In a sport constantly clouded in scandal, the University of Maryland found a way to shine brightly last week.

They shined in a horrible, abusive and deadly way.

A report released by ESPN on Thursday shows allegations of an abusive culture within the Maryland football program, a culture that may have led to the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair, who collapsed during a workout May 29 and died two weeks later.

The report shows a lifestyle within the program that coaches allegedly stood by as “tough love” or “tough coaching.” Make no mistake, if these allegations are true, this is a case of abuse. If the allegations are true, not only should the coaches involved lose their jobs, but criminal charges should be pressed.

The main culprit, according to the report, is strength and conditioning coach Rick Court. Through the testimony of multiple sources within the report, Court is guilty of yelling at players in expletive-laced rants, constantly questioning player’s manhood and throwing items at players, including weights. Sources say Court would single out players that he didn’t like and make them do workouts they had no chance of succeeding in. One story singled out a player who was forced to engage in tug-of-war by himself against multiple players, ultimately losing and having Court chew the player out and question his manhood.

Another story within the report involved a player who did not make the weight the coaching staff wanted. That player was forced to sit in front of his team and eat candy bars as his teammates worked out, as a form of humiliation.

But the topper was the death of McNair, 19, who collapsed on the practice field after running repeated 110-yard sprints, and was visibly showing signs of struggle before he collapsed. He was rushed to the hospital with a temperature of 106 degrees. While no official cause of death was announced at the time of McNair’s passing, the ESPN report verified that he died of heatstroke.

According to the story, the team had a meeting — as their teammate was in the hospital fighting for his life — where players criticized Court’s methods to Maryland head coach D.J. Durkin. Allegedly accepting of his player’s critiques at first, Durkin ultimately allowed the culture to shift back to its regular state a short time later.

In the ensuing days since the report has been released, the University of Maryland has taken the usual steps any Division I school would make when a scandal occurs. On Friday, the school put Court on administrative leave. On Saturday, Durkin was also placed on leave — with pay — as the school continues its investigation. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada has taken over the duties of head coach in his absence.

“Tough coaching” has gone on for years in football. Older fans of a bygone era will point out their own experience in high school or college, how tough their coaches were on them. They’ll point out Vince Lombardi — arguably the greatest coach in the history of professional football — who had an almost militaristic way of running practices. Within our own state — and growing up in York County — I heard numerous stories through the years from former players about the legendary Mike Landry — who led Biddeford High School to six state titles during the 1980s and 1990s — and how tough Landry was to play for.

But there’s a tremendous difference. For as tough as Lombardi and Landry were on their players, there was a soft side. Those same players that talk about how hard Landry was on them immediately noted how nice of a man he truly was, and how much he loved his players. If you were able to watch the recent Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony, you would have heard former Green Bay Packers guard Jerry Kramer tell a story of how Lombardi chewed him out one day on the practice field, only to tell him in the locker room after practice that he would soon be one of the best guards in the league. Lombardi was right.

I myself had the experience of playing for two tough coaches, John Morin of Massabesic High School and Paul Castonia of Plymouth State University. Morin was tough, a student of the Lombardi school of coaching. He was firm, but he was fair. And he prepared me for what I would experience in college under Castonia, a man I have jokingly referred to over the years as a mix of Bill Parcells and Jack Nicholson. Like Morin, Castonia was also firm but fair during my years at Plymouth State, not only making me a better football player, but preparing me for life after college. They knew the fine line of tough coaching and never crossed it. Because of this, I have maintained a lifelong respect for both men.

The pressure of winning is always heavy in football, but it can never take away the fact that coaches are leaders of people, of human beings, whose life will go on far longer off the gridiron than on it. They need to remember that the examples they set and the lessons they teach stay with players for years, even for life. They need to remember that, as human beings, nothing is above the health and safety of their players.

The best leaders — in coaching and in life — know when to be stern and when to give someone a pat on the back. If the allegations against Court and Durkin are true, they failed miserably as coaches. They failed miserably as leaders.

If the allegations are true, they should pay severely for it.

Dave Dyer — 621-5640

[email protected]

Twitter: @Dave_Dyer

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