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The Washington Times

 

COLLEGE PARK — The University of Maryland football program opened a portion of Wednesday's practice to the media for the first time all summer, a noteworthy decision after the school took full responsibility for the death of former player Jordan McNair.

Two "cooling tents" were set up on the campus practice fields where there had been none before, and Matt Canada spoke for the first time as interim head coach, emphasizing how the players have weathered the recent period of turmoil.

"Our practices have been extremely crisp," Canada said. "The focus on our players' health and safety is No. 1. And our players are feeling that and understanding that, and that's our primary focus."

The Terrapins practiced for an hour and 46 minutes Tuesday with two breaks, Canada said, and a similar plan was in place for Wednesday's session. The practice was open to reporters from 12 to 12:30 p.m.

One cooling tent was located on each field, accessible to the offensive and defensive players, respectively. In addition to providing shade from the summer heat, they included fans, ice buckets and coolers with water, Gatorade and snacks. Training staff still drove utility vehicles around to hand Gatorade bottles to players, a practice that had been in place before, a Maryland spokesman said.

The updates and the effort for transparency came after a regrettable five days for the football program. Head coach DJ Durkin and other staffers were placed on leave Saturday after an ESPN investigative report brought light to allegations of excessive verbal abuse and a "toxic culture" under Durkin's tenure.

University officials released preliminary findings from the independent investigation into McNair's death, saying Tuesday that the 19-year-old was not properly treated for the heat illness he experienced before collapsing at a May practice.

Strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, the subject of many abuse claims, also announced his resignation Tuesday. Canada said assistant strength and conditioning coach Mason Baggett has taken charge of the weight room.

Canada first spoke to the Terrapins as their interim coach Saturday at a team meeting.

"I briefly addressed the football team and told them this was a challenging situation, we're all in it together, we're gonna work through it together and we need to consult with each other, talk to each other, lean on each other, be with each other, talk to your families," Canada said. "And whatever they needed from us as a staff, we were there. That was as brief as it was at the time."

The team's culture right now is "awesome," Canada claimed, and players are "loving each other" and still grieving for McNair.

"No matter what else comes out of this conversation, I want that to be echoed, that our players are special, they're doing a great job sticking together, they're excited to play football on Sept. 1 and we as a staff are really excited to get to watch them play," he said.

Canada also said he called Durkin to offer his support "in a situation that's really challenging," but he declined to give more details.

Maryland hired Canada in January after offensive coordinator Walt Bell left to take the same job at Florida State. Canada served as offensive coordinator at six other Division I FBS schools, most recently Louisiana State, before coming to Maryland. But this is his first time serving as head coach of any team an unusual way to take up that mantle.

Canada and athletic director Damon Evans arranged a parents' meeting Saturday, coinciding with a team scrimmage.

"I've talked to a couple parents and I've been very open and honest, which is the only way to be," Canada said. "Everybody's concerns right now are very wide-ranging. ... Our parents and our players want to have a good football season. That's what they're focused on."

Maryland opens its season Sept. 1 against Texas at FedEx Field.

Meanwhile, players and coaches who've associated with or played for Durkin continue to speak up about their experiences, leading to a mixed bag of support and criticism.

Local media at a Florida State practice asked Bell about his experience in College Park. Without directly mentioning Durkin or Maryland's program in his answer, Bell implied it was not a pleasant place to coach.

"I'm excited to be at a place where our kids smile at practice, they have a great time at practice, and they work for a head football coach (Willie Taggart) that kind of instills that family atmosphere in our organization," Bell said.

Cleveland Browns safety Jabrill Peppers played at Michigan when Durkin was the Wolverines' defensive coordinator. Peppers told "The Rich Eisen Show" that he thought Durkin used "extreme" tactics that he didn't like, describing it as "bully coaching."

On the other hand, some former players continue to say they had no problem with Durkin's style, even if it was demanding.

Will Muschamp, who had Durkin on his staff at Florida, was the first to defend the coach by accusing anonymous players cited in the ESPN story of wanting payback for lack of playing time. And Jim Harbaugh, Durkin's boss at Stanford and Michigan, declined to comment on Durkin's style when asked.

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