Durkin out to make mark as first season opens
Coach exudes enthusiasm, intensity, cares for players
COLLEGE PARK — Twice in 15 years as an assistant coach, DJ Durkin watched close-up as a first-time head coach tried putting his stamp on a program.
Durkin was fresh out of Bowling Green when Urban Meyer was hired in 2001 to turn around a 2-9 Falcons team that the 23-year-old graduate assistant had just captained. Meyer, 37 at the time, went 8-3 the first season and 9-3 the second year before leaving for Utah.
A decade later, Durkin was on Meyer’s staff at Florida when Meyer decided to take a one-year hiatus before moving on to Ohio State. Florida’s new coach, 39-year-old Will Muschamp, who had been an up-and-coming defensive coordinator at Texas, kept Durkin. After four seasons and a 28-21 record, Muschamp resigned.
When Durkin makes his debut as Maryland’s head coach today against Howard, the memories of what he saw in witnessing the rise of Meyer and the fall of Muschamp will have been wiped clean. Durkin, 38, will be drawing up a new play — his own.
As much as he has taken from all the coaches he has played for and worked under — from his high school days in Youngstown, Ohio, to his college years at Bowling Green to his professional coaching career that landed him with Meyer and later with Jim Harbaugh at Stanford and Michigan — Durkin is charting his own course.
Durkin doesn’t want to be compared to Season opener Today, noon TV: Big Ten Network Radio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM INSIDE: Game previews for D-I state teams
Meyer, Harbaugh or even Muschamp, who is getting a second chance as a head coach at South Carolina.
“I think you are who you are. I think guys that take that step and try to be someone they’re not and change their personality, those are the ones you see lead to failure,” Durkin said this week. “At the end of the day, you’re going to come back to who you are, what you believe in, what your personality is and just be true to that.
“There’s definitely more than one way to be successful. That’s been proven. There’ve been so many different types of personalities and different types of head coaches that have been successful. The bottom line is, be yourself. Your players, your coaching staff, they’ll embrace that, and they’ll understand it’s real. People respond to genuineness. I believe that in general, in life.”
Since Durkin was hired away from Michigan, where he had turned the Wolverines defense into one of the best in the nation in his only year in Ann Arbor, his players have appeared to respond to their new coach’s approach.
It seems to be a combination of being in their faces while showing them that he has their backs. Based on the lack of attrition — particularly compared with the tumultuous first year of former Terps coach Randy Edsall — it also appears that most players believe in Durkin’s methods.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Perry Hills, who will start the season opener for the third time in his career and play for his third head coach after finishing last season under interim coach Mike Locksley, said the players took to Durkin from the first day of winter meetings.
“We knew we needed a culture change and we saw the drive in him, and that’s something we really looked forward to,” Hills said. “Weweren’t winning games and once you see one style to another style, you can tell the difference. Coach Durkin has just done an unbelievable job. You can see the passion in him. Everything he does is energetic. Everything. Every speech he gives us, every drill he walks us through.”
All-Big Ten Conference cornerback and returner Will Likely, whom Durkin plans to use in an expanded role on offense this season, said there is more of a “competitive culture” around the Gossett Team House than at any point in his first three seasons.
“Everything we do is competition,” said Likely, who could start at cornerback and wide receiver. “You’ve got to compete. At the end of the day, it’s all about wins and losses. You want to win every rep, so he’s doing a good job of that. It’s a good feeling around [here].”
Defensive coordinator Andy Buh, who was part of the staff with Durkin for three seasons under Harbaugh at Stanford, said Durkin’s hyper-Type A personality is only part of what has made him successful.
“When I came here, a lot of the stories that I heard were about his enthusiasm, his passion for the game. I see that as probably about 30 percent of who DJ is,” Buh said. “He’s got a lot of integrity. He’s a people person. He cares about the players, the coaches and everybody involved in the organization. That’s one of his strengths as a leader. He’s good at organizing his time and checking off every detail.”
Harbaugh said at the Big Ten Football Media Days in Chicago in July that he hired Durkin, then the linebackers and special teams coach at Bowling Green, in 2007 on the recommendation of former Ravens defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, now the defensive line coach at Michigan.
“At Stanford from day one, [I] realized that he was a fabulous coach,” Harbaugh said. “Greg Mattison, who I knew well at the time when I was coaching at Stanford, said to hire DJ, he’ll be the best coach on your staff. And I hate comparing people, but he was definitely one of the best. He is somebody that pours his heart and soul into the team being good, and I have the utmost respect for him.”
Durkin will have the challenge of going up against both of his former mentors every season in the Big Ten East, which can make a legitimate claim to being the toughest division in the country with Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State.
The Terps, 3-9 overall and 1-7 in the Big Ten last season, have been picked to finish toward the bottom.
Asked this week what will make his first season a success, Durkin hedged.
“We have to go through this first year before I can look back on it,” he said. “I know it’s coach-speak, but it truly is how you have to be. We’re trying to have the best Tuesday it can possibly be. We’re going to have a better day today than we did yesterday.
“We’re a young team; we’re certainly learning new schemes and all that other stuff. No one cares about how you got to where you are. I really feel we have a talented enough team to go play and play well this year. Fans and media equate more of the game to wins and losses. We know the game is winning. We’re trying to win every game we play.”
Durkin is also trying to play down the significance of his first game at Maryland and — with the exception of the one bowl game he won as Florida’s interim head coach after Muschamp stepped down — his first game in charge of his own program.
“I don’t have any great statement on that other than as a coach you just kind of get involved in your routine,” he said at his Tuesday news conference. “Today’s a Tuesday, and I’ve had a thousand Tuesdays of game week before and that’s what we’re focused on. I haven’t really thought about it. I’m going to do my best job as a head coach now as opposed to a coordinator to prepare our team in all facets to go play.”
“There’s definitely more than one way to be successful,” first-year Maryland coach DJ Durkin says. “The bottom line is, be yourself. ... People respond to genuineness.”