Let’s say a fraternity boy died on the University of Maryland campus after being hazed. The University of Maryland System Board of Regents wouldn’t need four months, two reports and a seven-hour secret meeting to figure out the right response. The frat would be expelled from campus, and perpetrators of abuse would face criminal charges. But because Jordan McNair died at the hands of a football program backed by high-dollar donors, everyone seems confused about what needs to happen.
It’s quite simple: Coach DJ Durkin must be dismissed, and those who failed to curb his excesses while presiding over an athletic department of “chaos and confusion” should be expelled from the College Park campus, too, namely President Wallace D. Loh and Athletic Director Damon Evans.
The latest report from an eight-member investigative commission shows Durkin’s program operated like a pledge-initiating frat house with hazing rituals, complete with vomit in a trash can. As a result, McNair died from an easily preventable case of heatstroke at what is supposed to be a top research university. Any attempt to shield Durkin from that is pure blame-shifting to placate his wealthy supporters who crave a bowl game.
Food thrown against walls. A player who says he was choked with a steel bar in the weight room by a strength coach with a taste for hazing. Slasher videos of serial killers and drills going into eyeballs. A player’s locker moved to the bathroom. Screams of “p---- b----.” Does this sound like a championship operation to you? Or like a Sigma Chi binge weekend?
Hopefully Maryland’s regents are just crossing their T’s and have not let money cloud their judgment about this. The report provides plenty of reason to terminate Durkin’s $12.5 million contract for cause despite the howls from his backers that his tactics are what’s required to become a Michigan or an Ohio State. The commission was asked to assess whether Maryland’s football culture is “toxic,” but what the report reveals is in some ways worse: Durkin’s juvenile lack of judgment is a fundamental hazard for his players.
The McNair tragedy is not about some fragile player who collapsed when he couldn’t meet Durkin’s championship demands. It’s about a coach who wasn’t ready for a head job, whose program was ill-run and hurtling out of control, an imitative cowboy parody of toughness yet bereft of real standards.
Training large, overweight young men in the heat is not some novel, newfound risk. Any coach with a modicum of professionalism knows the dangers of it and to take some basic safety precautions.
But Durkin was unprepared to handle “the myriad administrative responsibilities of a head coach,” the report suggests. There was no oversight from above, and he exercised none himself. Coaches were “hyperaggressive.” Players were “degraded” and “numbed” by being constantly worked to the brink and called homophobic or sexual slurs by Durkin’s handpicked strength coach, Rick Court, who worked so closely with Durkin that players and staff regarded them as “the same person.” On one occasion, after a player was driven to the point of vomiting into a trash can, Court picked up the can and threw it across the room, strewing the puke on the floor.
One eyewitness tells of a player who came to the sideline during practice because he was struggling to breathe; he pulled his helmet off, gasping. According to the eyewitness, Court screamed at him, “Are you crying, you f---ing p----?” It’s just one of several anecdotal accounts from players describing a pattern of abuse and mishandling injuries.
“Under Durkin, you weren’t allowed to be injured unless you couldn’t walk,” one player said.
In the overheated environment they created, a fatality seems inevitable in retrospect. This was the context in which the Terrapins reported back to campus in the spring after a month-long break. “Very common scenario,” points out Douglas Casa, director of the Korey Stringer Institute, which studies the sudden deaths of athletes. The sensible, responsible protocol when beginning summer conditioning after time off, Casa says, is to have “a phase-in period for the first week or two after they return, to get the athlete up to the fitness level they previously had and back down to the weight they are accustomed to training with.” A phase-in would have allowed for heat acclimatization.
Instead, for the first day back, Durkin and his staff mandated “gassers” — 10 straight 110-yard sprints, in 81-degree heat, with no heat acclimatization.
Okay, fine. It’s not a death-defying workout, as long as some other basic precautions are taken. But as a previous investigative report by training consultant Rod Walters noted with “concern,” none of Maryland’s players were fitness-assessed before the gassers, either. They simply weighed in. McNair reported at 347 pounds — 16 pounds over his target weight. He had put on nine pounds during his time off.
If you are stupid and crude enough to make a team of large men who have recently been inactive, some of whom have gained a lot of weight, run gassers in the heat on their first day back, then you should at least make sure that they are decently hydrated.
Jugs of water were put in the players’ lockers, but apparently nobody checked to see whether they drank them. McNair’s was found later, untouched.
You would like to think that a qualified, CEO-style head coach would know that 27 college football players have died from conditioning in the heat since 2000. Here you have a big kid, who has reported 16 pounds overweight, who has not been fitness-assessed or hydration-tested. Surely when McNair showed distress, somebody should have said, “Hang on; that’s enough.”
Instead he was cussed and force-marched through the remaining sprints.
Underlying all of this was the pervasive philosophy of a $2 million-a-year honcho head coach who purposely overheated his teams because he thought it bred manliness. Who when players didn’t perform for him reportedly considered them “thieves.”
It’s an utter and evil fallacy that you can’t build a winner in football without a little light sadism. It’s a fallacy that the sign of a great young coach is whether he’s willing to gas kids in the heat. But if your seven-figure ingénue of a hire is going to act that way, it should not be beneath his notice whether an ice tub has made it to the sideline.
A coach who loses a player in these circumstances is simply not competent. The report gives Durkin credit for passion and commitment and includes some complimentary testimonies from players who had good experiences with him. It even stretches to give him the benefit of the doubt when he claims he didn’t know of Court’s worst abuses, which defies credulity. Nevertheless, what emerges is a portrait of a coach not in command of himself or his staff, who is not up to his responsibilities. “A babe in the woods,” Loh called him at one point. In addition to everything else, the report notes, Maryland’s academic performance has fallen on his watch.
Maryland’s regents had yet another discussion on a conference call Thursday, and they’re set to meet again Friday. What can be left to discuss? The acceptable number of Durkin’s casualties? As long he doesn’t lose any more lives while running off underperformers, everything is cool? The regents have no real choice but to fire a coach who may have showed promise but was as reckless and careless with other people’s sons as a frat boy.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.