Several parents of Maryland football players say they remain confident in the program and supportive of embattled Coach DJ Durkin, who has been placed on administrative leave in the wake of the death of a 19-year-old player.
Media coverage regarding the June death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair and ensuing reports about an abusive culture within the football program sparked widespread shock and outrage, prompting the school to order a pair of external investigations, part ways with an athletics staffer and place Durkin and two other employees on administrative leave. But eight parents and family members interviewed by The Washington Post in recent days said that the team’s coach still has widespread support, with many saying the cruel and punishing environment depicted in news reports didn’t align with their experiences.
One parent of a current player said Durkin is “100 percent different” than the one outlined in a recent ESPN report, which described “a coaching environment based on fear and intimidation.”
“Freak accidents happen,” said the parent, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity given the sensitive nature of the situation. “This wasn’t part of a toxic culture. It’s almost like someone or some entity or groups are trying to blend the two together.”
McNair died June 13 after suffering heatstroke during a team workout on May 29. University President Wallace D. Loh and Athletic Director Damon Evans apologized to McNair’s family on Tuesday and held a news conference in College Park immediately afterward, outlining major mistakes made by athletic staff members in treating McNair.
The parent said the nature of the workout was not “asking for trouble.” The temperature in College Park on May 29 was in the low 80s, and the parent said, “based on the amount of sprints, the amount of activity they were doing and the temperature, it wasn’t one of those days that most teams or coaches would think something would go wrong.”
The workout was run by strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, who resigned from his position with the school Monday. The university has said that athletic trainers were present throughout the workout and that Durkin and his coaching staff were also on hand.
Many parents declined to discuss their feelings about Court or two other training staffers, Wes Robinson and assistant athletic director of athletic training Steve Nordwall, who have been placed on leave.
While Durkin, 40, is effectively chief executive of the football program, the most serious allegations in the media reports focused on Court, Durkin’s first hire in College Park and the man whom some former Maryland players and staffers said fostered an unhealthy training environment, regularly cursing at players and helping create a culture based on fear and humiliation. Court has not responded to requests for comment.
Teddy Moore, the father of a sophomore on the current roster, said many of the reported details about abusive behavior on the football team were “absolutely absurd,” adding, “It didn’t sound anything like the DJ Durkin I know.”
“We talk to our son daily,” Moore said. “He personally, according to what he said, he’s never experienced it. I call myself a hands-on type parent, and I ask a lot of questions.”
Several parents of Maryland football players contacted by The Post were reluctant to speak about the issues surrounding the team. Some agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. A group of parents reached out to the athletic department and requested a meeting where they hope to defend Durkin. One parent said Evans, the athletic director, will meet with a group of them on Saturday morning.
Some people close to Durkin and the program said many supporters are hesitant to speak publicly about the coach out of sensitivity to McNair’s family and concern that their support might be misconstrued.
While many family members of current Terps say they still support Durkin, an attorney for the parents of McNair reiterated Tuesday the family’s desire for the school to fire Durkin.
“I can’t see how he can have any moral authority to lead that program,” said Hassan Murphy, an attorney for the family. “No parent would feel comfortable with entrusting him with their children.”
Some former players reached by The Post said Durkin has been unfairly maligned. Perry Hills, a senior quarterback in 2016, Durkin’s first season at Maryland, said he was “heartbroken” for his former coach. He recalled Durkin “loving us up whenever we needed it” and leaping on top of players to celebrate big plays in practice and games.
“Honestly, he made football fun again for a lot of us,” Hills said. “Having a lot of competitions, his passionate demeanor resonated for the whole team. Guys started to buy in. I had the most fun my senior year because of him.”
Hills said former teammates still at Maryland have been confused and hurt by the decision to place Durkin on leave.
“I just want people to know these coaches aren’t humiliating any players, aren’t bullying them,” Hills said. “They’re coaching them the way people need to be coached, to be pushed in life. You don’t want people to be settled. They’re helping these kids in life, not just football.”
Amid the recent tumult, the team has continued practicing each day, in anticipation of the Terps’ season opener on Sept. 1 against Texas. One person familiar with the team’s inner workings said all of the players have continued to report to practice each day.
They have been working under the direction of interim coach Matt Canada, who was hired to be Durkin’s offensive coordinator in January. Those practices have not been open to media, and neither Canada nor his players have been made available to answer questions. Several players reached via phone have declined to comment.
Durkin last spoke with the team Saturday following the team’s practice and after he’d been informed that he’d been placed on administrative leave. It was an emotional meeting, and several players expressed support for Durkin at the time, according to someone who was in the room.
That support apparently extends beyond the locker room for some. While high-ranking boosters have said that they have concerns about the workout in which McNair suffered exertional heatstroke, many who have been around the program contend that reports about an all-encompassing abusive culture don’t line up with their experience.
“A few major donors have called me,” one longtime booster said. “They’ve all expressed that basically DJ is getting made to hang out to dry and that some of these so-called athletes are looking for participation trophies. Life is not about participation. It’s about learning life skills. DJ has been a great teacher of those.”
Parents say that the athletic department has remained in contact. Bernard Tanyi, the father of senior defensive lineman Mbi Tanyi, said Maryland communicated updates with the parents through the hospitalization of McNair and after the 19-year-old’s death. After McNair’s death, Maryland held a meeting for parents.
“As parents, they kept us abreast of what was going on,” Bernard Tanyi said.
Durkin sent a letter to parents last Friday, alerting them to the ESPN report. “Our priority every day is the safety along with the academic, personal and athletic development of your sons,” he wrote.
Durkin is on leave pending the results of two external investigations. One is focused on events surrounding McNair’s death and the staff’s actions the day he fell ill. The second was announced on Saturday and will examine the culture of the football program.
“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,” Rebecca Adams-Jordan, the mother of offensive lineman Johnny Jordan, said in a Facebook message to The Post.
“There’s a lot of support in the locker room for Coach Durkin,” said the parent of another current player. “We’re reserving judgment until the full investigation is completed.”
Roman Stubbs, Jacob Bogage, Adam Kilgore, Jesse Dougherty and Keith L. Alexander contributed to this report.