#ItMightMeanTooMuch: Why the problem with Ole Miss hiring D.J. Durkin goes beyond the obvious reason
As soon as I saw the announcement that DJ Durkin was joining Lane Kiffin’s staff at Ole Miss, I fired off a tweet that I already knew what the response was going to be.
And to be fair, I did present it as a question:
Ole Miss is hiring DJ Durkin because why?
— Connor O’Gara (@cjogara) January 2, 2020
As I suspected, the responses to that were about Durkin as a recruiter. That’s why Kiffin, who is still trying to fill out his staff a month after being hired, added someone like Durkin who has ties to the underrated DMV (D.C.-Maryland-Virginia) recruiting ground on the East Coast, as well as connections in the Sunshine State from his 5 years on the defensive staff at Florida.
But of course, that’s not why I (among plenty of others) questioned the move to hire Durkin.
That reason was we’re a little over a year removed from Durkin getting fired at Maryland, where he was put on administrative leave when an ESPN investigation found he enabled a “toxic” culture of bullying and public humiliation. A 192-page report from an internal investigation followed that, and dismissed the use of the word “toxic,” but did shed light on some bizarre behavior within the program such as:
- Durkin forced players to watch horror movies or graphic videos while eating as “motivation”
- Strength coach Rick Court threw a garbage can full of vomit during a workout session
- Court threw weights and food at players and directed homophobic slurs at them
- Overweight players forced to eat candy bars during workouts as form of humiliation
Oh, and it’s worth noting why the university’s investigation into Durkin’s program came out in the first place. Players came forward and accused Maryland’s football program of having a toxic culture of bullying that led to the death of Jordan McNair after a heatstroke he suffered during an offseason workout.
So when I saw Ole Miss athletic director Keith Carter release a statement saying that the program “vetted” Durkin by talking to several school officials, administrators and “highly respected” college football coaches, I rolled my eyes. Why?
What school officials or coaches that he’s crossed paths with means nothing. He was fired for how he treated players while running a program.
What Kiffin, Carter or anyone praising the move for Durkin’s recruiting exploits hasn’t addressed is simple — how in the world is that guy going to walk into living rooms and convince parents that their son should play for him?
This is the easiest piece negative recruiting material ever. All opposing coaches have to do is tell parents to Google “DJ Durkin Maryland” and see what comes up. Well, that’s assuming they didn’t already read about the national story that sent shockwaves through the college football community during the 2018 season.
You see, Durkin might’ve been an elite recruiter at Florida, and he showed major progress at Maryland in his short time there. But it’s lunacy to think that Durkin will simply pick up where he left off as a recruiter.
That’s why this move is baffling on a variety of fronts. Was the guy who was fired for his role in a player mistreatment scandal less than a year and a half ago really Kiffin’s only option? How good is Durkin at his job to get that kind of opportunity?
Let me rephrase that.
It shouldn’t even matter if Durkin was some defensive mastermind who suddenly cranked out top-10 defenses at Maryland. And no, it doesn’t matter that he’s only an assistant now. What was laid out in the ESPN investigation and what the 192-page report detailed should’ve been grounds for “this guy shouldn’t get to work with kids anymore.” A former Maryland assistant said that they would “never, ever, ever allow my child to be coached there.”
(And for all of those saying that it was just hearsay and that Durkin wasn’t convicted of anything, which therefore makes him innocent until proven guilty, I suppose it was a coincidence that several former players and coaches who were interviewed by both ESPN and the investigation team all spoke out against what went on under his watch. Sure.)
We do this thing in college football where we say “everyone deserves a second chance.” Kiffin got a second chance. Perhaps that’s why he wanted to help Durkin, who spent last season as a consultant for the Atlanta Falcons. Some will say that getting fired from his first Power 5 head coaching job and spending a year away from the college ranks was punishment enough.
The thing that fans, athletic directors and even media members like myself often overlook — for the sake of our team — is that having a second chance to live a normal life as a human being is a whole lot different than having a second chance to get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to coach in a big-time college football conference. It’s not a right. It’s a privilege. Not all grounds for a second chance at one of those highly-coveted jobs are created equal.
For example, Kiffin and Durkin were fired from their respective Power 5 jobs for vastly different reasons. One was accused of being an immature, self-interested coach who underachieved while the other was at the center of a major player mistreatment investigation into a “toxic culture,” which was brought on by the death of a player during an offseason workout.
Can we agree that those behaviors fall into separate buckets as it relates to second chances?
I know the stories will be written about how Durkin is a changed person, and how what he went through at Maryland shaped the coach he is today. And for what it’s worth, I’m not saying that Durkin is destined to repeat the mistakes of his past. I hope for the sake of the kids he’s coaching that he does realize that there’s a different way to motivate.
Maybe I’m in the minority here, but I have a problem with an athletic department hiring Durkin after claiming that they “vetted” him by talking to different adults who he worked with, and that they received strong feedback about “his positive impact on the communities and institutions where he was previously employed.”
Right, because I’m sure people at Maryland, AKA the program he left in shambles, had that same thought. That positive feedback probably came back from his former Maryland players and their parents, right?
Jordan McNair’s father, Marty McNair, spoke to ESPN about the news of Durkin’s hiring at Ole Miss.
“I just wish the best for Durkin and his family,” McNair said. “We wish the best for him and his family and hope he’ll take what happened at Maryland as a serious life lesson in dealing with other people’s kids.”
Contrary to what some might assume after reading this, I also wish the best for Durkin and his family. While I question how he could possibly be able to recruit anywhere near the level he did before what went down at Maryland, I hope that Durkin does make a positive impact on the kids who he’ll be in charge of coaching.
But it doesn’t sit right that he was given this opportunity over someone without such a checkered past. It doesn’t sit right that a university tried to justify the hire by praising the impact he made at his previous stops. It doesn’t sit right that families of players who already signed their national letters of intent — and some of whom are already enrolled at Ole Miss — have to blindly accept Durkin’s hiring.
Why did Durkin get a second chance? Because in the college football world we live in, winning cures all, and if he helps Ole Miss do that, all will be forgiven.
Or rather, all will be forgotten.