Ellis McKennie was among the first Maryland football players to speak out on social media against the decision to reinstate DJ Durkin as the team’s coach. Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, other players joined him.
“We’ve always told him, ‘You stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. You make sure you’re the voice for those who don’t have a voice,’” McKennie’s mother, Jodi, said in an interview two days before Durkin’s return. “And so I think that’s why he is that voice now. Because he wasn’t a strong enough voice to prevent Jordan from dying.”
Criticism from within the team emerged soon after Durkin rejoined the team Tuesday afternoon. He had been on paid administrative leave since Aug. 11 after media reports described a culture of intimidation, fear, abuse and bullying within the program. The reports, sparked by the death of 19-year-old offensive lineman Jordan McNair in June, led to an independent investigation into the program’s culture.
Three players — McKennie, tight end Avery Edwards and offensive lineman Brendan Moore — walked out of Durkin’s first team meeting Tuesday, not long after his reinstatement. Upon seeing Durkin in the room, Moore left the facility. McKennie left the meeting but practiced later Tuesday.
All three players returned to position group meetings Wednesday morning, according to two people familiar with the situation, who said the players returned not because their opinions on Durkin’s reinstatement had changed but because they did not want to abandon their teammates.
One parent of a current player said “things were better with [Durkin] gone,” and that in the head coach’s absence, players realized they didn’t have to put up with Durkin’s philosophies. Players also appreciated offensive coordinator and interim head coach Matt Canada’s efficient approach.
The board of regents’ decision, the parent said, showed that the “university ignored the report” from the independent investigation and “made sure [players] realized they had no power.”
Tuesday evening, McKennie, a junior offensive lineman who has known McNair since elementary school and played with him at Baltimore’s McDonogh School, wrote on Twitter: “Every Saturday my teammates and I have to kneel before the memorial of our fallen teammate. Yet a group of people do not have the courage to hold anyone accountable for his death. If only they could have the courage that Jordan had. It’s never the wrong time to do what’s right.”
Minutes after McKennie’s tweet, Terrapins tight end Michael Cornwell, another high school teammate of McNair, tweeted in support of McNair’s father, Marty, who said upon of Durkin’s reinstatement that he felt as though he had been “punched in the stomach and somebody spit in my face.”
Cornwell also retweeted a column that criticized the board's decision and another tweet that labeled Durkin’s return “disgusting.”
Several other current players also weighed in:
Other players — including wide receiver Dontay Demus, defensive lineman Brandon Gaddy, wide receiver MJ Jarrell, offensive lineman Marcus Minor, defensive back Rayshad Lewis, linebacker Bruce Miller and wide receiver Tahj Capehart — did not post their own comments but retweeted McKennie’s.
An eight-person independent commission tasked with examining the program’s culture delivered a 192-page report to the University System of Maryland Board of Regents on Oct. 19 that among other findings cited Durkin for failing to manage strength coach Rick Court, who used homophobic slurs and engaged in other abusive conduct. (Court resigned and negotiated a $315,000 settlement in August.)
The report also included a survey that featured wide-ranging comments from current players on Durkin, including some who strongly opposed his return to Maryland. The report found that players and assistants feared speaking out to Durkin if their views did not align with his. One current player said in the report that Durkin knew of someone who complained about Court to Durkin, and Durkin would not listen.
In the survey of 94 current players, one said of Durkin: “If you’re not a superstar he doesn’t really care about you. You are just a number on the roster. He needs to learn how to control his staff and become a decent human being. He should not be our head coach.”
Others praised his energy and passion, while adding Durkin still needed to learn how to be a head coach and manage his players and staff.
One player said, “He deserves to be back. . . . Coach Durkin is innocent.” Another added that he has the “utmost respect” for Durkin and “he has always been a great coach to me.”
Said another current player: “Durkin tried to discredit everything I have done up to this point in my time here and called me a backstabber for trying to fight for my job. There was language that crossed the line and was pretty degrading.”
Yet, the commission’s investigation also determined that the athletic department failed to provide resources to help Durkin navigate being a first-time head coach. James T. Brady, chair of the board of regents, said Tuesday that in Durkin’s meeting with the regents on Friday, the coach’s “passion for the university, the football team and the players was absolutely impressive and very believable and very consistent with what was mentioned in the commission report.”