As report on Maryland football player's death looms, coach's assistants work in limbo
By ROMAN STUBBS AND RICK MAESE | The Washington Post | Published: September 19, 2018
As Maryland football coach DJ Durkin entered his sixth week on administrative leave, his assistants returned to work as usual on Monday, running players through drills and breaking down film in preparation for Saturday's Big Ten opener against Minnesota.
Less than 24 hours before that game kicks off, the results of the external investigation into the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair will be released on Friday afternoon. The report is expected to explain the roles of the parties present during the fateful May 29 workout, assigning blame, determining culpability and clearing names.
The school's administration has already pinned blame on the program's trainers - not Durkin or his assistant coaches - for the mistakes made as McNair's condition deteriorated during the workout. But while Durkin is on leave, the rest of the program's coaches continue to operate in limbo as the first quarter of the season draws to a close. It is believed that many of the team's coaches were present at the workout - including interim head coach Matt Canada - but it remains unclear what action or inaction certain members of the staff took as the workout unfolded.
Canada has confirmed that he and the rest of his assistants have been interviewed as part of both the McNair investigation, which is being conducted by the consulting firm Walters Inc., and the broader inquiry into the program's culture, but he declined to comment last week on whether he feared his staff might be implicated in either probe. He instead praised the group for keeping the team together during unprecedented hardship following the death of McNair, which included wins over Texas and Bowling Green to open the season but also an ugly 35-14 loss to Temple in last week's home opener.
"From the moment that this all started to occur, which was a very horrible, hard day for us, with Jordan, as a staff, we've focused on our players," Canada said. "I think our staff has done a tremendous job of doing that, and I think our players feel that."
Though summer workouts are technically run by the strength and conditioning staff, the team's coaches and coordinators are permitted to attend as permitted by NCAA rules. The Walters report is expected to dissect the workout's details and could make clear which coaches were around McNair when he became overcome with exertional heatstroke, including who helped him and who didn't.
McNair's family has been vocal in saying Durkin should not be allowed to return as head coach, though parents of some other players have expressed support for the head coach.
School administrators made clear in their initial assessment of the workout that assistant coaches were not to blame. Head strength coach Rick Court resigned and two of his staff members were placed on leave along with Durkin in early August, but all 10 of Durkin's assistants - all of whom were hired by Durkin in the past three years - were permitted to continue in their roles. Assistant coaches have not been made available to speak to reporters since the incident.
Since Durkin went on leave on Aug. 11, Canada has maintained that his priority is as offensive coordinator and he has delegated the duties of running Durkin's defensive system to a spate of assistants. In the season-opening win over Texas, for example, linebackers coach Matt Barnes was on the sideline calling plays. But Barnes also serves as special teams coach, so on third downs in which he needed to prepare that unit, four other assistants helped with crucial defensive play-calls - two coaches on the field and two in the press box. Canada just listened quietly on his headset.
"I think it's been a team effort. The coaches, the players, we've all come together. We just, it's been rough," safety Darnell Savage Jr. said. "We're taking everything a day at a time."
The coaches have aimed to create lighter moments including individual dinners with players and paintball outings. Many players have leaned heavily on the assistant coaches who helped recruit them out of high school, as well as their position coaches.
That includes starting safety Antoine Brooks Jr., who has clung to defensive backs coach Aazaar Abdul-Rahim and safeties coach Chuck Heater over the past three months. When Brooks' father was hospitalized with a collapsed lung this summer, Heater and Abdul-Rahim made a point to check in with Brooks and his mother almost daily, knowing Brooks was already dealing with the death of a teammate, according to Brooks' mother, Keisha Staples.
"To me they've done an excellent job checking on them, making sure they're okay, making sure they're in a good head space mentally," Staples said.
Though roles have changed within the building - including on the strength and conditioning staff, which is now being run by assistant strength coach Mason Baggett - recruiting has been another matter.
Maryland has lost just one commitment in its 2019 class but added another in Florida running back prospect Treshaun Ward, whose recruitment was led by the team's associate head coach, Chris Beatty. The pledge of Ward underscores the staff's commitment to maintaining a presence on the recruiting trail, the operation has undoubtedly taken a significant blow since Durkin went on leave. Should Durkin depart the program permanently, the assistants would be tasked with re-establishing confidence in their committed prospects and future targets this season even if their own futures in College Park are unclear.
"As far as 2019 class, I would think everyone is back on the tables," said Adam Friedman, an analyst for the recruiting service Rivals. "I think even if they are committed they are still answering their phones and see what other college coaches have to say. I think all these players would keep their options open."
While the coaching staff continues to work, the program's small group of trainers was left shorthanded after the school placed two senior employees on administrative leave: Steve Nordwall, an assistant athletic director, and Wes Robinson, the football program's top trainer. The athletic department has shuffled resources to make sure the team's medical personnel is fully staffed.
Maryland has also added Greg Smith, the former head athletic trainer for the Washington Capitals. Smith spent 24 seasons in the NHL, including 18 with the Capitals, before leaving the organization last September. He's expected to take on both an administrative and clinical role within the athletic department, though in a letter the athletic department sent to parents of Terps football players earlier this month, his role was described as "interim." Like the rest of the assistant coaches on staff, his role remains in limbo.
"We welcome his leadership and expertise as the safety and well-being of our student-athletes remains our highest priority," the letter stated.
The Washington Post's Emily Giambalvo and Samantha Pell contributed.