The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maryland football unveils new practice measures; interim coach stresses player safety

Terrance Davis, left, and Sean Christie take a water break at Wednesday’s practice. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The Maryland football team’s new reality had fully set in shortly before noon Wednesday, when officials opened the gates to the practice fields to reporters for the first time this summer. The team’s new safety measures were visible in every corner of the complex. Two new white tents were set up as hydrating stations, stocked with water, Gatorade and snacks. Three fans in the tents blew water on players during their two new mandatory breaks during the practice. Trainers rushed across the field every few minutes during drills to mist players in water with hydration packs, something the staff didn’t do in its previous two training camps under Coach DJ Durkin.

Is DJ Durkin overly intense or just passionate? It depends who you ask.

There were cold tubs situated 100 yards away from the practice field and near the entrance of the locker room, which was customary at training camp practices under Durkin. But everything else felt different. These were the same practice fields where 19-year-old offensive lineman Jordan McNair suffered from heatstroke during a workout on May 29, the same fields where Maryland personnel failed to adequately respond to his deteriorating condition. He died 15 days later.

An eerie feeling swirled around these fields Wednesday, less than 24 hours after the university accepted “moral and legal responsibility” in McNair’s death. The school made sure reporters could view the new safety measures that had been implemented Aug. 3 when training camp opened. But reminders of the changes the tragedy has spurred were everywhere. Gone was the booming voice of Durkin, who is on administrative leave while the school investigates the death of McNair and probes the broader culture of the program. Gone was the intense presence of Rick Court, who resigned as the team’s strength coach this week.

With Durkin on leave, interim coach Matt Canada stressed player safety and the measures the program is taking. There was no audible cursing and very little yelling. With less than three weeks remaining until the team opens the season Sept. 1 against Texas at FedEx Field in nearby Landover, Canada said he is simply still an assistant and the team’s offensive coordinator.

He looked shaky at times speaking to reporters. He has never before acted as a head coach, however temporary, and he has had to scramble to keep his team together while learning how to manage new responsibilities.

“I think our practices have been extremely crisp,” he said. “The focus of our players’ health and safety is number one, and our players are feeling that and understanding that, and that’s our primary focus.”

As the team got back to practice, the university continued to deal with the fallout of its ongoing controversy. The university announced later Wednesday afternoon that it would hold a special Board of Regents call Friday morning to discuss the circumstances surrounding McNair’s death and the allegations that have been made against the program’s culture, both of which are being probed by separate external investigators.

Canada has replaced Court with Mason Baggett, an assistant strength coach. Players said the interim head coach is beginning to hit his stride running meetings and getting to know all of them. Canada would not talk in detail about his conversations in recent days with Durkin but said he has called to “support him in a situation that is really challenging.” That encapsulates the mood throughout the team’s facility, according to five current players who have spoken with The Washington Post.

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

Players have not been made available by the athletic department to speak to reporters. Those reached by The Post say that most players support Durkin returning as the team’s coach and that multiple players have expressed to the athletic department’s leadership their belief that Durkin has been unfairly portrayed in reports that have characterized the program’s culture as toxic and dangerous.

“Jordan is family, and he and his family are obviously in my thoughts and prayers every day. It was tragic. Obviously, the findings of the investigation come out, and obviously there were some mistakes made on the way,” Maryland junior punter Wade Lees said Tuesday. “But what was reported in that ESPN article that was criticizing the culture of Maryland, the two are completely separate situations. I think it was completely unfair, completely biased.”

Senior defensive tackle Brett Kulka, who was recruited to Maryland by former head coach Randy Edsall, also called the loss of McNair a “horrific tragedy” but defended the program. Kulka is considered one of the more respected voices in the locker room and is a part of the team’s player leadership council.

“Creating an environment based on hard work was a goal set forth when [the Durkin] program first started a couple years ago. Football is a demanding game and requires the ultimate dedication and perseverance,” Kulka said. “Coach Durkin and his program have been a part of my life for three years, and I am truly grateful to be a part of it. I am acknowledging the situation because it is wrong to attack a man’s character and integrity for doing his job in a passionate manner.”

Canada said he has adopted an open-door policy with players. He said he has talked with about 40 defensive players since becoming interim head coach. Before, as the offensive coordinator, those athletes were outside the scope of his duties.

“He’s come in, and he’s doing the best job that he can do. We’re just taking it day by day,” Lees said.

When asked to describe the program’s culture, Canada said it was great and used the words “right now” three times without mentioning the past. It was just another clear reminder of how much the scenery has changed in College Park in the fallout from McNair’s death.

“Our kids are excited to practice, excited to play; they are loving each other,” Canada said. “At times, are we grieving for Jordan? We are. But our culture right now is really, really good, and our staff is working to continue to make it better.”

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)

Read more:

Maryland says football staff made mistakes treating player before his death, apologizes to family

Durkin used ‘bully coaching,’ says Jabrill Peppers, who played under him at Michigan

Svrluga: A football player died, and all of the University of Maryland is diminished

Durkin still has support of many players’ parents