We go through this strange dance every time a football coach feels compelled to rehabilitate one of his disgraced colleagues: The surprise hiring, the pop of social media outrage, the prepared statement touting the “thorough background check” and the hope that fan tribalism will trump common sense and the truth.
In this case, new Ole Miss athletics director Keith Carter even tossed in a reference to D.J. Durkin being a “proud and committed family man,” in announcing the hiring of Durkin as assistant coach.
Carter’s statement Thursday attempting to diffuse criticism of Ole Miss adding Durkin, who was fired from Maryland in 2018 amid dual investigations into the death of a player during a workout and accusations of a toxic culture in the program, is loaded with so many laudatory clichés that by the end of it you might halfway believe Durkin would be more suited to sainthood than coaching football.
And because Ole Miss fans are so energized about recently hired coach Lane Kiffin, they are more than willing to provide cover for a football coach who can’t help himself from reaching into the fire and a young administrator who is too much of a novice to pull his hand away.
In a sense, it’s hard to blame them for going down this path. In a world where athletic department decisions are largely fueled by social media comments, Kiffin and Carter are saved by the insular nature of a fan base that is so starved for relevance that it would find a way to justify hiring anyone short of Art Briles on the scale of coaching miscreants (and maybe even him, too).
But let’s be clear about why Ole Miss’ decision to recycle dysfunction and hope for a different result here is so problematic: Football isn’t going to change until coaches like Durkin are out of the sport and the tactics he allegedly used at Maryland are placed into the trash bin of history.
If you believe what some players told investigators and journalists in the wake of Jordan McNair’s death, it is clear Durkin should not be entrusted with the care of the most precious resources in college athletics.
Even though Durkin was technically fired because of public relationships backlash and not the explicit contents of the investigative reports commissioned by Maryland, their contents were still damning. At minimum, it’s clear that Durkin oversaw a program that empowered his strength coach Rick Court to use humiliation and bullying as motivational tactics and consistently engaged in outdated methods that most people wouldn’t want their son subjected to.
From homophobic slurs and fat shaming to showing serial killer videos at team meals, it was all over the line — even if the culture wasn’t directly responsible for McNair pushing himself through a workout to the point where he suffered from heatstroke that wasn’t recognized and treated quickly enough, which ultimately caused his death.
Though some Maryland players certainly backed Durkin, an ESPN report in August of 2018 detailed several disturbing episodes, including one former player who claimed that they were called “thieves” for being on scholarship, another who allegedly was forced to watch workouts while eating candy bars because he was overweight and another who said he was belittled for passing out during a drill.
Did Ole Miss’ super duper thorough background check into Durkin talk to any of those players, or was it fashioned to fit the conclusion that he needed to be hired because Kiffin wanted him? You can probably figure that out for yourself.
And there’s no doubt Durkin has his fans. One of them, former Congressman and current Lead1 Association president and CEO Tom McMillen, e-mailed Thursday to tout what a “decent person” Durkin is. (McMillen, it should be noted, was a member of the commission that cleared him of overseeing a “toxic culture.”)
You’ll find that sentiment throughout the football world. Last year, Nick Saban brought Durkin to Alabama as somewhat of a consultant before the College Football Playoff. South Carolina coach Will Muschamp, who previously employed Durkin as the defensive coordinator at Florida, immediately defended him after the damning stories at Maryland surfaced. Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn, who had Durkin with his staff as an intern this year, relied on his first-hand knowledge of Durkin’s character in making a decision he felt was best for the team.
But this is sort of the fundamental problem with the structure of college football: Millionaire coaches vouching for their buddies while the damning words of the powerless amateur players go unheeded.
In a sport where there’s no union that sets the standards for how players are treated, no recourse for violating best practices and real fear that speaking up will cost a player his scholarship, the dynamics are forever tilted toward those coaches like Durkin.
In a sane competitive environment, Durkin would be a bad hire just on the merits. Everything we know about his time at Maryland suggests his philosophy on how to run a program is bad. Instead, the decision whether to hire him is just a game about how much political capital a coach and an athletic director have to get away with it.
Because Kiffin has that kind of stroke right now, it would be difficult for Carter to say no. As long as the positive tweets keep flowing, Kiffin will basically be able to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. Carter created that monster, and now he has to feed it.
It may not be a healthy way to run an athletic department, but it’s very much how college football operates. Everyone is so wrapped up in how to sell a second chance they don’t even consider the idea that someone like Durkin just doesn’t deserve it.