of a program. He suggested a bright future for him and Evans, saying there would be no third chances. Third chances? Seriously? Jordan McNair would like a second one. Who does he see about that?
This was a combination of ineptitude and negligence. A staff that was poorly trained, ill-equipped, and generally incompetent to handle the stress and strain of the jobs they were being paid to do was under the guidance of Durkin. This was under his watch and his three-year, $12.5 million contract. He, the staff, and the system failed. But don’t worry, he will do better next time, we are assured. When Durkin had his first team meeting Tuesday upon being reinstated, three players walked out. Who could blame them? Their well-being is at stake.
How then, when he goes into the houses of recruits in the next five weeks, and tells parents he will take care of their sons, is anyone supposed to believe him? How does that speech go? “Yes, it is unfortunate someone died during one of our workouts but the people who handled those are gone and even though the report says I am in over my head, I am trying hard.”
Beware of coaches making promises they cannot keep. The University of Maryland football program won’t be the same, and it shouldn’t be. At least not as long as Durkin is allowed to be there.