Maryland Athletics Director Damon Evans issued a letter to university staff, boosters and supporters on Saturday morning saying recent reports outlining an abusive environment in the school’s football program “are not reflective of the culture we seek to build here” and that he is committed to “swiftly examining and addressing any reports brought to our attention.”
Athletic department officials had previously announced Friday evening that multiple members of the athletics staff had been placed on administrative leave but declined to identify the employees. In his letter, Evans did not specifically cite head coach DJ Durkin or make any reference to the coach’s future with the program.
Durkin was present at the team’s practice Saturday morning in College Park, according to a person familiar with the situation. Evans was on-hand and met with the team prior to practice, that person said, though the nature of the meeting was not immediately clear.
Multiple people familiar with the situation confirmed that Rick Court, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, and athletic trainer Wes Robinson had been placed on leave by the athletics department. ESPN reported Saturday a third employee, Steve Nordwall, an assistant athletics director for training, has also been placed on leave.
School officials have repeatedly said they will speak in greater detail following an external review of the death of football player Jordan McNair. The 19-year old died June 13 after suffering heatstroke at a team workout May 29. An attorney for the family has said that a lawsuit is likely.
The school has contracted with Walters Inc., an athletic training consulting firm, to review the circumstances surrounding McNair’s death. While that review isn’t expected to conclude until Sept. 15, the school was facing mounting pressure to act quickly in the wake of news reports that outlined a toxic football culture in College Park, which included regular instances of bullying, disparagement, and verbal and emotional abuse.
“There was just constant degrading of players,” one former player told The Post on Friday evening, “and that was the culture they brought to the program, and they thought it would toughen us up.”
ESPN published a lengthy report on Friday evening, citing current and former players and staff members who described an “environment based on fear and humiliation.” In his letter Saturday morning, Evans called the allegations “troubling,” but did not refute or address anything specifically in the report. Evans took over the athletics department’s top post in June, after serving as athletics director on an interim basis since last November.
The Terps football program was bracing for publication of the ESPN report, closing Friday’s practice to reporters and sending a letter to parents of Maryland players, signed by Durkin. The coach told the parents, “our priority every day is the safety along with the academic, personal and athletic development of your sons,” according to the Baltimore Sun. “During this time of healing, our focus needs to be on each other and unity within our program.”
Reaction was swift and loud on social media Friday night. Maryland Delegate Brooke Lierman, a civil rights attorney from Baltimore, has called for the coaches to resign and said university administrators need to move quickly to suspend those involved.
“I am outraged that this egregious coaching behavior existed, that it lasted so long and that it led to the death of a young man,” she said. “The lack of oversight is incredibly troubling. That this was allowed to persist and that any coaches think this behavior is acceptable is incredibly disturbing.
“Numerous people must have known this was going on,” she continued. “This type of behavior has no place in any educational institution in the state of Maryland.”
“Whenever you have a player die, you really have to get to the bottom of it,” said Tom McMillen, the former Terps basketball star who served three terms in Congress. “Hopefully it was an anomaly and the whole story is a conjecture. But you have to take a hard look at it. That’s the world we live in.
“From the [athletic directors] that I’ve talked to, that’s not pervasive,” he said. “If that action occurred, that’s not pervasive. But football is a tough game. As a former athlete, we all had tough coaches. But I think we need to look at what the facts are here.”
Some members of the sprawling Terps community defended the program in the wake of the critical reports. Barry Gossett, the prominent booster whose name appears on the team’s football facility, is close to the program and said he’s hopeful fans and alumni don’t jump to conclusions, adding, “That’s not the DJ that I know that does things like that.”
“From a donor standpoint, I kind of stand behind DJ and his program and what he has been doing,” Gossett said in an interview Saturday. “I’m sure there have been instances where the kids have benefited from his tutelage, as well as the other coaches. On the other hand, there’s probably a couple that are disenchanted with any kind of rules and regulations where they have to do something that doesn’t fit their modus operandi, so to speak, as individual players.”
Former Maryland player Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil said none of the bullying and belittling behaviors described in media reports would have been acceptable when he served on the team’s leadership council.
“Very sad what is going on at Maryland. Condolences to his family,” tweeted the former Terps linebacker, who played under previous head coach Randy Edsall. “I do not believe those reports reflect the “culture” at Maryland. We always handled and treated our program with respect and pride.”
Even as the team continued prepping for the new season, which begins Sept. 1 against Texas, the fallout continued Saturday afternoon. Parker Moorer, a three-star offensive lineman from North Carolina, backed out of commitment to join the team next year.
“After much consideration and prayer I have decided to decommit to the University of Maryland and will be opening up my recruitment,” he posted to Twitter Saturday.
Unlike most football programs in the country, Maryland has not opened any of its practices to reporters this month. It has largely shielded players and coaches from publicly discussing the events surrounding McNair’s death or the state of the embattled football program.
“Every guy is at a different stage of a grieving process, and we are as a team,” Durkin told the Big Ten Network Friday, his lone interview since the start of practices. “So the one thing we’ve done here through camp, and we said this and we’ve done it, we’re going to talk about it. It’s okay to talk about it. We’re not going to just ignore it and pretend we’re going to move on. We’re going to talk about it.
Durkin, who’s in his third year leading the program, last fielded questions from a group of reporters at the Big Ten media day on July 24, saying “obviously the loss of Jordan has been a tremendously difficult thing for our entire program to deal with this summer.”
“There’s things that we immediately put into place and looked at,” Durkin told reporters at the time. “And then obviously through our external review there will be things long-term-wise that we’ll continue to change and adapt to.”
He made no reference to specific staff members, but reports in ESPN and The Washington Post highlighted the behaviors and actions of Court, the strength and conditioning coach who was brought aboard by Durkin in 2015.
Court was one of Durkin’s first hires at Maryland and he heads the staff that supervised the workout that led to McNair’s hospitalization. A former Maryland football player told The Post that Court “was always cursing and yelling at guys, calling them names.”
“That was just Rick; it was all him,” said the player. Court did not respond to a request for comment.
In a 2017 story on Court, Durkin told The Post: “To me, if the head coach and the strength coach are not totally in line with one another, there’s something that’s going to miss. Me and Rick are in line.”
Jesse Dougherty contributed to this report.