The inside story of a toxic culture at Maryland football

Toxic culture surrounding Maryland football (1:17)

Heather Dinich details an atmosphere of belittlement and bullying in Maryland's football program. (1:17)

Several current University of Maryland football players and people close to the Terrapins program describe a toxic coaching culture under head coach DJ Durkin before offensive lineman Jordan McNair's death in June after a football workout.

McNair, who was 19, died two weeks after being hospitalized following a May 29 team workout. He collapsed after running 110-yard sprints, showing signs of extreme exhaustion and difficulty standing upright. No official cause of death has been released, but ESPN reported Friday that he died of heatstroke suffered during the workout and had a body temperature of 106 degrees after being taken to a hospital.

Over the past several weeks, two current Maryland players, multiple people close to the football program, and former players and football staffers spoke to ESPN about the culture under Durkin, particularly strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, who was one of Durkin's first hires at Maryland in 2015. Among what they shared about the program:

  • There is a coaching environment based on fear and intimidation. In one example, a player holding a meal while in a meeting had the meal slapped out of his hands in front of the team. At other times, small weights and other objects were thrown in the direction of players when Court was angry.

  • The belittling, humiliation and embarrassment of players is common. In one example, a player whom coaches wanted to lose weight was forced to eat candy bars as he was made to watch teammates working out.

  • Extreme verbal abuse of players occurs often. Players are routinely the targets of obscenity-laced epithets meant to mock their masculinity when they are unable to complete a workout or weight lift, for example. One player was belittled verbally after passing out during a drill.

  • Coaches have endorsed unhealthy eating habits and used food punitively; for example, a player said he was forced to overeat or eat to the point of vomiting.

After ESPN requested interviews with Maryland officials and provided details about its reporting on McNair's death and the football culture, a university spokesperson on Friday afternoon said, "The University of Maryland has placed members of our athletics staff on administrative leave pending the outcome of the external review." No further details were provided.

Although grueling workouts, expletive-laced rants and hot-tempered coaches aren't unusual in college sports programs, those who have been at Maryland told ESPN that what they saw or experienced under Durkin has been excessive. The current players said they had talked with multiple players who described similar views about the team's culture but feared repercussions if they talked publicly. The two players spoke on the condition of anonymity.

A former Maryland staff member said: "I would never, ever, ever allow my child to be coached there."

A second former staffer said that while he has seen and heard coaches curse at players, he'd never been on another coaching staff with this kind of philosophy. "The language is profane, and it's demeaning at times," he said. "When you're characterizing people in such derogatory and demeaning terms, particularly if they don't have a skill level you think they need to aspire to, or they may never get, then it's rough to watch and see because if it was your son, you wouldn't want anybody talking to your son that way."

"The way they coach us at Maryland, tough love -- it's really more tough than it is love," one former player said.

ESPN requested to interview Durkin and Court, but athletic department officials declined to make them available. The university issued an initial statement earlier Friday before announcing its personnel decision that reads: "The alleged behaviors raised in the ESPN story are troubling and not consistent with our approach to the coaching and development of our student athletes. Such allegations do not reflect the culture of our program. We are committed to swiftly examining and addressing any such reports when they are brought to our attention."

Shortly before McNair's death and while he remained hospitalized, Maryland coaches held a team meeting during which, according to sources, players criticized the methods used by Court and Durkin. Durkin was initially receptive to their concerns, sources said. Players and other team sources said voluntary workouts in late June and July, after McNair's death, lessened in intensity. But when Maryland opened preseason training camp Aug. 3, the workouts and overall climate around the program largely returned to how they were before McNair's death, the sources said. Since the middle of this week, however, there has been more attention paid to players who show fatigue or distress.

"Now that we get to camp, it just seems like regular business," a current player said. "That's when I started to get upset because I feel like nothing's really changed. Have these guys learned their lesson?"

Exactly what happened during the May 29 workout and to McNair is being investigated by Rod Walters, a university-hired, former longtime collegiate athletic trainer. Walters' report is expected to be released Sept. 15. McNair's parents have hired the Baltimore law firm of Murphy, Falcon & Murphy to investigate as well.

Maryland's statement Friday also addressed the Walters investigation: "We will be able to speak in greater detail when the review is complete and shared with the public. Our consultant has work to do to finish this investigation. We will take appropriate action when we have the full details. Our thoughts remain with Jordan McNair's family, friends and teammates."

McNair's father, Martin, declined an interview request but said of his son: "As much as I miss my son, what I really miss, I miss being a father. I miss that fatherly advice of, 'How is your week going?' Ending a call with 'I love you.' ... That's what I miss most. That's the empty void for me right now."

ESPN reported Friday that the workout in which McNair participated began at 4:15 p.m. on May 29, and he and other linemen were near the end of their sprint set when McNair started having difficulties, according to multiple sources. McNair family attorney Billy Murphy told ESPN on Thursday that McNair had a seizure at about 5 p.m., following a sprint.

"I would never, ever, ever allow my child to be coached there." Former Maryland staff member

"Our reading of the medical records and the 911 call Maryland made to the EMT to come to the field reveal that 45 minutes into the practice, he had convulsions and a seizure on the field," Murphy said, "and the 911 call reflects emergency personnel noted McNair had experienced a seizure."

A 911 call recording obtained by ESPN shows that at 5:58 p.m., an unidentified man described McNair as "hyperventilating after exercising and unable to control his breath."

Murphy called the one-hour time gap between McNair showing distress at about 5 p.m. and the 911 call being made "an utter disregard of the health of this player, and we are extraordinarily concerned that the coaches did not react appropriately to his injury."

McNair died at Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore on June 13.

Maryland officials said in their statement: "At no point before or during the external review has a student-athlete, athletic trainer or coach reported a seizure occurring at 5 p.m."

Several current football players and people close to the program say that because of the program's culture, players were all but forced to try to complete whatever workout came their way.

"It shows a cultural problem that Jordan knew that if he stopped, they would challenge his manhood, he would be targeted," one of the current players said. "He had to go until he couldn't."

Several current players and people close to the program described a sustained pattern of verbal abuse and intimidation of players. A former staff member said "verbal personal attacks on kids" occurred so often that everyone became numb to them.

"We always talked about family, but whose family talks to you like that, calls you a p---y b----?" a third former staffer said. "There are so many instances."

Former Maryland defensive lineman Malik Jones, who transferred after last season from Maryland to Toledo, said he had an altercation with Durkin after Durkin took exception to Jones' smiling during a team meeting. Durkin and Jones went to another room and, according to Jones, Durkin accused him of "bad-mouthing the program" and encouraged him to leave.

"He basically got in my face, was pointing his finger in my face and calling me explicit names and things of that nature," said Jones, who appeared in six games last season for Maryland. "I'm not going to let a guy bully me. ... He called me a b---- and stuff like that. I'm not going to tolerate that."

A former staff member recalled a time when one player was in a team meeting with food on a plate because he was rushing from a meal to get to the meeting, and Court smacked the plate of food out of the player's hands, yelling at him.

"It was embarrassing," the second former staffer said. "It was the ultimate of embarrassment."

He described Court as "a very aggressive, in-your-face, matter-of-fact" coach who "would use any language he deemed appropriate to get a response or move your needle."

"He's just a ball of testosterone all the time," one current player said. "He's really in your face. He'll call you [expletives], he'll challenge you in the weight room. He'll put more weight on the bar than you can do, ever done in your life, and expect you to do it multiple times. He'll single people out he doesn't like, which is a common practice here. Guys are run off. They'll have them do specific finishes at the end and do harder workouts or more workouts just to make their lives miserable here. He's kind of Durkin's tool to accomplish that. He's the guy people hate, and that way Durkin doesn't have to take the blow for it. Guys can't stand Coach Court."

Jones said he witnessed several "rants and outbursts" from Court.

"They did go by the philosophy of balls to the wall," Jones said. "Push to the extreme? That was an everyday thing. I've seen him get physical with guys sometimes, throw objects at guys sometimes, small weights, anything he had in his hand at the time. I don't think he was trying to intentionally hit them, but I know for a fact he purposely threw them in their direction."

Another former player alleged the staff made an injured player do a tug-of-war competition against the whole defensive back unit.

"We are extraordinarily concerned that the coaches did not react appropriately to his injury." Billy Murphy, attorney for Jordan McNair's family

"They made him do it with one hand," he said. "Coach Court called him a p---- after he didn't win. One [player] was doing a tug-of-war ... and he passed out. ... I saw his body slowly giving away, and the strength coach was like, 'Keep pulling, keep pulling!' ... He collapsed on the ground. He looked at him like, 'You quit on the team.' It was really barbaric."

J.T. Ventura, a former safety who played from 2013 to 2017 under former Maryland coach Randy Edsall and Durkin, said the workouts were particularly intense the first season under Durkin. Durkin came to Maryland from Michigan, where he was the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. He worked under Jim Harbaugh at Michigan and Stanford, and for Ohio State coach Urban Meyer at Bowling Green and Florida.

Maryland was the first to hire Durkin as a head coach, and he immediately wanted to put his stamp on the program. Durkin's staff has gone through significant change, as only four original assistants from 2016 remain, and seven have since departed College Park. More than 20 players have left the team in the past 2½ years.

"They were trying to weed out players," Ventura said. "They actually called some players 'thieves' for being on scholarship and not being very good. During some of the workouts, there were kids who were really struggling, and Coach Court, he'd keep on yelling. He would use profanity a lot, try to push kids when they reached their limit during workouts.

"If a kid would stop or go on the ground, him and the medical staff would try to drag players up and get them to run after they'd already reached their limit. They definitely bullied us to make sure we kept on going."

Team sources said the verbal barrages from Court have continued this month in preseason camp.

Durkin made Court one of his first staff hires in December 2015, appointing him to lead Maryland's strength and conditioning program. The two first worked together at Bowling Green in the mid-2000s. The Washington Post reported that Court was the first call Durkin made after landing the Maryland job.

Players and other sources close to the team said Durkin and Court were aligned in all elements surrounding workouts and strength training.

"They're joined at the hip," one source said. "They're the same. They use the same language and the same classification."

Added a current player: "They usually target and pick a couple people they think are soft and go after them. ... [Durkin and Court] feed off of each other. I would say Court is as much responsible for the culture as Durkin."

A former staff member said Court is Durkin's "confidant."

The culture criticism centers on Durkin and Court but also draws in Wes Robinson, the Terrapins' head athletic trainer. Though Durkin and Court came in together after the 2015 season, Robinson has served in his position since 2006, working with previous Maryland coaches Ralph Friedgen and Edsall. One former staff member who worked with Robinson at Maryland described him as "meek and mild-mannered."

"He was always very professional," a fourth former staffer told ESPN.

Those who have known Robinson for many years agreed, but multiple former staffers said he changed his tenor to match Durkin's and the environment that Durkin sought to create around the program.

"It did seem like he was trying to become someone he really wasn't," the third former staff member said. "I'm sure he probably felt a certain amount of pressure from DJ I think most trainers probably do, but I think Wes may have morphed into a personality that he's really not. I thought he was excellent at his job."

Multiple sources said that after McNair finished his 10th sprint while two other players held him up, Robinson yelled, "Drag his ass across the field!"

Said the first former staffer of Robinson's apparent change in approach: "Players aren't the only ones who can be bullied."

Current and former players and other sources described a program known as the Champions Club that was created by Durkin to reward players who met expectations for workouts, academics, training table and other areas. Players who could not complete workouts risked being removed from the Champions Club for several weeks or months. A former staff member said the club became a significant point of pride for the players.

"As soon as you sit out a run, you feel a little dizzy or light-headed, you're not in Champions Club anymore," a former player said.

Current and former players also described several incidents where staff members targeted players because of weight issues. Sources said a former offensive lineman whom the staff deemed overweight was forced to watch workouts while eating candy bars as a form of humiliation. Another former Terrapins player said his inability to gain weight resulted in members of the strength and conditioning staff sitting with him at meals to make sure he ate.

"They were trying to make me gain weight really, really fast," said the player, who left the program. "That involved me overeating a lot, sometimes eating until I threw up. They always had me come back for extra meals. Once, I was sitting down eating with a coach, and he basically made me sit there until I threw up. He said to eat until I threw up. I was doing what they asked me to do, trying to gain the weight, but at the time, I just couldn't gain the weight, and I guess they weren't understanding that."

McNair's death has prompted players and people close to the program to speak up.

"I would've never thought a kid would pay the ultimate price," the third former staff member said. "I don't know, maybe we were all blind to what was being developed there. I don't know. I just hope it doesn't happen again."

One current player told ESPN that university leadership, including athletic director Damon Evans and president Wallace Loh, had "a lack of action" in their response to McNair's death.

"We had a kid die. ... It took all summer for us to even get a third-party investigation to meet with, and the timing [of those interviews] is absolutely horrendous," the player said. "This is a huge problem at Maryland."

ESPN requested to interview Loh, Robinson and Evans, but university officials declined to make them available. According to a Maryland official, Evans addressed the team on multiple occasions, including a private moment of reflection on June 15 held in McNair's honor that the athletic department organized for all student-athletes and staff. Evans was also in attendance at a June 1 meeting in which the team received a medical update on McNair, a June 13 team meeting, and a June 21 meeting for parents. Loh went to the hospital and funeral and "interacted with players at both," according to officials.

The two current players who spoke with ESPN and other sources close to the program said they are concerned about how Walters' investigation is being managed.

Players had to return early from their time off to meet with investigators on Aug. 1, two days before the first preseason workout. A sign-up sheet was posted on the office door of Jason Baisden, the team's assistant athletic director for football operations and equipment. Meetings took place in the offensive staff's meeting room in the Gossett Football Team House.

"They tried to interview players at the most inconvenient time, in Gossett, basically right in front of Durkin's office," one of the current players said.

"Basically anybody can walk by, any coach or whoever really wants to can walk by and see who signed up and see who's talking to the investigation," the other current player said. "They're singling us out even more when it's supposed to be an anonymous investigation."

The player said that each meeting was scheduled for only 15 minutes. Players were asked what they wanted to share about the May 29 workout and were advised to see counselors.

"It was a joke," the same player said.

University officials confirmed there was a sign-up sheet posted but disputed the allegation that it wasn't an anonymous process. According to a university spokesperson, players were also allowed to sign up by text message, they were verbally reminded by the coaches to participate, and had the "opportunity to walk in any time anonymously."

"There were multiple ways student-athletes could volunteer participation in the external review, including confidentially meeting with consultants to offer information without being identified," said university spokesperson Katie Lawson. "They will still have the opportunity to do so."

A source said that investigators are expected to return to campus next week to interview more football players.