The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He came to Maryland to change its football culture. Now Rick Court is the first out the door.

Rick Court resigned as Maryland’s strength and conditioning coach Monday in wake of the death of a freshman player in June. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Maryland football Coach DJ Durkin considered Rick Court to be his most important lieutenant in College Park, often trumpeting Court as his first hire when he came to the school in December 2015. Durkin was on the tarmac, a head coach for the first time and about to catch a flight, when he made that call to ask Court if he would be not only his strength and conditioning coach but his right-hand man in building a new culture at a perennially mediocre program.

Court now is the first to leave the program because of the questions surrounding that culture, which has been labeled as toxic and abusive and potentially contributed to the death of 19-year-old Jordan McNair after the freshman player suffered heatstroke during a workout May 29.

The university took responsibility for McNair’s death at a somber news conference Tuesday, during which Athletic Director Damon Evans initially announced that the school had “parted ways” with Court. A few minutes after the session ended, Court announced on Twitter that he had resigned Monday. Later in the evening, Evans confirmed in a tweet that Court had resigned.

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No matter how the announcement was spun, the 40-year-old Court — who made $285,000 annually and was the fifth-highest-paid strength and conditioning coach in the country — will be compensated handsomely for leaving. He will receive $315,000, two-thirds of what he’s due for the remainder of his contract, in a settlement with the school, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.

Court, who did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday, said in his resignation statement that he will cooperate with an investigation into McNair’s death ordered by the university as well as a separate external probe into the broader culture of the football program. Court’s statement also read: “Jordan McNair’s life and death are what we must all remember to put first as we face the future: What did we learn? How will we improve? What can we do to pay tribute to Jordan’s life? The gravity of the situation has deeply impacted my perspective on ‘the why’ I am coaching.”

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‘Just how I’ve always been’

Court grew up on the east side of Detroit and moved to the city’s suburbs when he was in high school. He was often kicked out of classes for talking and for his inability to sit still, he said in an interview with The Washington Post in June 2017, and strength training seemed like a natural fit for his intensity.

“This is just how I’ve always been. The only thing that has changed is that I’ve grown older with age,” Court said at the time.

He first coached alongside Durkin on Urban Meyer’s staff at Bowling Green in the early 2000s, and eventually he became the head strength coach there in 2008. He held the same position at Toledo (2009-10) and San Diego State (2011) before eventually moving to Mississippi State. Along the way, he vowed to never change his coaching style.

“I just come here to kick ass every day and pretty sure the chips will always fall in the right spot. They have for 15 years, so I just go about business like the same way every day,” Court said. “I make sure that the way we are, and the way my staff is, and the culture, that it rubs off on our guys.”

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The question now is whether it rubbed off in harmful ways. An ESPN report last week described the Maryland football culture as toxic and depicted an environment “based on fear and humiliation,” regular verbal abuse and unhealthy eating habits. Players were pressured to take extreme measures to finish workouts, multiple people have told The Post, and were degraded if they are unable to do so. Durkin and at least two athletic trainers were placed on administrative leave by Maryland last week after the university ordered an investigation into the reports.

Cornerback Jarrett Ross, a senior in 2016, the team’s first season under Durkin, characterized workouts as grueling and intense but necessary.

“I’ve never been in the military,” Ross said. “I know him and Court, they used that philosophy of breaking you down, weeding out the soft and the weak-minded and getting a core group of players, then they build you back up. I thought that as soon as him and Court came in, they set the standard for the program. They set the standard to be tough, hard-nosed, physical, disciplined. They weeded out the soft.”

Court put players through grueling circuit workouts — tug-of-war, rope drills, carrying sandbags, hoisting medicine balls, agility drills, all moving at a rapid pace.

“It was tougher than anything we’ve been,” Ross said. “They pushed us to not only reaching our limits but to exceed our limits.”

Other former players have described an abusive environment. One of them, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity given the sensitive nature of the situation, confirmed to The Post that a former offensive lineman was forced to eat candy bars while watching his teammates work out, a tactic used to embarrass him into losing weight. The former also player said that an injured player’s locker was moved to the shower as a way of punishing him.

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According to the former player, Court once made an injured player participate in a tug-of-war against a group of teammates, and the player was berated by Court when he did not win. Players who won a game of tug-of-war were the first to eat breakfast.

“In sports you always have some complaints that come forward, and we look at all of those and make the appropriate decisions on how to resolve them,” Evans said after he announced Court’s departure Tuesday. “When that report came out in ESPN, the severity of those allegations were significant, I sat down with Rick to ascertain what had transpired. And based upon conversations and looking at everything in totality, I thought it was in the best interest to put him on administrative leave.”

University of Maryland president said Aug. 14 that the school accepts "legal and moral responsibility" for the decisions made by its athletic training staff. (Video: Reuters)

‘I knew his workouts were going to be intense’

Ross acknowledged that players who worked hard under Durkin and Court were treated “like royalty.” He said that players in poor condition would be made to do extra cardio work, such as riding an exercise bike after practice. But though Ross said he saw coaches or trainers sit next to players whom coaches wanted to gain weight during meals, he called the idea that players were force-fed “ridiculous.”

Ross viewed the regimen as necessary for a team coming off a losing season.

“If it was bad for anybody, it’s because they weren’t doing what they were supposed to do ahead of time,” Ross said. “For myself, knowing who Court was, I knew his workouts were going to be intense. For people who were out of shape, I guess maybe it could be a little dangerous. A lot of guys came into that winter in shape, because we knew what was ahead. We wanted it, because we wanted to get better.”

“Coach Court was crazy,” said former Maryland defensive end Roman Braglio, who has publicly defended Durkin and some support staff in the wake of McNair’s death. “From 7 a.m. to 8 a.m., if you had a workout in the morning, he was off-his-rocker and crazy intense. He’s pushing you, he’s laughing with you, he’s yelling at you. At 8:05 a.m., he’s the nicest guy ever. He’d help you with any problem you had, on the field, off the field, if you had questions with how to succeed off the field. …

“He’s a good dude. He really was a good dude. It sucks that he got fired. It sucks that this all happening because of a tragedy.”

The tragedy of McNair’s death intensified questions Tuesday, when the school announced it would hire a four-man commission to examine the culture driven by Durkin and Court. It will look into allegations of Court’s profane and verbally abusive language. A former player said Court “was always cursing and yelling at guys, calling them names.”

“That was just Rick; it was all him,” the former player said.

While most of Maryland’s players are clamoring for Durkin’s return, according to three who spoke Tuesday to The Post, none have voiced support for Court in public or anonymous conversations. Durkin is no longer touting him “as his most important hire,” as he did in a 2016 Sports Illustrated article. According to a person close to Court, he is “genuinely devastated” by McNair’s death and hasn’t slept much in five days since he was placed on leave. Court was left to issue his own statement shortly after Evans finished his news conference on Tuesday.

The final line simply read: “Please keep the McNair family in your prayers. GO TERPS!”

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