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Maryland places DJ Durkin on administrative leave amid reports of football program’s toxic culture

Maryland Athletic Director Damon Evans addressed concerns with the football program in a letter Saturday. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

Just three weeks before its season opener, the University of Maryland placed its football coach, DJ Durkin, on administrative leave Saturday in the wake of news reports that Terps players faced abuse and disparagement from staff members in the school’s athletics department.

Athletic Director Damon Evans sent a letter to university staff, boosters and supporters Saturday saying he’s “concerned by the allegations of unacceptable behaviors by members of our football staff detailed in recent media reports.”

“At this time, the best decision for our football program is to place Maryland Head Football Coach DJ Durkin on leave so we can properly review the culture of the program,” Evans wrote.

Evans said the move was effective immediately, and he appointed offensive coordinator Matt Canada to serve as interim head coach. The decision followed 24 hours of deliberation from school administrators and athletic department officials, who were rocked by news reports Friday evening that painted the picture of a program besieged with rampant bullying and verbal abuse, a toxic culture that may have contributed to the death of football player Jordan McNair in June.

“The safety and well-being of our student-athletes is our highest priority,” Evans said in his letter on Saturday. “These alleged behaviors are not consistent with the values I expect all of our staff to adhere to and we must do better.”

School administrators had been reluctant to speak publicly or take any action, pending an external review of McNair’s death, which isn’t expected to conclude before Sept. 15. The 19-year old died June 13 after suffering heatstroke at a team workout May 29. An attorney for the family has said that a lawsuit is likely.

But the school was facing mounting pressure Saturday to act quickly in the wake of news reports that laid bare the unhealthy football culture in College Park. “There was just constant degrading of players,” one former player told The Post on Friday evening, “and that was the culture they brought to the program, and they thought it would toughen us up.”

ESPN published a lengthy report on Friday evening, citing current and former players and staff members who described an “environment based on fear and humiliation.” Evans, who took over the athletics department’s top post on a permanent basis in June, sent an initial letter to Maryland supporters Saturday morning, saying the allegations “are not reflective of the culture we seek to build here” and he was committed to “swiftly examining and addressing any reports brought to our attention.”

Athletic department officials had previously announced that multiple members of the athletics staff had been placed on administrative leave but declined to identify the employees. Multiple people familiar with the situation confirmed that Rick Court, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, and athletic trainer Wes Robinson had been placed on leave by the athletics department. ESPN reported Saturday a third employee, Steve Nordwall, an assistant athletic director for training, had also been placed on leave.

Svrluga: Maryland football Coach DJ Durkin needs to go

It wasn’t clear what Durkin’s immediate future might hold. He’s in the third year of a five-year, $12.5 million contract, and athletic department officials declined to discuss terms of his leave. Part of the duties outlined in Durkin’s contract include “keeping positive and constructive in tone any public comments about University policies or actions taken by University administrators and conducting himself professionally and ethically, with integrity and sportsmanship, at all times, and avoiding inappropriately profane, discourteous or insulting behavior toward student-athletes, other teams and coaches, spectators and members of the media.”

He’ll be replaced for the indefinite future by Canada, who was hired by Durkin in January to serve as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Canada spent 2017 as the offensive coordinator at LSU, where he reportedly reached a $1.7 million settlement to sever ties with the school after being forced out by Tigers Head Coach Ed Orgeron. Canada has never served as a head coach at the college level and has served as an assistant at five schools in the past seven years.

Even as Durkin, 40, led the Terps through a final practice Saturday morning, administrators and fans alike were busy debating his status. One high-level booster close to the athletic department, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Saturday that “a lot of donors are of the opinion that Durkin must go” and that there was mounting pressure on Evans to fire Durkin. Other alumni felt that the independent investigation into McNair’s death must also thoroughly examine the program’s broader culture.

“Whenever you have a player die, you really have to get to the bottom of it,” said Tom McMillen, the former Terps basketball star who served three terms in Congress. “Hopefully it was an anomaly and the whole story is a conjecture. But you have to take a hard look at it. That’s the world we live in.”

As the news reports began to spread Friday night, reaction was swift and loud from the sports world to academic and political circles. Ben Jealous, the Democratic candidate for Maryland governor, called for the school to immediately suspend both Evans and Durkin, pending the results of the external investigation.

“The athletic director and the head coach are ultimately responsible for ensuring the safety of our student athletes,” he said in a statement Saturday afternoon. “For there to be reports of purposefully unsafe conditioning practices built on the foundation of verbal abuse, fear, and humiliation — even after the death of a teenager in their care — is the definition of inexcusable.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s office also issued a statement Saturday, calling the revelations about the football program “very disturbing reports.” Hogan said that he supported the university’s decision and he expects “that the investigation into the program will be wide-ranging and thorough.”

“We must have complete confidence that our student athletes are treated with dignity and respect and that they are supervised and coached responsibly,” he said. “If the investigation confirms these reports, then strong and permanent corrective actions should be taken immediately.”

The allegations of an abusive culture drew mixed reactions from across the tightknit football world. South Carolina Coach Will Muschamp, who coached alongside Durkin at the University of Florida, defended the Maryland coach earlier Saturday and questioned the anonymous sources cited in news reports, calling them “gutless.”

“I know DJ Durkin,” he told reporters. “He worked for me for four years at the University of Florida. He is an outstanding football coach. He’s also an outstanding husband and father. He treats people with respect. … I know DJ Durkin personally. I know what kind of man he is. I know what kind of person he is. I don’t think it’s right.”

Maryland places athletic staffers on leave in wake of football player’s death

Before Evans put his coach on administrative leave, some high-profile members of the sprawling Terps community defended the program and urged caution in jumping to conclusions. McMillen said he’s hopeful the behaviors and actions linked to Durkin’s program and staff are not “pervasive.”

“But football is a tough game,” he said. “As a former athlete, we all had tough coaches. But I think we need to look at what the facts are here.”

Barry Gossett, the prominent booster whose name appears on the team’s football facility, is close to the program and said he’s hopeful fans and alumni don’t jump to conclusions, adding, “That’s not the DJ that I know that does things like that.”

“From a donor standpoint, I kind of stand behind DJ and his program and what he has been doing,” Gossett said in an interview before the university placed the coach on leave. “I’m sure there have been instances where the kids have benefited from his tutelage, as well as the other coaches. On the other hand, there’s probably a couple that are disenchanted with any kind of rules and regulations where they have to do something that doesn’t fit their modus operandi, so to speak, as individual players.”

Unlike most football programs in the country, Maryland has not opened any of its practices to reporters this month. It has largely shielded players and coaches from publicly discussing the events surrounding McNair’s death or the state of the embattled football program.

“Every guy is at a different stage of a grieving process, and we are as a team,” Durkin told the Big Ten Network Friday, his lone interview since the start of practices. “So the one thing we’ve done here through camp, and we said this and we’ve done it, we’re going to talk about it. It’s okay to talk about it. We’re not going to just ignore it and pretend we’re going to move on. We’re going to talk about it.

Durkin, who has a record of 10-15 in his first two seasons leading the program, made no reference to specific staff members, but reports in ESPN and The Washington Post highlighted the behaviors and actions of Court, the strength and conditioning coach who was brought aboard by Durkin in 2015. Court heads the staff that supervised the workout that led to McNair’s hospitalization. Durkin was also at the workout. According to the university, McNair had trouble recovering from a conditioning test. The player’s family later revealed he suffered from heatstroke.

Court did not respond to a request for comment, and no one answered the door at his Prince George’s County home Saturday. He was Durkin’s first hire at Maryland, and they first coached together on Urban Meyer’s staff at Bowling Green in the early 2000s. He later served on Meyer’s staff at Ohio State before a stint as strength coach at Mississippi State, which he left in 2015 to reunite with Durkin in College Park.

Robinson has served as Maryland’s head football trainer since 2006 and was one of the few holdovers to join Durkin’s staff after Randy Edsall was fired as head coach in October 2015. Nordwall arrived at Maryland in 2014 as the school’s director of athletic training and oversees health-care services for more than 500 athletes in 20 sports at the school, according to his bio on the athletic department’s website.

Durkin was brought to College Park in December 2015 to revive a struggling program. It was his first head coaching job, and the former Jim Harbaugh assistant touted his blue-collar work ethic.

“We will be aggressive in everything we do,” Durkin said at the time. “That’s what I know. That’s where I’m from, from the ground up, my hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. I learned those values a long time ago.”

Jesse Dougherty contributed to this report.