COLLEGE PARK — Parents of University of Maryland football players met for nearly 90 minutes Saturday morning with athletic director Damon Evans, and many stayed around to talk with university president Wallace D. Loh and members of the commission hired by the school to look into media reports of a “toxic” culture in the program’s two seasons under coach DJ Durkin.
The meeting was the first for parents with Evans since shortly after offensive lineman Jordan McNair died June 13 from heatstroke suffered during a May 29 conditioning test. The parents of McNair, a Randallstown resident and former McDonogh School standout, said on national television Thursday that Durkin should be fired.
Durkin, who was at a meeting with parents in June, is currently on administrative leave pending the outcome of an external review that is expected to be completed by Sept. 15. Strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, who was among Durkin’s first hires, resigned Monday.
Darryl Turner, who grew up playing football in Prince George County and later played while he was in the Air Force, is among the parents who would like to see Durkin reinstated, saying he was more angry with the way ESPN’s article portrayed Durkin than anything the 40-year-old did as a coach.
“When the ESPN thing came out, I’m sorry to say, I was kind of upset with them, because this program is not toxic. This program is a great family environment,” said Turner, whose son, DJ, is a junior wide receiver. “My son has not complained about anything. None of the kids [have] and I know most of the team.”
Dave Baca has a different feeling about the experience his son, Steven (South Carroll), a junior tight end from Mount Airy, has had since coming to Maryland in Durkin’s first season leading the program. Baca said the death of McNair was the culmination of two difficult years for Steven, who is a preferred walk-on.
“Our hearts and prayers go out to the McNair family,” Baca said. “No amount of anything is going to bring him back. It’s a very sad situation. It’s not what we signed up for when Steven chose to come to Maryland. We entrusted his care to the coaching staff, to the training staff. How can something like this happen?”
Baca said the portrayal by ESPN echoed some of what he heard from his son about the team’s culture.
“It’s been a brutal culture,” Baca said. “We will be meeting after the parents’ meeting to share our feedback [with the commission]. Steven’s here for the education, and we feel like he’s getting a great education. He loves the sport, but he’s only had glimmers of enjoyment.”
Baca, who along with his wife are graduates of the Naval Academy, said his son knew it was going to be grueling and that many Power 5 teams are coached and trained similarly.
“He knew what he was signing up to,” Baca said. “I get a sense that some of this occurs in most D-I programs. But I don’t think this is a culture that is only at D-I. My [other] son played a little at the D-III level, and the profanity and breakdown of the kids, just the mental language that these coaches use, is not the type of language I want for my child to be built up. You can break them down without using such harsh language.”
Baca said linebackers coach Matt Barnes has been “pretty fair" and yells at his players on occasion, but it is not part of his character.
“When the head coach creates a culture, you [as an assistant] have to fit into that culture or you find yourself going somewhere else,” said Baca, who said he played lightweight football at Navy.
Turner said he is appreciative of what Durkin has done for his son, who as a freshman was suspended along with fellow freshman Lorenzo Harrison III, a former high school teammate at DeMatha, after being charged by police for shooting a BB gun on campus.
“I’m behind Coach Durkin,” Turner said. “I really hate that this happened from looking at what the circumstances are. Durkin did a lot to bring my son up to be a man. This is what this program is about. I’m going to say it again — this is not a toxic program. It’s a really good program and I stand behind it.”
Said Pamela Allen, whose son, Lawtez Rogers, is a redshirt freshman defensive end: “I like Coach Durkin. I’ve never had a bad report about him. My son really likes him, too. I do believe that things could have been handled differently that day what happened with Jordan. … My son even liked Rick Court.”
As for the way Court was portrayed for the way he trained the players in the weight room, Turner gave his support there, too. He reflected on his own background of having played the sport, and having coached it for three decades on the youth and high school levels.
“The work that these kids put in is their armor to play a tough game and you’ve got to get the best out of them,” Turner said. “I can’t say that sometimes coaches [don’t] go a little too far. Where is the line? … The way this program is, probably mirrors a lot of programs around the country. This is a tough game. You’ve got to be tough.”
The meeting with Evans and the interviews with the commission preceded an intrasquad scrimmage at Maryland Stadium, which only families as well as high-level boosters and their guests were allowed to attend. The team has mostly not been made available to the media, which spoke to interim coach Matt Canada for the first time Wednesday.
Evans, who was promoted from being acting athletic director in late June, said through an athletic department spokesman: “We have been communicating with our football parents for the last few months, but felt it was important to bring everyone together so we could hear their questions and comments in person.
“We also wanted to see their kids play in today's scrimmage. I appreciate all of our parents for coming out and for every question and comment they shared. We are keeping the lines of communication open and I encouraged all of them to reach out to me personally with their thoughts.”
Turner is not sure how things will wind up.
“We’re not getting a lot about how the investigation is going,” Turner said. “We expect the investigation to be strenuous. It’s going to be tough. And the outcome will probably be tough. That’s what’s supposed to happen. I believe that’s supposed to happen that way. Let’s let it work itself out.”
Turner said that like many, his thoughts and prayers are mostly with McNair and his family.
“We’re all grieving for Jordan. We really miss the kid; he was a really great kid,” Turner said. “DJ [Turner] and the rest of the team are holding together. They’ve come together better than they’ve come together at any time. I think they’re really focusing on getting ready for the season. All our prayers go to Jordan and his family.”
Sending a message to McNair’s parents, Turner said, “We’re behind you. We’re still family. Please come on back.”
Asked if he thought Durkin would be reinstated, Turner said, “My hope is that he comes back because he’s a good guy. Again, the situation is going to turn out the way it’s going to turn out. I’m throwing my support for DJ Durkin. If he comes back, great. If he doesn’t, we’ve got a season to get ready for.”