USA TODAY Sports’ Paul Myerberg gives his biggest surprises and takeaways from the top 25 ranked teams in the preseason Amway Coaches Poll.
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There is no way – none – to make up for the mishandling of events that led to the tragic death of Maryland offensive lineman Jordan McNair after an offseason workout.
But to hear Maryland president Wallace Loh own up to the egregious mistakes was a good start. To hear apologies issued, both personally and for the school, to McNair’s family. And to hear him accept – Loh’s words here, and they were very, very important – “legal and moral responsibility” for McNair’s death.
It was also good to learn that the school has “parted ways” with head strength coach Rick Court, who oversaw the workout that led to McNair’s death and is the central figure in allegations of an abusive, toxic culture inside the football program. And while investigations into both McNair’s death and the allegations about the program’s culture continue, it was clear there’s much more to come, including this:
Soon, Maryland will also part ways with head football coach DJ Durkin.
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They’re not saying it yet. Loh carefully separated the terrible events of May 29, when McNair struggled during that workout (he died days later), from the wider allegations, outlined in a report by ESPN. He promised an expeditious and thorough investigation into the latter, and announced the appointment of a panel to do it.
That means there’s no change to the status of Durkin – yet. But while the coach remains on administrative leave, his fate feels like a foregone conclusion.
Court resigned Monday, writing he did so “after thoughtful reflection, prayer and support.” But it was likely either that or be fired – if not immediately, then soon.
Durkin will be the next to go. He has to be gone. And in his own words, here’s why:
Here’s Durkin, at Big Ten media days back in July 2016, before his first season at Maryland, describing his alignment with Court:
“It’s so important, I believe, that the strength coach and the head coach are directly in line with one another in terms of what’s important, what’s the message we’re delivering, and Rick and I are,” Durkin said, as reported by the Carroll County Times. “We’re totally synchronized in that and so he’s huge. He’s critical to all we do.”
Directly in line with one another. Totally synchronized in the message.
None of that is surprising. Strength coaches in college football programs are widely seen as extensions of the head coach – his right-hand man. When a coaching change is made, the universal theme is how the new staff is transforming the culture. And the new strength coach is most important in implementing the vision.
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Here’s Durkin again, in April 2016, from an interview with Sports Illustrated:
“Rick Court, our strength coach, is our most important hire I made. That guy is unbelievable. When you’re changing a culture, that’s where it starts. And so we’ve flipped the world upside down on these guys. …”
Durkin went on to say: “Rick and I are as about in line with how we see things as you can possibly be.”
In that interview, Durkin also said the players had responded well to Court’s pushing during those initial months, and that “the guys love him.” Maybe. But contrast that with the allegations, first in the report by ESPN and then by other media outlets following up, that Durkin and Court fostered and promoted an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.
The reports depicted routine and extreme verbal abuse, including profanity and extreme name-calling, and sadistic bullying that included, former Maryland player Malik Jones told ESPN, Court “(getting) physical with guys sometimes,” and throwing small weights at players. They alleged that Court and his staff belittled injured players who did not participate in workouts.
A former player told the Washington Post: “There was just constant degrading of players, and that was the culture they brought to the program and they thought it would toughen us up.”
Loh called the allegations of abuse “very serious,” and “totally inconsistent with our values,” and announced a four-person panel to investigate the culture. Durkin remains on paid administrative leave pending the results, but if those allegations are even close to true, it’s a damning indictment of the program’s leadership. And all of that’s before attempting to determine whether and how an abusive atmosphere might have contributed to McNair’s tragic death. That workout May 29 was led by Court. But Durkin was present.
If the Durkin and Court were totally synchronized, their exits should be, too.