University of Maryland football report finds 'culture where problems festered'

An extensive independent review of the University of Maryland’s football program determined it “fostered a culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out” — but stopped short of calling the program “toxic.”

The Baltimore Sun obtained a copy of the roughly 200-page report, which the University System of Maryland’s governing body has not released. The Board of Regents continued to probe the report’s findings — and discuss the futures of high-level university employees — during a private conference call Thursday afternoon. They are to meet again Friday in closed session.

The football program has been under increased scrutiny since the death of 19-year-old Jordan McNair, who suffered heatstroke during a May 29 practice in College Park. This investigation into the state flagship’s football program, which is being overseen by the regents, was catalyzed by explosive media reports that described coaches as bullying, demeaning and intimidating certain players.

“We do not find that the culture caused the tragic death of Jordan McNair,” the report states.

The eight-person commission tasked with examining the football team culture — which includes former Gov. Robert Ehrlich, retired U.S. District Court judges Ben Legg and Alex Williams, and former prosecutor Charlie Scheeler — interviewed more than 150 people, including 55 student-athletes who played football under head coach DJ Durkin. The third-year coach has been on administrative leave since Aug. 11.

The report did not contain personnel recommendations, though it certainly divided up blame among school officials. The regents were expected to discuss during their call whether to retain Durkin, university President Wallace Loh and athletic director Damon Evans. Amid the uncertainty over top university officials’ futures, power players are already forming camps on either side of the debate.

State Sen. Jim Rosapepe, a Democrat representing College Park, issued a preemptive public statement in support of Loh.

“The people that are trying to get rid of Dr. Loh do not have an academic agenda,” he said in an interview. “They have a cronyism and sports agenda.”

The report delves into instances of athletics department mismanagement, many unrelated to McNair’s death, over the past two years. The commission found that the athletics department “lacked a culture of accountability” and was plagued by frequent turnover, dissension and infighting.

A former coach compared the athletics department’s dysfunction to Washington politics. Durkin, a first-time head coach, apparently received little guidance when he took over the Terps, who are part of the high-pressure Big 10 Conference.

Much of the report dives into vivid allegations of the strength and conditioning coach’s physically and mentally abusing players, including calling them names and shaming them. Many of these stories come from athletes who once shared a field with McNair.

Rick Court, who was at the center of many media allegations, “was effectively accountable to no one,” the report found. Court “engaged in abusive conduct during his tenure at Maryland,” according to the report, and would “attempt to humiliate teammates” by throwing food, weights and, once, a trash can full of vomit. Some players described Court’s actions as a motivational tactic, but the commission determined he crossed the line.

Amid swirling stories, some details were consistent: Court’s profanity was often “excessive and personal in nature,” the report found. Court resigned in August.

“Court’s favorite words were p---- b----, calling people fat, bringing people’s family into it,” one former player told investigators, referring to derogatory terms for women.

The report notes that Court was never given a performance review.

Durkin claims that it was not his responsibility to supervise Court, although it was Durkin’s decision to hire him. They worked closely together every day, and Durkin delegated many responsibilities to Court. The head coach, the commission found, “bears some responsibility when Mr. Court … exhibits unacceptable behavior.”

“The confusion over to whom Mr. Court reported is a striking illustration of the Athletics Department’s disarray,” the report reads.

The culture report is the second athletic investigation by the board of regents. The first review — the results of which were released Sept. 21 — was commissioned to analyze athletic department protocols and procedures related to McNair’s death.

That report, led by sports medicine consultant Dr. Rod Walters, found athletics staff made a host of errors May 29, the day McNair fell ill during practice — including failing to immerse the offensive lineman in cold water, which experts say is in line with best practices.

Loh has publicly said the school takes “legal and moral responsibility” for mistakes in treating the student-athlete.

The latest report contains much more extensive interviews with players, many of whom leveled scathing criticism against the team’s culture.

Despite that, the commission members said they didn’t find a “uniform rejection” of the coaching staff. To meet the “toxic” standard, the report states, the culture would have to be “extremely harsh, malicious, or harmful.” They determined it did not.

If the program had been truly toxic, the commission wrote, Durkin would not have earned the “loyalty and respect” of many players and their families, who have spoken out in support of him over the past several weeks.

Durkin was interviewed for 10 hours, and the commission found “his concern for his players’ welfare is genuine.”

The commission confronted the belief held by many that Durkin’s and Court’s tactics reflected those in “big time” football programs across the country. Durkin modeled his program after Ohio State University’s Urban Meyer and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, whom the report characterizes as “tough, no-nonsense leaders.”

One section of the review lays out that “pushing the human body to its limit” has always been a hallmark of sports.

“Football is a ‘gladiator sport’ where pushing to and through exhaustion is celebrated,” it states.

In anonymous surveys conducted with student-athletes, the Maryland football team’s culture “fared poorly” compared with other college teams and Court’s “scores were extremely poor by any standard,” the commission found. Players noted that “scars lingered from Coach Court’s abusive language and conduct during his first season.”

Player after player said coaches treated players harshly and disrespectfully, according to the report.

The report includes an allegation, provided by two eyewitnesses and the affected player’s mother, that Court choked an athlete with a pulldown weight machine. Court denies that this happened.

Twenty-eight players questioned in the survey mentioned Court throwing objects in the weight room.

“It is a somewhat toxic culture. It is an alpha male one. …. They use humiliation and talk down to players,” one current player said.

Another said: “I certainly have witnessed a mentality where everything is hyper-aggressive and there was no room for players to show weakness. The situation that occurred this summer was a clear culmination of that with someone who didn't look out for himself when he didn’t feel well because he felt the pressure from around him to not look like a ‘failure.’ ”

Yet another said: “I have heard players and myself called “p------” for being unable to complete workouts and the constant foul language has become accustomed to our culture.”

However, some players defended the coaching staff: “Using harsh language is standard for any team. It’s a bunch of alphas, dog eat dog,” said one former player.

The report contained a list of recommendations for the athletics department.

The commission said that to re-establish trust, Maryland has “no credible alternative but to become a leader in the development and implementation of sports medicine best practices.”

Members recommended the head coach not be allowed to supervise strength and conditioning coaches, and they said that the athletics department should maintain a log of all complaints and catalog how they’re addressed.

The chair of the system’s board of regents said in a statement late Thursday that the group accepts the investigation’s findings and no personnel decisions have been made.

“The board also accepts the independent commission’s recommendations for reforming the UMCP athletics department, including recommendations related to the strength and conditioning program and the adoption of an independent medical model,” he wrote. “We will work with UMCP and every campus in the system to ensure that these recommendations are promptly implemented and that the changes are closely monitored over the coming months and years.”

University spokeswoman Katie Lawson said college officials have received the report and are reviewing it.

“The university is committed to a fair and accountable process. We will continue that commitment as we work to ensure the safety and well-being of our student-athletes,” she said in a statement.

Barry DesRoches, a vocal alumnus and longtime athletic booster, said he was not surprised to learn about the dysfunction detailed in the report.

DesRoches, who has been a supporter of Durkin, said he feels that the leadership of Evans and his predecessor as athletic director, Kevin Anderson, let the 40-year-old coach down. He thinks it’s time for Loh, Evans and Durkin to leave.

“At the end of the day, it’s my university and I’ve got a very strong attachment to it,” DesRoches said. “I feel we need to do what’s best for the institution, right, and this has impacted the entire institution. I think we have to move on from all three.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Don Markus contributed to this article.

trichman@baltsun.com

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