The news out of the University of Maryland football program gets worse by the day, if that’s possible. How can it get worse than the death of a 19-year-old? By continuing generations of idiotic macho behavior in pursuit of winning football games.
So now, in the aftermath of Jordan McNair’s death in June, we have Maryland head coach DJ Durkin placed on administrative leave and three members of his staff placed on paid administrative leave pending a review of “procedures and protocols surrounding athletes’ health and safety.”
“Health and safety” being a loose euphemism for “life and death.”
McNair, who grew up in Randallstown and played high school ball at McDonogh, collapsed after a team conditioning test last spring. He was later taken to R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center, where he died. His family blames heat stroke.
Meanwhile, ESPN has detailed McNair’s collapse during and after the conditioning test. A second ESPN report alleged the “intimidation, embarrassment and humiliation” of players by Durkin and another coach.
If the notion of football coaches acting somewhere between Marine drill instructors and prison guards strikes you as unlikely, maybe you haven’t been paying close attention.
The game glorifies forearm shivers to opponents’ Adam’s apples. It measures success in victories, yes – but the road to victory is paved with opponents’ aches and pains, and the capacity of your own heroes to absorb such misery and play through it.
Thus, practices are considered testing grounds for toughness. Welcome to boot camp, kids. Every coach imagines himself a modern Vince Lombardi, the legendary Green Bay Packers leader who drove his players mercilessly but gained athletic sainthood because his teams were victorious.
Tough and victorious, you’re a great leader. Tough and not so victorious, you’re a martinet.
The jury’s still out on Durkin. But University of Maryland football fans of a certain age will remember an earlier coach named Bob Ward, whose players were so appalled by his behavior that they openly revolted.
I was covering the team back then. Ward had been an All-America lineman in his playing days at Maryland, and was brought back as a reminder of the school’s football glory days. He brought the same intensity to coaching that he’d displayed as a player – and much more. In practice, he’d curse his players, spit on them, kick them and accuse them of being soft.
At practice one day, he screamed at a lineman named Ben Aquilina, “You’re not willing to pay the price.”
“Coach,” Acquilina replied, “I’ve had three knee operations. How much price you want me to pay?”
After two seasons of this – during which the team went 2-and-17 — the entire squad revolted and declared they would sooner drop out of school than continue to play for Ward, who was shortly thereafter dismissed from his job.
We’ll find out if Durkin brought such a bullying approach to coaching. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. But the death of young McNair, and the report of “intimidation, embarrassment and humiliation” of players hearkens back to an earlier time, not only of Bob Ward but of generations of football coaches who got away with bullying as long as they kept winning.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been re-issued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.