Falcons fans have a clear image of the culture Dan Quinn has built in Atlanta, whether you love it or not: It’s all about the Brotherhood. The team announced Monday that former Maryland head coach D.J. Durkin will join the staff as a guest coach for the duration of training camp, and Durkin’s very recent past raises questions about how he fits into this culture of Brotherhood.
Durkin spent two full seasons as Maryland’s head coach. Jordan McNair, a redshirt freshman, collapsed during team workouts in late May 2018. McNair died two weeks later, and his family announced the cause of death was heatstroke. Durkin was initially suspended from coaching while Maryland investigated the circumstances surrounding McNair’s death. Durkin was reinstated on Oct. 30, and he was fired on Oct. 31, 2018.
The two investigations undertaken by Maryland — one into the circumstances of McNair’s death, and one into ESPN reports of a “toxic culture” at the program, did illuminate concerns about Durkin’s leadership.
What we know about Jordan McNair’s death
Maryland’s investigation into the incident, led by athletic training consultant Rod Walters, revealed the workout that ultimately claimed McNair’s life was the team’s first of the summer. The team led off with 10 110-yard sprints. Athletic performance staff did not check McNair’s temperature after he began showing signs of heatstroke. They took 34 minutes to remove McNair from the field after he began to show symptoms of heatstroke; and 911 was not called until an hour after the sprints were completed. Ninety-nine minutes passed before he arrived at the hospital. His temperature was 106 degrees.
The university determined that its emergency response plan was not followed properly, and that heat-related illness was not properly identified or treated. Durkin was not directly involved in the treatment and care of McNair, but he was on the field for the duration of the incident.
Walters and his team spoke to six student-athletes in the course of his investigation. One troubling response from those student-athletes stands out:
Multiple players told Walters’ team that one Maryland athletic trainer yelled some variation of “DRAG HIS ASS ACROSS THE FIELD” while McNair was struggling.
That raises some questions about the culture Maryland experienced under Durkin’s leadership.
What we know about the culture at Maryland under Durkin
ESPN released a report in Aug. 2018 detailing an unhealthy culture at Maryland that did not prioritize player safety or well-being. From that report:
There is a coaching environment based on fear and intimidation. In one example, a player holding a meal while in a meeting had the meal slapped out of his hands in front of the team. At other times, small weights and other objects were thrown in the direction of players when Court was angry.
The belittling, humiliation and embarrassment of players is common. In one example, a player whom coaches wanted to lose weight was forced to eat candy bars as he was made to watch teammates working out.
Extreme verbal abuse of players occurs often. Players are routinely the targets of obscenity-laced epithets meant to mock their masculinity when they are unable to complete a workout or weight lift, for example. One player was belittled verbally after passing out during a drill.
Coaches have endorsed unhealthy eating habits and used food punitively; for example, a player said he was forced to overeat or eat to the point of vomiting.
Maryland launched an investigation into ESPN’s reporting, and while the investigation did not determine that Durkin was creating a toxic culture, the findings were still damning. From the report:
The Maryland football team did not have a “toxic culture,” but it did have a culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out.
Ultimately, Durkin is not solely to blame for McNair’s death or the issues with the culture at Maryland. But as the head coach and the top leader in the program, he is ultimately accountable for its failures both to protect Jordan McNair’s life and to provide a safe and healthy environment for players in general.
What we know about why the team chose Durkin
Quinn and Durkin have history. The pair coached together at the University of Florida, with Durkin serving as a linebackers coach alongside Quinn in a defensive coordinator role. Obviously, Quinn is familiar with and knows him.
It’s also not a new thing for Quinn to bring in guest assistant coaches. He noted while speaking with the media after practice on Monday that both Ron Wolf and Darrell Bevell have served in similar roles.
What Dan Quinn said about the decision to add Durkin as a guest coach
Quinn believes his own reputation speaks for itself and that his demonstrated commitment to his players should alleviate any concerns about the addition of Durkin.
“I hope people would understand, and people know me well enough, that nothing is more important than team,’’ Quinn said. “The fact that I know this coach firsthand, I know what his character is, and then the due diligence that goes with that, I would certainly hope that anyone covering the team or the fan base knows that I always have the team’s best interest in mind and would never put anybody in a space that would be otherwise.”
The team did talk to “everybody” at Maryland regarding McNair’s death, according to Quinn. He came away from that due diligence comfortable with the addition, in part because of what Durkin brings to the table in defensive and special teams expertise.
“I didn’t (worry), probably because I know who the person is and I had coached with him before so I knew his value as a defensive coach and special teams,” Quinn said. “So by doing our due diligence, from there — an unfortunate situation? Of course. But as far as I’ve looked at the defense, the special teams (background) to help us, I definitely knew the advantage of that.”
It’s important to acknowledge that Durkin’s time in Atlanta, at this point, is expected to be limited to training camp and the preseason. Durkin will also obviously be serving in an assistant-type role, and won’t have the authority or influence to impact the Falcons’ culture long term much, if at all.
But at the end of the day, a young man is dead, and his death was preventable, and it happened on Durkin’s watch. That tragedy brought to light an unhealthy football culture that existed under Durkin’s leadership. That doesn’t fit with the culture of Brotherhood Quinn has fostered in Atlanta, and it does leave us with more questions than answers about the team’s decision.