Jordan McNair was a football player. Not some fancy pants quarterback or some glamour guy running back. Nope. Jordan McNair was a grunt, one of those faceless offensive linemen at the University of Maryland.
And then, one day in June, he was dead. Dead at age 19. Dead from a heatstroke suffered in one of those grueling preseason workouts.
Football is a macho sport, a collision sport, presided over by a culture that is troubling at best, cruel at worst. Coaches like to show how tough they can be. No pain, no gain.
“Drop down and give me 10 and if you don’t do it right, it’ll be 20 and then we’ll run.’’
Tough guys, these coaches.
In 2014, Maryland opted out of the Atlantic Coast Conference and moved on to the Big Ten. It was a step up in football class for a struggling team and coach D.J. Durkin was hired to preside over the migration. It was his first head coaching job and he brought with him a bit of an edge.
One day in May, coach Durkin was running a typical workout when Jordan McNair began to have trouble with the 110-yard sprint, unable to finish the run. It took some time before he was removed to a hospital where he was found to have 106-degree temperature. The diagnosis was heat stroke.
Jordan McNair never recovered. Two weeks later, he was dead.
And so began a sequence of events that uncovered a Maryland mess. ESPN launched an investigation and reported the program had “a toxic culture’’ of bullying and humiliating players. Strength and conditioning coach Rick Court resigned in August.
The immediate reaction seemed appropriate. Wallace Loh, president of the university, said the school bore responsibility for McNair’s death and suspended Durkin. The matter would then land with Maryland’s Board of Regents which launched an investigation, held the usual fuddy duddy meetings and came up with a conclusion.
D.J. Durkin was a fine leader of men and perfectly qualified to lead Maryland’s football team, his tough guy demeanor and the death of Jordan McNair notwithstanding.
James T. Brady, chairman of the Board of Regents, conducted the press conference announcing the decision and blaming the university for not equipping the coach with “the tools, resources and guidance necessary to support and educate a first-time head coach in a major football conference.’’ Wallace Loh, who had clashed with Brady before, looked particularly uncomfortable.
So the coach stays.
Not so fast.
The announcement set off a firestorm of protests on the campus and off. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, running for re-election, led the outcry with a statement urging the Regents’ decision be reconsidered. A thousand students demonstrated on the pastoral College Park campus.
The reconsideration came a day later from the office of the president who said Durkin would not be coming back after all. The coach was fired at a buyout cost of $5.5 million, a rather nice golden parachute. And what’s more, Loh announced he would be retiring at the end of the school year. The next day, Brady, the Regents chair who found himself in the middle of a nasty mess, announced his own resignation.
And thus ended a 72-hour whirlwind that shook Maryland athletics to its core.
And all because Jordan McNair was a football player.