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DJ Durkin being put on leave draws mixed reaction in Maryland, coaching communities

Len Elmore played in an era when coaches were known to be in-your-face disciplinarians, though the basketball coach he played for at Maryland in the early to mid 1970s, Lefty Driesell, was decidedly not one of them.

Yet as Elmore’s two sons were growing up, he once wrote in an article that he would never have allowed them to play for Bobby Knight, whose legendary career at Indiana came crashing down after tangible proof of abuse.

“There’s a difference between coaching hard and developing young people for life,” Elmore said Saturday, after learning Maryland football coach DJ Durkin had been placed on administrative leave by athletic director Damon Evans amid allegations of a “toxic culture” in the football program. “There’s a bright line you can't step over because hard coaching turns into abuse. That’s totally unacceptable. Coaches have to be smarter than that. You talk about wins and losses, but it’s also about personal development. That’s how they should be earning their money.”

The 40-year-old Durkin, who was going into his third season with the Terps in his first head coaching job, was earning $2.5 million annually — a salary he will lose if he winds up being fired with cause.

In a letter addressed to the Maryland community, university president Wallace D. Loh made it clear the culture of the football program will be examined along with the circumstances that led to the June 13 death of 19-year-old offensive lineman Jordan McNair, who died a little more than two weeks after falling ill following the team’s conditioning test.

The suspension of Durkin — and the promotion of first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada to interim head coach — came a day after ESPN published two stories on the Maryland football program, one on details regarding McNair and the other on the culture of the program as a whole.

“I am profoundly disturbed by the media reports yesterday about verbally abusive and intimidating conduct by Maryland football coaches and staff towards our student athletes on the team,” Loh wrote in an email. “Such behaviors contravene the educational mission and core values of our university. They are unacceptable. They will not be tolerated.

“All of our coaches and staff who work with our student-athletes are also teachers. Our responsibility as teachers is to inspire and enable students to perform at their best and expand the boundaries of their potential, in the classroom and/or on the athletic field. Humiliating and demeaning a student is not only bad teaching and coaching, it is an abuse of the authority of a teacher and coach.”

Along with an external review of what happened the day McNair struggled to finish a series of 10 110-yard sprints, Loh said he has also “directed athletic director Damon Evans to take actions necessary to ensure the safety and success of our student-athletes.”

As a result, Loh wrote the university will order another external review “to take a comprehensive examination of our coaching practices in the football program, with the goal that these practices reflect — not subvert — the core values of our university.”

Meanwhile, Durkin received support from one of his former team captains as well as from a coach he previously worked with and for at Florida.

In a telephone interview Saturday, 2016 team captain Roman Braglio said the allegations against Durkin and strength and conditioning coach Rick Court were blown out of proportion by players and coaches whose careers didn’t pan out at Maryland.

Braglio said fellow McDonogh grad McNair’s death was a "tragedy” and that he cares “about the situation as much as anyone.” But the former Terps defensive lineman also said after Durkin took over for former coach Randy Edsall, “there were kids on the team that didn’t want to play football.”

“They didn’t want to be part of a winning team, is the best way I can put that,” he said. “There were some kids there that were along for the ride. They get the gear, they get to say they play for Maryland football, but they don’t really get to put on the pads or play in a game. They don’t want to go through the work.”

One player quoted in the ESPN story, former Dunbar standout Malik Jones, said Durkin pulled him into an office after the coach noticed the defensive lineman smiling during a team meeting and told Jones to leave Maryland. (Jones later transferred to Toledo.)

Braglio, also a former defensive lineman who called Jones “one of my good friends,” said Durkin’s actions were justified.

“They did have an altercation, but Malik was sitting in the meeting room. He was an older guy, and he’s sitting back there laughing. He was on his phone or on his iPad watching videos during a team meeting,” Braglio recalled. “It’s a huge slap in the face to the head coach. You have to keep the players in check.”

Braglio said Durkin was more than just a football coach.

“He’s your life coach. He’s teaching you how it’s going to be when you get into the real world,” said Braglio, who works in a family business. “This is so much deeper than football. These kids see it as, ‘This is the reason I didn’t make it [to the NFL]. This coach was mean to me, and he didn’t like me. That’s why he didn’t play me. It’s not because somebody was better than me or I was outperformed or I didn’t put in the effort off the field.’ ”

South Carolina coach Will Muschamp, who kept Durkin on his staff at Florida after taking over for Urban Meyer, told reporters in Columbia, S.C., that Durkin got a raw deal. Muschamp, who said he spoke with Durkin on Saturday, didn’t think Durkin was treated fairly by the players and former staffers who spoke to ESPN without giving their names.

"I know DJ Durkin. He worked for me for four years at the University of Florida. He's an outstanding football coach, but he's also an outstanding husband and a father and he treats people with respect," Muschamp said. "There's no credibility in anonymous sources. If that former staff member had any guts, why didn't he put his name on that. I think that's gutless. And in any business, and in any company, and in any football team, especially here in August, you can find a disgruntled player that's probably not playing.”

Loh made it clear that Maryland will take a hard look at its football program in the future. The Terps have struggled on the field in recent years, and went 4-8 last season under Durkin.

“The University of Maryland is committed to a football program that is safe and humane, and where our student-athletes are successful in their academic and athletic endeavors,” Loh said. “This commitment will be carried out with accountability, fairness and transparency.”

don.markus@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sportsprof56

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