Chasing wins, Maryland football loses its way | Bob Ford
Win at all costs can cost a player's life.
The kid, the 19-year-old kid, couldn't finish the set of wind sprints on the 80-degree afternoon during spring football practice. He couldn't finish them because he was suffering from heatstroke that would put him in the hospital and kill him 15 days later.
As he stumbled and struggled on the field and two of his teammates supported him, one of the team's athletic trainers yelled to them, "Drag his ass across the field."
According to witnesses, the kid had a seizure and, according to the time stamp on the EMT records, help wasn't summoned for an hour. When he was transported to the hospital, the kid's core body temperature was 106 degrees.
He died because the people entrusted with his care needed to win football games.
The details of the report issued by ESPN into the June death of Maryland offensive lineman Jordan McNair are revolting, but they are far from surprising. Schools that get into bed with the lucrative god of football do so with the understanding they might have to change the sheets on a regular basis.
That's part of the deal. You ride the tiger and it can take you a great distance and pay a lot of bills, but it is still a tiger. The animal turned on Maryland because it apparently hired a head coach who pushed things too far; who, in turn, hired a strength and conditioning coach with allegedly sadistic tendencies; who created a culture in which players were humiliated, run off and abused. Eventually, if the facts are as presented, it killed one of them.
The Maryland program, however, was operating no differently than dozens across the country in varying degrees. No one thinks anything of it. Football is a brutal sport. Preparing to play it requires harsh training. In the old days when the NFL still allowed two-a-day practices in the heat of training camp, Dick Vermeil once said, "You don't train Marines by taking them to the beach and buying them ice cream cones."
No one thinks anything of it, or says anything about it. And then someone dies.
Maryland will handle this as universities always handle these things when the curtain is pulled back. The four members of the staff who have been placed on leave – head coach D.J. Durkin, strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, and two members of the athletic training staff – will be dismissed.
That has to happen, even if just for the cosmetic effect. If you find your school harbored a sexual predator, or looked the other way when an assistant coach was known to be a domestic abuser, or covered up sexual assaults by the players, or falsified grades to keep them eligible, or recruited them with gifts and cash – if any of those things come to light – you have to pretend to discipline the tiger. You have to express shock that such things could happen at the school. And if you kill a kid, well, the breast-beating must be sufficient to leave an angry bruise.
"The safety and well-being of our student-athletes is our highest priority," Maryland athletic director Damon Evans said. "These alleged behaviors are not consistent with the values I expect all of our staff to adhere to and we must do better. You will be hearing from me as our work continues to rebuild the culture of respect in our football program."
Hey, that's great. They have to do better. That's quite a goal. They want all the players to survive.
Of course, Maryland also started an outside investigation into McNair's death in June and it was moseying quietly along until the ESPN report was published on Friday. Here's betting that the conclusions, now expected in mid-September, will be different than they would have been.
One unavoidable conclusion is that none of this is going to change as long as football swings the weight it does in collegiate athletics. Maryland gave up a 60-year association with the Atlantic Coast Conference (paying a $50 million exit fee in the process) to join the Big Ten because it could bring the Baltimore-Washington television markets to the Big Ten Network, and make a ton of money as a result. That was probably the prudent economic decision, but, in trying to compete in those deeper waters, the program had to loosen the reins on the tiger.
Randy Edsall, hired by Maryland after 12 years at UConn, got the first crack at the Big Ten as an incumbent. He was fired midway through the 2015 season after back-to-back losses to Michigan and Ohio State by a combined score of 77-28. The athletic version of "publish or perish" on a big-time college campus is "win or leave." The drive back to Storrs, where Edsall is now in the second year of another stint at UConn, must have been a long one.
That was the reality pushing Durkin, who coached under Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh and knows head-coaching jobs don't come with warranties. His Maryland teams were 5-13 in conference play in 2016 and 2017, and finished last season with a 66-3 home loss to Penn State.
The next season would have to be an improvement and that improvement would have to start in the spring. The kids had to get tougher. They had to work harder. They had to finish the drills. If it was hot, well, then it was hot. The tiger had to be fed.