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Stunned, confused, defiant: Maryland football deals with a scandal that isn’t going away

Maryland Coach DJ Durkin, shown last year, was placed on administrative leave Saturday. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

With DJ Durkin sidelined indefinitely, the embattled Maryland football coach was allowed to address his team, perhaps for a final time, Saturday evening. Damon Evans, the school’s athletic director, spoke to players, too, before turning the floor over to the shell-shocked team.

The players were stunned and confused, according to a person in the room. Some voiced support for Durkin, who was angered by the decision as he said goodbye. A few assistants vented on Evans regarding Durkin’s status.

Most seemed to rally around Matt Canada, the interim coach who joined the program just eight months ago. And all seemed to agree they would keep moving forward, fighting for one another even as their team had suddenly become besieged by reports that the culture within the program was abusive and toxic.

The Terps showed up for practice Sunday morning and tried to focus on preparations for their new season and their first game, waiting less than three weeks away. Missing from the field were their head coach, their strength and conditioning coach and two athletic trainers, all placed on administrative leave as the university tries to sort through the circumstances surrounding the death of a player and whether the program’s demanding, punitive culture contributed to it.

As the players tried to look ahead, school administrators were left to sort through the wreckage of a tumultuous 48 hours. At issue is not only the environment surrounding the program but the events surrounding the death of Jordan McNair, a 19-year-old offensive lineman who collapsed during a workout May 29 because of heatstroke and died 15 days later.

Medical records reviewed by The Washington Post indicated that McNair began suffering a seizure 45 minutes into the workout, which began around 4:15 p.m., according to the school. Paramedics were called at 5:57 p.m., according to an incident report written by Prince George’s County medical responders, and when McNair arrived at Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park, he had a temperature of 106 degrees. Maryland officials have strongly disputed that timeline but have not discussed the May workout in detail, awaiting the results of an independent investigation.

The school said in a statement: “At no point before or during the external review has a student-athlete, athletic trainer or coach reported a seizure occurring at 5 p.m.”

Billy Murphy, an attorney working with McNair’s family, said in an interview Sunday he is waiting on the results of the school’s investigation but will likely pursue a civil lawsuit in federal court.

The school has decided to launch an external review to examine the culture within the program. In a letter to trustees, faculty, students and alumni Saturday evening, Wallace Loh, the school president, said he is “profoundly disturbed by the media reports yesterday about verbally abusive and intimidating conduct by Maryland football coaches and staff towards our student athletes on the team.”

Loh wrote that he intended to hire an outside expert “to undertake a comprehensive examination of our coaching practices in the football program, with the goal that these practices reflect — not subvert — the core values of our University.”

The review would mark the second external investigation related to the program. The school has already contracted with Walters Inc., an athletic training consulting firm, to examine the circumstances surrounding McNair’s death. That review isn’t expect to conclude before Sept. 15. While the Walters investigation is focused on safety policies and procedures, the second probe would focus on the culture within the football program.

“Our responsibility as teachers is to inspire and enable students to perform at their best and expand the boundaries of their potential, in the classroom and/or on the athletic field,” Loh said in his letter. “Humiliating and demeaning a student is not only bad teaching and coaching, it is an abuse of the authority of a teacher and coach.”

Hospital medical records indicate that an unidentified Maryland coach had told medical responders that after suffering the seizure McNair was coming around and started to talk before he, according to the medical records, “became agitated and started breathing differently.” Upon arrival at Washington Adventist Hospital, doctors determined, according to the medical records, that McNair had suffered a severe heat stroke, was “altered and has no gag reflex.”

At 6:53 p.m., the hospital medical records indicate, he was given an electrocardiogram and recorded a heart rate of 184. Upon arrival to the hospital, he was covered in cold water and ice; by 7:20 p.m, his temperature dropped from 106 degrees to 102 degrees and his heart rate was coming down. By 8:32, doctors noted “patient improving,” according to the medical records, and he was moved to the intensive care unit.

Later that night, he was airlifted to Baltimore’s R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center, where he would die 15 days later.

As investigators sort through the endless questions surrounding McNair’s death, many of the answers — not to mention the coaching fate of Durkin — could hinge on what exactly was caught on tape that day.

At most Maryland football practices and workouts, there are video cameras stationed atop a pair of scissor lifts, recording all the action from high above the field. People close to the program say the ever-present cameras could not only reveal the exact role and actions of Durkin and his staff, they could provide valuable insight into whether reports about the program’s abusive, callous culture are overblown or whether the staff’s demanding ethos possibly contributed to McNair’s death.

Murphy, the Baltimore-based attorney, has questions of his own and thinks video footage could support his contention that nearly an hour passed from the time the young player suffered a seizure to the point that team officials called 911. Murphy said the school has not yet turned over any footage but said there are also two campus surveillance cameras nearby that should have also recorded the day’s workout.

“We believe the surveillance cameras captured much of the movement, and with any luck there will be time stamps as well,” Murphy said.

The team’s video assistants don’t always record conditioning drills, and no one connected with the investigation would reveal what the tapes may show. The school has not turned over any video to Murphy or to the multiple media outlets, including The Washington Post, that have requested video through Freedom of Information Act requests.

Even without the video, Murphy said the school has enough evidence and should move to immediately fire Durkin.

“There has been a culture of verbal and physical abuse under his leadership. … The program will never rebound under the current leadership,” he said.

Durkin is in the third year of a five-year contract and oversaw a program that was reportedly rife with abusive behaviors — “a coaching environment based on fear and intimidation,” according to a lengthy ESPN report.

The team continued its preparations Sunday for the new season under Canada, the interim coach who was hired to be Durkin’s offensive coordinator in January. According to a person familiar with the situation, Canada addressed his players following the practice, which was closed to the media.

Many players and parents have remained supportive of Durkin and the program, according to multiple people familiar with the situation, though mostly behind closed doors given the sensitive nature of the allegations. “We have spoken about it, and we’re concerned,” the family member of one player said Sunday.

Others have questioned the media reports, which are based largely on anonymous sources, saying they don’t reflect the football program they know so well. Rebecca Adams-Jordan, mother of sophomore offensive lineman Johnny Jordan, said she will stick behind Durkin “until the conclusion of all investigations at which time we will reassess if needed.”

“The allegations are concerning, but it is the complete opposite from what our experience has been at UMD and from what we are hearing from many other current players and their families,” she said in a Facebook message Sunday. “Coach Durkin has always had an open door policy with us and has been completely transparent from the moment we met him.  If we ever felt our son was in any harm, we would remove him immediately from that situation. That is fact!!!”

Emily Giambalvo contributed to this report.

Read more:

With echoes of Len Bias, Maryland athletic department faces crisis again

Who is Matt Canada? A look at Maryland football’s new interim head coach.

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

Will Muschamp defends Maryland Coach DJ Durkin, calls anonymous sources ‘gutless’