Maryland’s Regents Try To Excuse A Killing

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:

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.

James T. Brady, a member of the Board Of Regents (and one of the folks who wanted Maryland’s stadium to continue being named after Curley Byrd, an avowed segregationist) said this about Durkin:

“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.




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12 thoughts on “Maryland’s Regents Try To Excuse A Killing

  1. A gallon of water? When I have spent time in very dry areas, we tried to drink a quart. “Drink until you slosh” was the advice. You can actually hear water sloshing in your stomach.

    I can see that. But a gallon?

    I think of this attitude as “there is no body, only mind”. Which is nonsense.

    What I know now about weight training suggests that the fastest, best gains come from working only once a week. Twice might be better, the data is ambiguous. And yeah, sure, work until exhaustion.

    But that is so contrary to the “working harder is always better” attitude that you can’t even get those guys to listen to you.

    The best route is to just win, and beat them on the field. Sometimes that doesn’t work, they will say to each other, “think how much better they would be if they trained harder”.

    By the way, I don’t really think of Court’s claims of deep concern for the welfare of his players as dishonest. I think he believes it. It’s kind of like the moment in Infinity War where Thanos tells Gamora what he’s up to, and she says, “You’re insane!” Yeah, he might be, but he means it, and he actually loves her, even though he sacrifices her up for his “higher purpose”.

    This is a form of insanity, and it’s tolerated because it wins football games. Or so it seems.

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    • It’s tough to claim that you care for your welfare of your players after your system has killed one of them. You could certainly claim, “I care about these players but my method has failed in the most extreme way.” But to make the claim that you care about your players welfare in the immediate aftermath of all of this? There is no reason to give him the benefit of the doubt here.

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  2. I learned of this story in September, after talking to a guy who was on the Big 10 Network pre-season road show. I had no idea this kind of Bear Bryant Junction Boys mentality survived into the 21st century.

    The regents’ reinstatement of Durkin was pretty shocking. In a system that can be pretty tone deaf, and I refer to big time NCAA athletics, this really stood out.

    Although, if Brian Kelley can keep his job, I suppose anything is fair game.

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        • Watching this play out locally (and as an alum) there’s a big fact the national narrative seems to be overlooking. Many big state schools have arrangements with affiliated medical colleges through which the training staff actually report to clinicians, not coaches. Wallace Loh allegedly rejected a proposal by the AD (also allegedly supported by Durkin) a year ago to do just that.

          Now Durkin needs to go and the attempt to retain him was bizarre and about as tone deaf as they come. But IMO Loh is the real scoundrel here, and all of this was allowed under him. The only option after something like this is a complete house cleaning. It’s baffling anyone thought any different (you should’ve heard local sports radio today).

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  3. The victim blaming here is unconscionable.

    “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.”

    Drinking water does not prevent heat illness. The problem is heat, not dehydration and it wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference how much water that kid drank. Overexertion + heat and high humidity = heat illness. Not to mention, the body can only absorb about a liter of water an hour.

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