Report: A 'toxic culture' surrounds the Maryland football program under coach D.J. Durkin, even before death of Jordan McNair

An ESPN report detailed a ‘toxic culture’ surrounding the Maryland football program under coach D.J. Durkin, even before the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair — who died earlier this year after collapsing during a team workout. (Getty Images)

Multiple current Maryland football players and others close to the program described a “toxic coaching culture under head coach D.J. Durkin” to ESPN on Friday, marking the latest dark cloud surrounding the Terrapins program this offseason.

The “toxic culture” described started well before 19-year-old offensive lineman Jordan McNair died in June after suffering a heat stroke during a team conditioning workout, too.

According to ESPN, two current players, multiple people close to the program, and multiple former players and staffers spoke about the culture under Durkin — who is entering his third season with the Terps — and strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, who Durkin hired.

From ESPN:

Among what [the sources] shared about the program:

  • There is a coaching environment based on fear and intimidation. In one example, a player holding a meal while in a meeting had the meal slapped out of his hands in front of the team. At other times, small weights and other objects were thrown in the direction of players when Court was angry.
  • The belittling, humiliation and embarrassment of players is common. In one example, a player whom coaches wanted to lose weight was forced to eat candy bars as he was made to watch teammates working out.
  • Extreme verbal abuse of players occurs often. Players are routinely the targets of obscenity-laced epithets meant to mock their masculinity when they are unable to complete a workout or weight lift, for example. One player was belittled verbally after passing out during a drill.
  • Coaches have endorsed unhealthy eating habits and used food punitively; for example, a player said he was forced to overeat or eat to the point of vomiting.

The two current players who spoke to ESPN did so on the condition of anonymity, as they “feared repercussions if they talked publicly.”

One former staff member even told ESPN that he would “never, ever, ever allow my child to be coached there.”

“The language is profane, and it’s demeaning at times,” a second former staff member told ESPN. “When you’re characterizing people in such derogatory and demeaning terms, particularly if they don’t have a skill level you think they need to aspire to, or they may never get, then it’s rough to watch and see because if it was your son, you wouldn’t want anybody talking to your son that way.”

Maryland released a statement to ESPN, however declined requests to interview Durkin and Court.

“The alleged behaviors raised in the ESPN story are troubling and not consistent with our approach to the coaching and development of our student athletes,” the statement read. “Such allegations do not reflect the culture of our program. We are committed to swiftly examining and addressing any such reports when they are brought to our attention.”

From ESPN:

Several current players and people close to the program described a sustained pattern of verbal abuse and intimidation of players. A former staff member said “verbal personal attacks on kids” occurred so often that everyone became numb to them.

“We always talked about family, but whose family talks to you like that, calls you a p—y b—h?” the fourth former staffer said. “There are so many instances.”

Former Maryland defensive lineman Malik Jones, who transferred after last season from Maryland to Toledo, said he had an altercation with Durkin after Durkin took exception to Jones’ smiling during a team meeting. Durkin and Jones went to another room and, according to Jones, Durkin accused him of “bad-mouthing the program” and encouraged him to leave.

“He basically got in my face, was pointing his finger in my face and calling me explicit names and things of that nature,” said Jones, who appeared in six games last season for Maryland. “I’m not going to let a guy bully me. … He called me a b—- and stuff like that. I’m not going to tolerate that.”

Court was described in a similar way.

“He’s just a ball of testosterone all the time,” one current player told ESPN. “He’s really in your face. He’ll call you [expletives], he’ll challenge you in the weight room. He’ll put more weight on the bar than you can do, ever done in your life, and expect you to do it multiple times. He’ll single people out he doesn’t like, which is a common practice here. Guys are run off. They’ll have them do specific finishes at the end and do harder workouts or more workouts just to make their lives miserable here. He’s kind of Durkin’s tool to accomplish that. He’s the guy people hate, and that way Durkin doesn’t have to take the blow for it. Guys can’t stand Coach Court.”

Other players described incidents when staff members “targeted players because of weight issues.”

From ESPN:

Current and former players also described several incidents where staff members targeted players because of weight issues. Sources said a former offensive lineman whom the staff deemed overweight was forced to watch workouts while eating candy bars as a form of humiliation. Another former Terrapins player said his inability to gain weight resulted in members of the strength and conditioning staff sitting with him at meals to make sure he ate.

“They were trying to make me gain weight really, really fast,” said the player, who left the program. “That involved me overeating a lot, sometimes eating until I threw up. They always had me come back for extra meals. Once, I was sitting down eating with a coach, and he basically made me sit there until I threw up. He said to eat until I threw up. I was doing what they asked me to do, trying to gain the weight, but at the time, I just couldn’t gain the weight, and I guess they weren’t understanding that.”

Jordan McNair’s death, investigation

Offensive lineman Jordan McNair collapsed during a conditioning workout on May 29 due to a heat stroke and was hospitalized. He had a body temperature of 106 degrees.

The 19-year-old died on June 13.

Multiple members of the Maryland football support staff were placed on administrative leave on Friday amid an investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death. The investigation is expected to be completed by September 15.

Durkin will remain the Terps’ head coach this season, the Baltimore Sun reported on Friday, even though he was on the field at the time of the workout.

McNair was seen struggling to complete part of the conditioning workout and test on May 29, and needed help from two teammates to finish a final sprint. According to his attorney, he suffered a stroke around 5 p.m., around 40 minutes after the workout had started.

A 911 call was placed nearly an hour later.

“Our preliminary investigation reveals there is an unexplained one-hour time period when nothing significant was done to avoid the complications of heatstroke,” Billy Murphy, the McNair family attorney, said on Friday. “Although there is some evidence they allegedly tried to cool him down, he should have been iced immediately. He presented at the hospital with a temperature of 106, which means he was not cooled down.

“We’re very concerned about the unexplained one hour between the time of the seizure and hyperventilating that was observed by a coach, and what happened in that remaining hour before the EMT people were actually called. This points to an utter disregard of the health of this player, and we are extraordinarily concerned that the coaches did not react appropriately to his injury.”

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