The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Culture didn’t kill Jordan McNair. Negligence did. DJ Durkin is responsible for both.

Maryland football coach DJ Durkin has been on administrative leave since Aug. 11. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Don’t let DJ Durkin’s friends and supporters tell you that his methods were simply “motivational” tactics to toughen a coddled Generation Z. Don’t let them argue that his animalistic, brutal treatment of lesser players at Maryland are what’s required to raise a college football program to the elite level. A kid died on his practice field. That’s the essential fact. Yet Maryland’s regents remain undecided as to whether such a death is an acceptable price for Big Ten success.

Why is Durkin still employed and merely on administrative leave, instead of fired for cause? Why has he not been held promptly to account for the wholly avoidable heatstroke death of Jordan McNair on his watch, a death that would never have happened had even basic safety protocols been followed in his program? The answer is that Maryland is so starved for success that it allowed Durkin to run an unaccountable and unanswerable fiefdom, and it is inclined to let him run it still, judging by the Board of Regents’ inaction after four months and an independent review showing that Durkin and his staff were negligent when they ran McNair to death.

You don’t need to await a second report on the “culture” of Durkin’s program to know that Maryland held out-of-control berserko training sessions in which basic player-health was ignored, and that Durkin let strength coach Rick Court and trainers act abusively. The independent report by sports medicine consultant Rod Walters released last week firmly established that players were not fitness-tested, or “acclimatized” before they were forced through gassers in the heat. It showed that a trainer screamed expletives at McNair when he collapsed and had to be literally dragged across the field. And it showed that it took more than a half-hour before anyone moved McNair indoors. That’s the kind of outfit Durkin was running.

Motivation or abuse? Maryland confronts football’s fine line as new allegations emerge.

The “culture” of Durkin’s program is not really the issue here. It is the culture of the entire university power structure that needs examining, because it failed so utterly to provide any sort of check on Durkin and his staff. Durkin’s methods have been detailed in a stunning Washington Post report, as well as a previous report by ESPN, and others in the athletic department were surely aware of them. Players forced to watch bloody, savage videos of animal violence blasted on full volume at team meals, to feed into Durkin’s red-meat “wolfpack and prey” ethos. Players punished by doing “Jesus Walks” up stair-climbers with a bar across their shoulders. Players driven to the point of puking and then filmed and humiliated for their show of weakness, and of course, screamed at and called “p---- b----.”

This is a university? Or a concentration camp forcing prisoners to confess?

It is a total red herring whether some players liked Durkin, or thrived under him, because they were members of his “champions club” and labeled predators instead of prey. It is not exculpatory that the quality of Durkin’s coaching seems to have depended on whether he had any use for your kid. If he thought your boy was a player who could do something for his fast-tracking career at Maryland, then there was swag, praise, better food and massages. If on the other hand Durkin thought your kid was weak, or “a total piece of garbage,” as he put it in a Sports Illustrated interview, then there was slop for lunch and screaming abuse and leg-deadening punishments.

On those grounds alone, Durkin probably should be done — in what collegiate universe is it acceptable to call a student “garbage”? These wolfpack-and-prey methods aren’t about coaching. They smack of the darkest and most destructive cynicism in college football, attempts to run off kids and yank their scholarships.

But it doesn’t matter in the least whether you approve of Durkin’s dog-eat-dogness, or think Gen Z needs some spine-stiffening and too often views correction as “abuse.” The bottom line is that it’s a coaching staff’s job to build students up, not break them down and drive them into comas and depressions. And the way to make sure that players are built up, rather than broken down, is to follow the most basic health protocols.

It was Durkin’s job to know those protocols and to insist they be followed, precisely because he walks the line in his methods. He and his strength coach worked on the brink of excess: He knows it, his staff knows it, and all of Maryland knows it. He was therefore obliged to follow the rules that were put in place to make sure nobody died or was hospitalized by those potential excesses. He didn’t, and someone died. He should be fired for it.

But Durkin operates within a university mentality that says a football coach should be a demagogue who controls his own universe with no interference from an athletic director or president or Board of Regents or a doctor. Who is above the rules and standards that govern others, because it’s, well, football.

Maryland has a choice to make in this matter: either it is a research university that values its students’ minds and bodies, or it is a sub-department of Under Armour and beholden to a handful of donors so desperate for athletic success that they will harbor a head football coach whose negligence killed a player.

It’s already clear which way the regents are leaning. Otherwise, Durkin would have been gone a week ago.

Read more on college football:

Jordan McNair Foundation holds community conversation event to promote heatstroke education

‘He’s fighting’: Tennessee State player in critical condition after surgery for head injury

Two seasons after 4-8, undefeated Notre Dame looks masterful

Benny Snell Jr. will make you believe in Kentucky football