Maryland head football coach DJ Durkin has been placed on administrative leave and — let’s be honest — it probably won’t be long before that becomes a permanent arrangement.
Durkin might not be directly responsible for the death of 19-year-old redshirt freshman Jordan McNair two months ago, but if a fraction of the allegations included in the ESPN reporting that has shocked a nation and shaken the Maryland football program are confirmed, he has to go.
This terrible tragedy happened on his watch and it allegedly happened in an environment created by Durkin and some subordinates that might well have contributed to it in a significant way.
If it’s found that a lack of institutional control points a finger upstairs as well as down, then he shouldn’t be the only member of the athletic department in a position of authority to bear the blame.
None of this has been proven and there is an ongoing investigation into McNair’s death as well as a pending lawsuit that is expected to be filed on behalf of his family. The facts will come out.
Why? Because the behavior described in the ESPN articles isn’t surprising in the high-pressure world of Power 5 conference football. The coaches generally attempt to build a “macho culture” that lends itself to overbearing coaches and hardcore training methods. It would be naive to think the Maryland program is the only one that might have crossed the line between tough love and actionable negligence.
Durkin passed through several major programs before getting his first big-time coaching job and you can bet there were plenty of players in those programs who felt bullied or humiliated after failing to meet all of the expectations that came with their full scholarships.
Consider the pressure he has been under to turn Maryland into a major college power in a conference that is dominated by teams that are in a completely different competitive area code.
The only way to win in that situation is to find ways to enhance the performance of players who are often a cut below those recruited by the Ohio States and Southern Californias of the college football world.
This isn’t an attempt to rationalize what has happened. Durkin has likely coached his final game at Maryland and if that’s the case, he’ll have no one to blame but himself.
What might be more important is whether this scandal provides a wakeup call for every other program that is pushing the envelope when it comes to the well-being of its players.
This isn’t the first time a young athlete has collapsed on the field and died, often from heatstroke caused by over-exertion or under-hydration. It isn’t even the first time for a high-profile team in this region.
In 2003, Orioles rookie pitcher Steve Bechler collapsed at the team’s spring training complex and died of heatstroke, which was linked to his use of the thermogenic weight-loss drug ephedra.
It was not a similar circumstance. The level of exertion in a baseball training camp is not comparable to college or pro football. But Bechler’s death led to real change in the way the sport supervised the use of dietary supplements and also led to a ban on the sale of products containing ephedra.
When Minnesota Vikings star offensive lineman Korey Stringer died of heatstroke during preseason workouts in 2001, football programs at every level instituted compulsory water breaks to protect their players from dehydration.
If any good can come from a promising life cut short, it is that the lessons learned are not limited to the specific incident or the entity involved.
The Maryland football program is caught in the ugliest of spotlights right now and it is fair to wait for the current and pending investigations to run their course. But we already knew this stuff went on in big-time college programs. It just hadn’t turned deadly yet.