A player dead, and a program fights for its life.
The University of Maryland’s football program is under heavy scrutiny following emerging details surrounding the death of 19 year old offensive lineman Jordan McNair. A heatstroke claimed his life during 110-yard sprints in practice.
McNair reportedly had trouble standing upright and was showing signs of extreme exhaustion. Despite all this, head coach DJ Durkin (who has since been placed on administrative leave) and strength and conditioning coach Rick Court pushed for conditioning to continue.
It wasn’t until McNair collapsed on the field and was hyperventilating, then shortly after, completely unresponsive, that Durkin stopped the running. How the training staff, per University of Maryland President Wallace Loh, “misdiagnosed the situation,” is beyond most.
Following this incident, a deep dive was taken to examine the program Durkin runs. Let’s break it down from two perspectives: an outsider and a player.
Any fan, much less any viewer of sports, should be outright disgusted by Durkin and Court’s actions. It is one thing to run a conditioning-based, high intensity practice, most coaches do, but Durkin crossed the line.
After the first red flag, that being the prior hospitalization of McNair, Durkin and Court should have taken a step back for the purpose of evaluating the rigor of their practices and drills; but they didn’t. Something was wrong with the way Durkin was running his program, but he decided to enact no long-term change.
During the time McNair spent in the hospital, practices ensued but were less intense and sometimes optional. A step in the right direction, right? No. As soon as formal training camp came around, old practices resumed and, to a degree, nothing changed.
It is puzzling to outsiders that Durkin wouldn’t integrate different habits into his practices following one of his own landing in the hospital; more water breaks, indoor practice, longer, less intense practices are just a few remedies Durkin could have implemented to prevent something like this from ever happening.
Of course every coach wants to run a disciplined, rigorous practice to bring out the best come gameday, but there is a clear line between a good hard practice and a dangerous one.
Next is the effect on the players.
To start, seeing a teammate die during a practice not only shouldn’t happen, it should make the players reconsider what kind of program their superiors are actually running. No player should ever be pushed to that point, obviously, and no coach should be in a position of power with such intentions.
Teammates of McNair have recently come forward to shed light on Maryland’s coaching staff. There is a coaching environment predicated on fear and intimidation. Anecdotes of weights being thrown, verbal abuse, and public embarrassment were shared by the few who came to the press to tell their story; this only begs the question of, what stories haven’t been told?
Durkin packages his practices as “tough love,” but it seems far more the former than the latter. The Sideline Observer conducted several interviews with NCAA division one football players, one of which told us that “Durkin [was] honestly a turnoff in terms of my interest in the University of Maryland.”
We asked these players to compare their experience in football programs to the descriptions of Maryland’s. “I mean, I can just speak to the fact that [my division-one football team] Football was nothing like that. Never any slurs, throwing of weights, or public embarrassment.”
Perhaps most intriguing, this one player recalls that, “Even at the UMD high school camp, the strength coach was barking [at us] and that was completely different from any of the other [prospect] camps.”
Further anecdotes of players being forced to overeat to the point of vomiting, mocking if a workout wasn’t completed, and obscenity-laced epithets reached the press which only begs the question: what on earth is Durkin doing?
It is entirely possible that Durkin could have learned this coaching style, instead of invent it; Durkin was at the University of Michigan as head coach Jim Harbaugh’s right hand man, so it only begs the question: is the same type of “tough love” happening in Ann Arbor?
It’s sad that a death of a player is what it took to bring these issues to the surface. This incident will scar Maryland football. Players and coaches will grow further apart, the university and coaches will grow further apart, and Maryland football and success will grow further apart.
As of August 14, strength and conditioning coach Rick Court was fired – a small step but progress nonetheless.