September-October 2017

Bethesda Interview: DJ Durkin

The University of Maryland football coach talks about his team's first win, how he gets recruits and the two players who changed his life

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Photo by Edgar Artiga

Name: DJ Durkin
Age: 39
What he does: Head football coach at the University of Maryland 
Lives in: Kensington

When he finished playing college football at Bowling Green State University in Ohio in 2000, DJ Durkin wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. So when a job opened on the football staff at the school, he took it. “I had a business degree and I figured I’ll stick around football for a little longer and buy some time until I figure something out,” Durkin says. “I was just kind of doing it to get my graduate school paid for, [to] be around the game I played my whole life.”

Sixteen years after graduating from Bowling Green, Durkin is still “around the game” as the head coach at the University of Maryland. Durkin, 39, who lives in Kensington, is known nationally for his recruiting prowess, and his résumé includes coaching stints under famed college coaches Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh. He is beginning his sophomore season at Maryland. Last year, the Terrapins finished 6-7 overall, middle of the pack in the Big Ten. 

Durkin grew up in northeast Ohio and was a defensive end and outside linebacker at Bowling Green. As he has built his coaching career, he and his wife, Sarah, have moved six times in the past 15 years. The couple has two children, 7-year-old Abigail and 4-year-old Luke.
Durkin leads his team with a coaching style that promotes hard work, dedication and competiveness. It’s a style he has honed since his days as an assistant coach at Stanford, where he anointed players on special teams and the defensive line as “pack or prey”—those who put in the most effort and dominated practices joined the pack, while those labeled as prey didn’t get to play in games. 

Expectations are high for Durkin, who is paid $2.4 million a year. He will have to prove over the next few seasons that his team can beat Big Ten powerhouses such as Ohio State and Michigan. From his office overlooking Capital One Field at Maryland Stadium, Durkin discussed his coaching philosophy and his path to becoming a head coach.

Growing up in Ohio, were you an Ohio State fan?

As a kid, you end up cheering for who your parents cheer for. My dad was a Notre Dame fan, so that’s who I grew up rooting for. 

You played football at Bowling Green and then later coached there as a graduate assistant under Urban Meyer, now the head football coach at Ohio State. Do you feel like you lucked out joining his coaching staff fresh out of college?

I certainly benefited from good timing. I didn’t know him at all. I don’t think anyone knew of him at the time—that was his first head coaching job. I wasn’t really certain or clear on what I wanted to do, and luckily I had some guys that were on the staff when I played there that spoke highly enough of me for him to offer me a job.

What were those early days like working for Urban Meyer?

Every day was a learning experience. You’re talking about your first job, you’re just trying to take in as much as you can. It was a different time back then, too. It was crazy, it was wild. It was really good. To me, that was the most valuable learning experience you can have.

I think I learned a lot about the reasons you coach, what's behind it and the right way to do it. I think the more you’re coaching—and this is probably true in any profession—the more you’re around it, the more you understand people are products of what their experiences are. I was very fortunate at such a young age to have such a great experience, to really learn what coaching is all about and how to do it the right way. 

What is the right way to coach?

Being involved in your players’ lives, just entrenching yourself in what’s going on with them. Not just coaching football, but making sure they’re taking care of their academics, making sure you know what’s going on with them off the field. Almost taking them in like they’re your own kids. That relationship you build is what it’s all about. It’s not done that way everywhere. I’d like to say it’s my own doing, my own idea. I don’t know. 

When did you realize that? 

When I was a graduate assistant at Bowling Green, that’s where I learned what it’s all about. There were two young men on the team that I was assigned to watch over and keep track of because they were really good players that were struggling with their grades. So I went through that time of really building a relationship with those guys and just seeing how you can have a positive effect on a young man’s life and help turn it around. That’s where I acquired my philosophy on coaching. 

And then it kind of became, wow, this is a big deal, it’s a powerful thing. It’s something really important you can be a part of. That’s when I realized what coaching was all about, and what my calling was.

Can you share more about those two players?

They were guys that came from rough backgrounds, not much family, and had been kind of passed through schools. They were unprepared for what college had to offer. So myself and my wife, we actually personally took the time to help teach them how to read and write and those sorts of things, as well as every day making sure they’re [getting] to class and doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

It became my responsibility to make sure they were where they were supposed to be, [that] they were eligible and ready to play. It was like having kids of our own. What first started as a ‘Are you kidding me? I can’t believe I have to do this’ type of deal turned into probably the single most influential or  
life-changing experience that I’ve had.

Do you stay in touch with those players today?

I do, mainly through text. But I know both are doing well and have families of their own. It’s a pretty cool thing when you help with that.

Before you came to Maryland, there was talk about you coaching in the NFL. What made you choose this head coaching position?

I always wanted to be at a place where we can compete at the highest level, and I really believe we can do that here. There’s no reason we can’t. So the opportunity came about, I researched it, I looked into it, and every day it became more and more clear that this is a great place.

What was it like when you stepped onto Capital One Field in College Park for your first game as head coach?

After the game [Maryland beat Howard University 52-13] is when it really set in. That was obviously a different experience being a head coach. After everything calmed down, I got in my office, took a deep breath and just thought about it.