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Report on Maryland football culture cites problems but stops short of ‘toxic’ label

Maryland Coach DJ Durkin (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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The exhaustive 192-page external report that will help the University System of Maryland Board of Regents decide the fate of football Coach DJ Durkin paints a troubling picture of the embattled program but stops short of saying the environment in College Park was “toxic.”

“The commission found that the Maryland football team did not have a ‘toxic culture,’ but it did have a culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out,” according to a copy of the report obtained Thursday by The Washington Post.

The board of regents received the report from the commission at its regularly scheduled meeting Oct. 19. It then met for seven hours on Tuesday to discuss the findings and again on a conference call Thursday afternoon. The board has made no personnel decisions but could announce some actions in the coming days.

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The board is planning to meet again in closed session Friday afternoon. Maryland President Wallace D. Loh and Athletic Director Damon Evans are expected to be present to discuss their future at the university, according to two people familiar with the situation, after the pair requested an opportunity to speak with the board.

The report was a product of an eight-week investigation. It has not been made public and made no recommendations regarding Durkin or any other school personnel. But it did spread around responsibility for woes within the football program and the athletic department, citing oversight problems from top to bottom and taking issue at times with the way the football coach, athletic director and school administrators conducted themselves.

The commission found that “during Mr. Durkin’s tenure, the Athletics Department lacked a culture of accountability, did not provide adequate oversight of the football program, and failed to provide Mr. Durkin with the tools, resources, and guidance necessary to support and educate a first-time head coach in a major football conference.”

Read the full report

Board Chair James T. Brady released a statement Thursday night saying regents “accepted both the findings and recommendations” made by the commission.

“This excellent report provides the board and the people of Maryland a much more complete window into the culture of the football program and athletics department,” he said. “The board also accepts the independent commission’s recommendations for reforming the UMCP athletics department, including recommendations related to the strength and conditioning program and the adoption of an independent medical model. We will work with UMCP and every campus in the system to ensure that these recommendations are promptly implemented and that the changes are closely monitored over the coming months and years.”

While the board of regents refused to provide Loh or his staff with the report last week, a school spokeswoman said in a statement that they received a copy of it on Wednesday and are reviewing the findings.

“The University is committed to a fair and accountable process,” the school said in a statement Thursday afternoon. “We will continue that commitment as we work to ensure the safety and well-being of our student-athletes.”

The investigation was launched in August, following media reports that alleged abuse and bullying in the program in the wake of offensive lineman Jordan McNair’s death. McNair, 19, suffered exertional heatstroke during a team workout on May 29 and died 15 days later. Durkin and two other members of the team’s conditioning staff have been on administrative leave since Aug. 11, and Rick Court, his strength and conditioning coach, resigned on Aug. 13.

The report said that “by definition, Maryland’s football culture was not toxic. ... In light of our conclusion that Maryland’s football culture was not ‘toxic,’ we do not find that the culture caused the tragic death of Jordan McNair.

“If the culture had been ‘malicious or harmful,’ Mr. Durkin would not have earned the loyalty and respect of many of his student-athletes and coaches,” the report stated. “Many players interviewed by the Commission felt Mr. Durkin’s and Mr. Court’s coaching tactics reflected those of a ‘big time football program.’”

According to the report, the commission interviewed 55 former players who played under Durkin, the parents of 24 players, 60 current and former athletic department staff members, 12 university officials not in the athletic department and 14 other people with “college football expertise” or “miscellaneous individuals.”

Investigators say they met with Durkin for more than 10 hours and “we believe his concern for his players’ welfare is genuine.” The sentiment from players, though, varied. The commission surveyed 94 Maryland players on Sept. 9 and compared the player responses with similar survey results from 32 other schools. The results found Maryland ranked No. 29 in terms of “overall experience” and 31st on a question related to culture and values. Asked about Durkin's effectiveness, players rated him lower than the head coach from all but one other school.

Based on what the commission called a representative sample of comments, some current players adamantly said Durkin should not be Maryland’s head coach, while others voiced their support, with one saying he is “innocent” and “deserves to be back.”

A few former players had strong opinions against Durkin staying at Maryland, saying that Durkin “should never get another coaching job” and another saying, “it was clear that Durkin didn’t care for the players.”

The report also highlighted problems in the athletic department, saying “dysfunction was largely due to a chasm between Mr. Anderson and Deputy AD Evans,” referring to Kevin Anderson, the former athletic director, and his deputy who took over the department’s top post on an interim basis last year and was promoted to the position full-time on June 25.

“[This] schism caused the Athletics Department to operate at a suboptimal level for an extended period,” the report stated.

Two of the eight members assigned “ultimate responsibility to the University leadership for the ongoing dysfunction of the Athletics Department.”

The report details blurred lines of communication between both Durkin and Court, as well as little oversight of the football program by the athletic department. Durkin told investigators that there “was no consistent or regular oversight” by Anderson or Evans.

Anderson told the commission that he instructed Evans to spend more time observing the program; when Evans failed to do so, Anderson said he cited it in Evans’s final performance review. The commission examined Evans’s performance review from 2016 and 2017 and did not see those remarks.

The report was especially critical of Court, who was Durkin’s first hire in College Park in 2016, and said the head coach failed to rein in Court.

“Yet many players, parents, and coaches lodged complaints with the Commission about both Mr. Durkin and Mr. Court,” the report states. “Frustrations were shared about the intensity and length of practices and workouts, insufficient recovery time, and the aforementioned issues with Mr. Court.

“Durkin advertised an ‘open door’ policy, but many players and assistants felt this did not extend to those whose opinions did not align with Mr. Durkin’s,” the investigators wrote. "Some coaches feared sharing criticisms about Mr. Court.”

Representatives for both Durkin and Court did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the commission’s findings.

The commission spoke with Court and his attorney three times during its investigation and ultimately found that Court “on too many occasions, acted in a manner inconsistent with the University’s values and basic principles of respect for others,” according to the report. He was “effectively accountable to no one,” the report states, and never received a performance review.

There were "many" occasions when Court "engaged in abusive conduct" at Maryland, the report explained. Although some who were interviewed thought his behavior as motivational in nature, the commission believed Court regularly crossed a line.

“This included challenging a player’s manhood and hurling homophobic slurs," the report states, while noting that Mr. Court denied that allegation, though it was “recounted by many.”

It continued: "Additionally, Mr. Court would attempt to humiliate players in front of their teammates by throwing food, weights, and on one occasion a trash can full of vomit, all behavior unacceptable by any reasonable standard. These actions failed the student-athletes he claimed to serve."

The commission detailed many incidents of abuse or bullying that had previously been mentioned in media reports, in addition to some that hadn’t been previously publicized. In one instance, the report states that Court allegedly choked an injured player with a lateral muscle pulldown machine in January 2016. The player had surgery the month before and was struggling to complete a rep. Court allegedly “came up behind the player and said ‘come on motherf-----’ and pressed the lat bar into his neck, choking him.” Court “vigorously denies” that this incident occurred.

In another instance, a player was having difficulty breathing and removed his helmet during practice. “Mr. Court approached the player and yelled, “What the f--- are you doing?’” the report states. “The player put his hand up, unable to speak as he tried to get his breathing under control. According to the witness, Mr. Court said “Are you crying, you f----ing p----?”

The commission’s report recognized the “enormous influence” that strength coaches have over athletes and that generally their duties include monitoring player health. The report calls strength coaches’ role “unique” in that profanity is common and some of the Court’s behaviors were not “entirely unexpected.”

“What would be deemed unacceptable in most workplace environments is the norm in many weight rooms, particularly during football training periods,” the report said.

Commission member Doug Williams, who played in the NFL and is the senior vice president of the Washington Redskins, said, “A strength coach has to be tough and relentless: but he must also do this in a manner that is not demeaning or dehumanizing.”

The commission determined that “Durkin and leadership in the Athletics Department share responsibility for the failure to supervise Court” and faulted the school for allowing the situation to fester.

“During the 2016 to 2018 seasons, the Athletics Department did not effectively fulfill its responsibilities,” the report stated, noting that Cynthia Edmunds, a university ombudsman and assistant to Loh, described the athletics department’s operations as “chaos and confusion.”

The commission noted that school officials received an anonymous email from a parent in December 2016, warning about abusive behavior within the program, which was first reported last month by The Post. That letter arrived in College Park nearly a year and a half before McNair’s death.

According to the commission report, Loh forwarded the email to Anderson, the athletic director at the time, “on an FYI basis. He does no [sic] need to respond to this anonymous email,” Loh wrote.

Anderson told investigators he forwarded the message to staffers, including Evans, who oversaw the football program, and said, “We need to talk about this email.”

“Mr. Anderson says that he asked whether these staff members had seen or heard anything inappropriate. They all answered in the negative,” the report stated.

Evans told investigators he has no memory of the letter, and the report said that Durkin was never questioned about the parents' concerns or about the red flags raised in the email.

“From all appearances, this anonymous memorandum simply ‘slipped between the cracks,’” the report stated. “This episode demonstrates an abject failure by the Athletics Department, from the compliance staff to the AD, to perform its fundamental duty of investigating complaints and ensuring the well-being of the student-athletes it serves.”

The commission’s investigation was originally called by Loh on Aug. 11. Loh would appoint three members to the commission before the board of regents took over control of the investigation days later, adding five more members. The report was a product of work done by all eight commission members: Williams of the Redskins; retired federal judges Alex Williams and Ben Legg; former Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich; journalist Bonnie Bernstein; Baltimore attorney Charles Scheeler; Tom McMillen, the former Maryland basketball star who served three terms in Congress; and Frederick M. Azar, the chief of staff at Campbell Clinic Orthopedics in Memphis.

Roman Stubbs, Sarah Larimer, Emily Giambalvo and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.