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DJ Durkin is focused on local recruiting to make Maryland football relevant again

After one season, DJ Durkin has the Terps headed in the right direction.

Maryland v Florida International Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

The University of Maryland has been the focal point of College Park since it opened in 1856 as the Maryland Agricultural College.

Then, it was just a small agricultural school that hosted more soldiers on either side of the Civil War than it did students. In its first decade of existence, the school flirted with bankruptcy until the state legislature assumed half-ownership of the school in 1866.

Today, over 150 years later, University of Maryland employs more than 15,000 people and is one of the top public research institutions in the country. It is the largest employer in College Park, whose population is just over 32,000 people.

The school is the biggest business in the city, raking in billions of dollars in its lifetime. While tuition fees, general funds, and state funding make up some of the university’s revenue, the combined nearly $20 million in net revenue that the Terrapins’ football and men’s basketball teams bring is a significant component.

The football team netted over $9 million in revenue for the fiscal year 2016, which isn’t the most current picture of the team’s financial affairs, but it’s the best one available right now.

The athletic department is still in debt after leaving the Atlantic Coastal Conference after the 2014 school year, which included a $31 million exit fee, but is working its way back toward being in the black. Maryland still isn’t seeing a full-financial-member payout from the Big Ten, and won’t until 2021. But once it does, things may really start to pick up.

One of the ways Maryland generates some of its revenue is through ticket sales. Season tickets are on sale for an average of $222.22, depending where you want to sit, among other factors, according to the team’s ticket information page.

But here’s the problem: Fans don’t want to come watch their team lose.

Over the past five seasons, despite their three bowl game appearances, the Terps are 14-18 at home. The fans’ average attendance reflects the team’s performance from the year before.

“You see a difference in attendance. If the team is doing well, people swarm into the stadium,” College Park Mayor Patrick Wojahn told Testudo Times. “If they’re not, then you see a lot of empty seats. So, it really helps us to have a football team that’s doing well.”

After the team went 2-10 in 2011, the average attendance dropped by about 6,000 people in 2012. The team doubled their win total in 2012, and the average attendance increased by roughly 2,000 fans for 2013, and about 5,000 fans if you count the home game the Terps played at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

A bowl game appearance in 2013 and the move to the Big Ten for the 2014 season boosted attendance by approximately 8,000 fans. Despite another bowl appearance and a 7-6 record, Maryland’s weak out of conference schedule and mid-season firing of Randy Edsall contributed to a dip in attendance during the 2015 season. The team went 3-9, leading to another dip in attendance for the 2016 season, in which the Terps doubled their win total and reached another bowl game. If fans follow the same pattern they have for years, Maryland should see a healthy increase in average attendance next season.

It’s pretty clear that winning helps boost attendance, and that’s the hard part. As a member of the Big Ten East — that includes Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, all of whom finished in the top eight in S&P+ last season — Maryland plays in one of the premier divisions in college football. Week in and week out, the Terps play against some of the best players the nation. To play anywhere near the level of those teams, it’s pretty simple: Maryland has to recruit near their level.

‘Why leave?’

Enter DeMatha Catholic High School.

The University of Maryland is conveniently located only two miles north of one of the most prospect-rich high schools in the entire country. Year in and year out, the Stags field one of the best high school football teams in the country. Fifteen DeMatha alumni have gone on to play in the NFL since 1984.

In each of the 2016 and 2017 graduating classes, there were two top-100 recruits, which helped DeMatha win four straight Washington Catholic Athletic Conference titles from 2013 to 2016.

During Maryland’s 2015 debacle of a season, there were zero DeMatha alumni on the roster and the team went 3-9. Six former Stags joined the roster for 2016 (two redshirted) and the team doubled its win total, reaching a bowl game in the process. Two more signed with the school in the Class of 2017, bringing the total to eight for the upcoming season. Two more are verbally committed to join the program in 2018.

Obviously, six players aren’t solely responsible for an entire team winning more games, nor does their high school alma mater automatically mean they’ll be great college football players. But it is worth noting that each of the three DeMatha alumni who saw significant playing time last season played an important role as a true freshman.

Lorenzo Harrison III rushed for 633 yards and scored five touchdowns in only nine games. He was 57 yards short of LaMont Jordan’s freshman rushing record set in 1999 before a suspension for an airsoft gun incident on campus ended his season after 11 games.

Terrance Davis played in all 13 games, starting the final nine at right guard. It’s not often that a true freshman comes in and starts on the offensive line, and it’s especially rare in the Big Ten, a conference traditionally known for its big offensive linemen and hard-nosed running game.

“At first, it was eye-opening,” Davis said. “But once you get used to all the banging, and you realize your strength matches up with theirs, you’re just as good as they are, the game slows down for you as you learn the offense.”

Terrance Davis commits to Maryland at the Under Armour All-American Game in 2016. | ESPN

Tino Ellis played in 12 games, all at cornerback, even though he was recruited as a four-star wide receiver. His versatility and willingness to play defense came in handy when star corner Will Likely went down with an injury halfway through the season. Wide receiver DJ Turner only played in two games before joining Harrison in a suspension, but turned heads at Maryland’s spring game.

Anthony McFarland and Marcus Minor join the party next year, each carrying a four-star pedigree with them. McFarland comes in as the No. 100 player and the No. 3 all-purpose back in the country. He’s as dynamic as they come with the ball in his hands and should continue the trend of true freshmen making an immediate impact. Minor comes to Maryland as a top-five player in the state and a top-225 player in his own right.

Each of these players was a highly regarded recruit and could have played Division I football elsewhere, but ultimately bought into staying in-state and playing for the hometown school. Davis committed after Durkin was hired as head coach, but the new staff had to keep Harrison, Ellis and Turner on board. Durkin’s recruiting pitch to local prospects, which he elaborated on in a chat with Maryland students, has been the same since day one:

A lot of guys, when the new Jordans come out, they wanna buy a new pair of shoes or something, right? If those shoes were available at a mall two states over, you call, they have them, they have your size, they’ll hold them for you, they’ve got the price you want, everything. Okay, that’s great, you’re about to go make that trip two states over to go get them. You want those shoes, or whatever’s important to you.

But before you leave, you call the mall that’s a mile away from your house and, ‘Oh, you have them too? And they’re my size? And you’ve got the right price?’ What mall are you going to? Right, you’re going to that one. You can get everything you want, hope and dream of right here. Why leave?

Each of these student-athletes bought into that same pitch, or at least some version of it. And while they won’t be playing in Jordans on the Under Armour-sponsored campus, they seem to be doing well making a name for themselves thus far.

But another benefit to staying close to home to play college football is that they don’t have to make names for themselves, because people in the local community already know who they are.

‘Our team’

Whether the team is winning or losing, thousands of fans pour into College Park on Saturday mornings during football season to watch the Terps play. To manage the masses, hundreds of game day staffers are on hand to run parking lots, security gates and concession stands.

“A football game day is actually pretty hectic,” operations assistant Sam Merrill told Testudo Times. “First crews will get there at like 6 a.m. for a noon game. They’ll be there until 11 [a.m.] and they’ll just be setting up gates, putting out bike racks, setting up stanchions, some caution tape if needed.”

Richmond v Maryland Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Secondary crews come in next to take care of last minute odds and ends before the game starts, assist fans during the game and then, after the game, break down all that was set up in the morning. It’s a grueling set of tasks, but a set that’s necessary to control the crowds that would grow if the football team starts winning.

The players take pride in playing with the Maryland jerseys on their backs; it’s theirs.

“You take more pride in things that belong to you and that you have claim to,” Davis said. “And this state helped raise me and helped make the man I am today. So, every time I go out there on the field, I don’t want to disrespect the name, I don’t want to disrespect the state.

“The pride that comes with putting on the jersey, for me, is very significant.”

It’s that pride that Durkin is trying to tap into and meld into a powerhouse of a football team built on the back of local stars, reminiscent of what the University of Miami created in the 1980s.

To me, that’s my vision for the program. We have a bunch of guys, a large percentage of our team that are from right here, a three-hour radius from where we’re sitting right now and their coaches, their family, their friends, people that don’t really know them but say they know them, they’re all in our stands because now you have a personal attachment to that game.

You’re a better fan. You’re a fan that sits there for the whole game, doesn’t leave at halftime. You’re a fan that genuinely cares about what’s going on. I want to build like this is our community. That’s our stadium. And I mean ours, I mean our community around here. That’s the whole vision.

Wojahn has often spoken about his goal of making College Park into a top-tier college town since he joined the City Council in December 2007. Maryland’s campus and the construction around it are significant steps toward making that goal a reality. Maryland building a team around players from the community is yet another step in the right direction.

“Certainly, having local players, having people know the players, know the community that they came from, that all helps contribute to the sense that this is our team,” Wojahn said.

‘You’ve set yourself up forever’

Part of coaching student-athletes is understanding that there’s more to life than football. One day, every person on that field will stop playing football. Then what?

One of Durkin’s main focuses since his arrival in December 2015 has been what he calls “Real Life Wednesdays”. Each Wednesday’s team meeting features a guest speaker who personifies at least one of the team’s core values, which put a premium on preparing for life after football.

“It really just forces you to put your life into perspective and really think about the opportunity that you have,” Davis said. “And take full advantage of it and not leave here without taking full advantage of your opportunity.”

That opportunity includes being able to put on for his hometown with his family, friends, coaches and mentors in the stands. Playing in front of people who know you know isn’t only comforting; it’s fun. Before you even do anything great, you have your own personal fan base that will grow with every tackle, touchdown or pancake block.

“You have a bunch of people that knew you and supported you, wrote about you, talked about you as a high school athlete,” Durkin said. “Now you come here as a college athlete and you go make a name for yourself. Now all of a sudden, you have a brand. You wanna go open a business one day or something else, you can do it right here because you’re a hometown hero. You’re a guy that came from here, that stayed here, did well here, it’s a no-brainer. You’ve set yourself up forever.”

Take someone like Stefon Diggs, Greivis Vasquez or even Scott Van Pelt, who makes a living talking about sports rather than playing them. They’re all from Maryland, went to Maryland, made names for themselves and now receive raucous attention whenever they step foot on campus. That’s what being a hometown hero is like. That’s what these kids can do at Maryland.

Even better, they can do it with their friends and teammates from high school.

‘The lifeblood of the program’

Everything comes back to recruiting. The team can’t get better without having good players. That’s why everything the football program does has something to do with recruiting. The new Cole Field House facility is supposed to be one of the premier football facilities in the country. Durkin has a say on what goes on every wall.

“Every decision we make in the program has something to do with recruiting. It really, really does. That is the lifeblood of the program,” Durkin said. “I can sit here and tell you what a great coach I am. If I’m coaching a bunch of guys that can’t play, it doesn’t matter, I’m a really bad coach.”

The future looks good. Austin Fontaine and Evan Gregory, two four-star recruits from DeMatha, are committed for the Class of 2018, as are three other three-star recruits who live in that three-hour radius Durkin talked about. Fontaine is sold on the atmosphere surrounding the program.

“Just the environment they make it,” Fontaine told Testudo Times in April. “It’s a great environment to be in. It’s like a family environment. It’s always competitive and you’re always only going to get better, so it’s good.”

Ultimately, it’s all about that state pride. Davis was born in Maryland, played high school football in Maryland, and now represents his state on the big stage. He wants that jersey on his back and that Maryland nameplate across his chest.

“It means a lot to me,” he said. “It means a lot to my teammates from this area. It’s ours.”