The University of Maryland placed football Coach DJ Durkin on administrative leave Saturday in wake of news reports that players faced abuse and disparagement from staff members.
Athletic Director Damon Evans sent a letter to university staff, boosters and supporters Saturday saying, “I am extremely concerned by the allegations of unacceptable behaviors by members of our football staff detailed in recent media reports. We are committed to fully investigating the program.”
“At this time, the best decision for our football program is to place Maryland Head Football Coach DJ Durkin on leave so we can properly review the culture of the program,” the letter continued. “This is effective immediately. Matt Canada will serve as interim head coach.”
Athletic department officials had previously announced Friday evening that multiple members of the athletics staff had been placed on administrative leave but declined to identify the employees. In his letter, Evans did not specifically cite Durkin or make any reference to the coach’s future with the program.
Durkin was present at the team’s practice Saturday morning in College Park, according to a person familiar with the situation. Evans was on-hand and met with the team before practice, that person said, though the nature of the meeting was not immediately clear.
Multiple people familiar with the situation confirmed that Rick Court, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, and athletic trainer Wes Robinson had been placed on leave by the athletics department. ESPN reported Saturday a third employee, Steve Nordwall, an assistant athletics director for training, has also been placed on leave.
School officials have repeatedly said they will speak in greater detail following an external review of the death of football player Jordan McNair. The 19-year old died June 13 after suffering heatstroke at a team workout May 29. An attorney for the family has said that a lawsuit is likely.
The school has contracted with Walters Inc., an athletic training consulting firm, to review the circumstances surrounding McNair’s death. While that review isn’t expected to conclude until Sept. 15, the school was facing mounting pressure to act quickly in the wake of news reports that outlined a toxic football culture in College Park, which included regular instances of bullying, disparagement, and verbal and emotional abuse.
“There was just constant degrading of players,” one former player told The Post on Friday evening, “and that was the culture they brought to the program, and they thought it would toughen us up.”
ESPN published a lengthy report on Friday evening, citing current and former players and staff members who described an “environment based on fear and humiliation.” In his letter Saturday morning, Evans called the allegations “troubling,” but did not refute or address anything specifically in the report. Evans took over the athletics department’s top post in June, after serving as athletics director on an interim basis since last November.
The Terps football program was bracing for publication of the ESPN report, closing Friday’s practice to reporters and sending a letter to parents of Maryland players, signed by Durkin. The coach told the parents, “our priority every day is the safety along with the academic, personal and athletic development of your sons,” according to the Baltimore Sun. “During this time of healing, our focus needs to be on each other and unity within our program.”
Reaction was swift and loud, as the news reports began to spread. Ben Jealous, the Democratic candidate for Maryland governor, called for the school to suspend both Evans and Durkin, pending the results of the external investigation.
“The athletics director and the head coach are ultimately responsible for ensuring the safety of our student athletes,” he said in a statement Saturday afternoon. “For there to be reports of purposefully unsafe conditioning practices built on the foundation of verbal abuse, fear, and humiliation – even after the death of a teenager in their care – is the definition of inexcusable.”
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s office also issued a statement Saturday, calling the revelations about the football program “very disturbing reports.”
“Our administration is in contact with the University System and we have requested regular updates,” said Amelia Chasse, the governor’s spokeswoman. “We will be closely monitoring the investigation and results to ensure that all appropriate action is taken. No student athlete should ever feel unsafe or unsupported.”
School administrators have not addressed Durkin’s status with the team, though he continues to run practices. Maryland Delegate Brooke Lierman, a civil rights attorney from Baltimore, has called for the coaches to resign and said university administrators need to move quickly to suspend those involved.
“I am outraged that this egregious coaching behavior existed, that it lasted so long and that it led to the death of a young man,” she said in an interview. “The lack of oversight is incredibly troubling. That this was allowed to persist and that any coaches think this behavior is acceptable is incredibly disturbing.”
“Numerous people must have known this was going on,” she continued. “This type of behavior has no place in any educational institution in the state of Maryland.”
One high-level booster close to the athletic department, who spoke on a condition of anonymity, said Saturday that “a lot of donors are of the opinion that Durkin must go” and that there is mounting pressure on Evans to fire Durkin. Other alumni believe that the independent investigation into McNair’s death must also thoroughly examine the allegations of a toxic culture within the program.
“Whenever you have a player die, you really have to get to the bottom of it,” said Tom McMillen, the former Terps basketball star who served three terms in Congress. “Hopefully it was an anomaly and the whole story is a conjecture. But you have to take a hard look at it. That’s the world we live in.”
“From the [athletic directors] that I’ve talked to, that’s not pervasive,” he said. “If that action occurred, that’s not pervasive. But football is a tough game. As a former athlete, we all had tough coaches. But I think we need to look at what the facts are here.”
The allegations of an abusive culture have drawn mixed reactions from some corners of the tightknit football world. South Carolina Coach Will Muschamp, who coached alongside Durkin at the University of Florida, questioned the anonymous sources cited in news reports, calling them “gutless.”
“I know DJ Durkin,” he told South Carolina reporters Saturday. “He worked for me for four years at the University of Florida. He is an outstanding football coach. He’s also an outstanding husband and father. He treats people with respect. . . .I know DJ Durkin personally. I know what kind of man he is. I know what kind of person he is. I don’t think it’s right.”
Some members of the sprawling Terps community defended the program in the wake of the critical reports. Barry Gossett, the prominent booster whose name appears on the team’s football facility, is close to the program and said he’s hopeful fans and alumni don’t jump to conclusions, adding, “That’s not the DJ that I know that does things like that.”
“From a donor standpoint, I kind of stand behind DJ and his program and what he has been doing,” Gossett said in an interview Saturday. “I’m sure there have been instances where the kids have benefited from his tutelage, as well as the other coaches. On the other hand, there’s probably a couple that are disenchanted with any kind of rules and regulations where they have to do something that doesn’t fit their modus operandi, so to speak, as individual players.”
Former Maryland player Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil said none of the bullying and belittling behaviors described in media reports would have been acceptable when he served on the team’s leadership council.
“Very sad what is going on at Maryland. Condolences to his family,” tweeted the former Terps linebacker, who played under previous head coach Randy Edsall. “I do not believe those reports reflect the ‘culture’ at Maryland. We always handled and treated our program with respect and pride.”
Even as the team continued prepping for the new season, which begins Sept. 1 against Texas, the fallout continued Saturday afternoon. Parker Moorer, a three-star offensive lineman from North Carolina, backed out of commitment to join the team next year.
“After much consideration and prayer I have decided to decommit from the University of Maryland and will be opening up my recruitment,” he posted to Twitter Saturday.
Unlike most football programs in the country, Maryland has not opened any of its practices to reporters this month. It has largely shielded players and coaches from publicly discussing the events surrounding McNair’s death or the state of the embattled football program.
“Every guy is at a different stage of a grieving process, and we are as a team,” Durkin told the Big Ten Network Friday, his lone interview since the start of practices. “So the one thing we’ve done here through camp, and we said this and we’ve done it, we’re going to talk about it. It’s okay to talk about it. We’re not going to just ignore it and pretend we’re going to move on. We’re going to talk about it.”
Durkin, 40, has gone 10-15 over his first two seasons leading the program. He last fielded questions from a group of reporters at the Big Ten media day on July 24, saying “obviously the loss of Jordan has been a tremendously difficult thing for our entire program to deal with this summer.”
“There’s things that we immediately put into place and looked at,” Durkin told reporters at the time. “And then obviously through our external review there will be things long-term-wise that we’ll continue to change and adapt to.”
He made no reference to specific staff members, but reports in ESPN and The Washington Post highlighted the behaviors and actions of Court, the strength and conditioning coach who was brought aboard by Durkin in 2015. Court, who did not respond to a request for comment, was one of Durkin’s first hires at Maryland and he heads the staff that supervised the workout that led to McNair’s hospitalization. A former Maryland football player told The Post that Court “was always cursing and yelling at guys, calling them names.”
“That was just Rick; it was all him,” said the player.
Court first coached alongside Durkin on Urban Meyer’s staff at Bowling Green in the early 2000s. He later served on Meyer’s staff at Ohio State before a stint as strength coach at Mississippi State, where he left in 2015 to reunite with Durkin in College Park. He was Durkin’s first hire at Maryland. In a 2017 story on Court, Durkin told The Post: “To me, if the head coach and the strength coach are not totally in line with one another, there’s something that’s going to miss. Me and Rick are in line.”
Robinson has served as Maryland’s head football trainer since 2006 and was one of the few holdovers to join Durkin’s staff after Edsall was fired as head coach in October 2015. Nordwall arrived at Maryland in 2014 as the school’s director of athletic training and oversees health care services for more than 500 athletes in 20 sports at the school, according to his bio on the athletic department’s website.
The Washington Post’s Jesse Dougherty contributed to this report.