DJ Durkin had been the head coach of University of Maryland’s football team. But in the aftermath of having just a day earlier received an enthusiastic thumbs up from UM’s Board of Regents, he was fired. If that seems like a confusing series of events, that is both because it is and because that is how UM apparently wanted it.
Durkin had been the head coach of UM football for two seasons before being suspended this past summer. He had preached a brutal training and practice regime that he believed would make his players tougher and stronger. He filled his program with coaches and trainers who took a similar view of what is necessary to achieve success. Durkin has famously said all kinds of very tough guy things about what his program will do to its athletes, including red meat like, “No one cares if you’re tired,” and “We’re trying to make it as hard as we can” and, “The heat makes cowards out of us all.”
Jordan McNair died in June. He was an offensive lineman for the University of Maryland’s football team. He played for DJ Durkin. McNair suffered heatstroke after running a series of 110-yard sprints. He was doing the kind of hard practice that Durkin advocated and, just as Durkin promised, nobody cared that McNair was tired. When McNair collapsed, Wes Robinson, the team’s head trainer, chose to believe that McNair was quitting on his teammates and demanded that other players “drag his ass across the field.” Dragging McNair’s ass across the field was one the coaching staff’s many ways of dealing with players whose commitment was in question. These ways were championed by Durkin’s lieutenant, strength coach Rick Court, as well as other people littered throughout the program. These ways included throwing weights at players, forcing them to eat until they vomited, and practicing them well beyond their breaking point. McNair was past his breaking point when his teammates were told to drag his ass across the field. They were going to show McNair how insufficient his effort truly was. Durkin and Williamson and Court were trying to make it as hard as they could after all. They said as much. They bragged about it.
Dragging McNair’s ass across the field did not revive him; by the time he passed out, he was dying, and after an hour’s worth of suffering – during which he convulsed and then seized while nobody contacted proper medical authorities – he was finally offered proper medical attention. His body temperature had gotten to 106 degrees. McNair would later receive an emergency liver transplant but by then it was much too late; he died two weeks after collapsing.
McNair had been killed by coaches and training staff who did exactly what they told everybody that they were going to do.
The university, while investigating itself, eventually put Durkin, Robinson, and Court on administrative leave. The institution inexplicably tried to shield Durkin from any responsibility for what had happened. UM simultaneously took public responsibility for McNair’s death while also buying out Rick Court, essentially making him the fall guy. Court received $315,000 to leave the institution in the aftermath of overwhelming and conclusive reporting about his unrepentant brutality. On his way out, Court absurdly claimed that he was deeply concerned for the welfare of his players:
As many of you know, I resigned yesterday as the head strength coach 4 @TerpsFootball. I wanted 2 thank Coach Durkin & all of my colleagues & players for their support, love & commitment. I am blessed for the relationships I have built and wish nothing but success for our team. pic.twitter.com/llT2HABKUC
— Coach Court?? (@courtstrength) August 14, 2018
If that appeared to be equal parts callous and dishonest, what the University’s Board of Regents did for Durkin defies belief: over the apparent objections of Wallace Loh, the University’s president, it reinstated Durkin and Robinson, then claimed that Durkin had been unfairly blamed for McNair’s death. Loh, although no great shakes himself, had objected strenuously to the Board of Regent’s plan, but owing to some ongoing beef between the two sides – Loh had insisted upon renaming Maryland’s football stadium after a not-monster, which earned him the ire of the school’s Board Of Regents – he was overruled. And nobody involved with retaining Durkin apparently bothered to wonder what that decision would look like to literally anybody else anywhere.
Durkin was allowed to meet with his team for the first time since his suspension this past summer. It is unclear what was said in that meeting, although it has been reported that he came into it smiling and acting as though nothing was wrong. What is clear is that several players walked out of the meeting without hearing what Durkin had to say and went public with their entirely understandable discontent at his retention. It is also clear that the Board of Regents wanted everybody to understand that it preferred Durkin to Loh; the latter was told that he could accept its demand that Durkin be retained or else he would be replaced with somebody who would acquiesce to it. Loh gutlessly chose retention, but announced that he will resign at the end of June 2019.
“Our meeting with DJ Durkin was very instructive…His passion for the university, for the football team and for the players was absolutely impressive and very believable.”
In perhaps the least shocking disagreement with Brady’s celebration of Durkin’s alleged commitment to the institution, to its football team, and to its players, there is Marty McNair, Jordan’s father. He described receiving news of Durkin’s reinstatement in slightly less enthusiastic terms:
“I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach, and somebody spit in my face.”
The response to the Board of Regents’ inexplicable decision has been one of totally justified outrage. Critics have rightly noted that the Board’s message is one that emphasizes the importance of football at the expense of all other issues, no matter how serious those issues are and no matter how dire their outcomes.Those critics appear to at least potentially include the state’s governor, Larry Hogan, as well as numerous elected representatives, all of whom wanted to know why it was exactly that Durkin’s behavior was being excused. This group also ended up including students, who planned to protest the inexplicable decision.
There were football hardasses who were willing to excuse all of this, up to and including McNair’s death. Plenty of them are the sort of enthusiasts who have no problem demanding incredible sacrifice from others that they would never demand of themselves. They enjoy watching propaganda nonsense like Junction Boys and convince themselves that if only today’s players were willing to do what players then did, football would be better. At least two of Durkin’s former employers, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and South Carolina’s Will Muschamp, have refused to criticize either him or his handling of Maryland football. Harbaugh punted when given the opportunity and Muschamp defended Durkin against players who anonymously described his methods to reporters. And at least one Maryland booster, Rick Jaklitsch, insisted that McNair’s death was his own fault, saying:
“As much as we hate to say this, Jordan didn’t do what Jordan was supposed to do. A trainer like [Maryland athletic trainer] Wes Robinson thinks a kid’s properly hydrated and runs a drill set up for kids that are properly hydrated, and when the kid didn’t drink the gallon he knew he had to drink, that’s going to send the wrong signal to the person running the drill.”
Players later refused to fly with Jaklitsch, which is entirely understandable given his explicit contempt for them and their well-being. But then players for the school were asked to contend with the institution’s Board of Regents sending them precisely the same message. Perhaps it, too, had fallen for Durkin’s propagandistic nonsense. Perhaps it, too, believed making it as hard as possible would toughen these players into winners. Perhaps it, too, believed that asking players to sacrifice themselves to a program willing to ignore Durkin’s total disregard for their well-being was the ultimate lesson in complete callousness.
But then, after a day of being criticized by almost everybody involved, UM’s Board of Regents reversed course. Durkin is gone. So to is whatever credibility the Board of Regents might have once enjoyed. Good riddance to both.