It's been a little more than two months since Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson stood at a podium in Gossett Team House and introduced DJ Durkin as the Terrapins' new head football coach. It's been about a week since Durkin announced his first Maryland recruiting class, and it's more than half a year before Durkin's first game at Maryland.
Yet Durkin seems remarkably settled in. His office overlooking Maryland Stadium is neatly organized but hardly bare. He exudes optimism, whether he's discussing his family's new life here or his football program's work on either the field or the recruiting trail. He sounds most confident when he's selling his new program.
On Wednesday, we were able to join Durkin for 15 minutes in his office. Here's our conversation about his first 10 weeks at Maryland and beyond, lightly edited for clarity. You can also listen in full:
Testudo Times: It's been about two months. How are you feeling and kind of getting settled in? I know it's a big thing when you go to a job like this.
DJ Durkin: Yeah, it's been great. It becomes one of those things, you kind of become a little bit of a pro at it. You move around a little bit in coaching, and the hardest part is moving your family. Because usually, as a coach, you come right in, you start working. You're full speed ahead and kind of don't really notice the difference. You're working. A lot of that falls on your family, but it's been great for my family. My wife and kids love it here, and everything's gone smoothly. My daughter likes her new school, so the transition's been great.
Testudo Times: I was going to say. You've been able to find schools and find a place to live and all those little things?
Durkin: We haven't totally settled where we're living. We're renting a place right now as we look, but yeah. My daughter's in school. We're in the area. My family's all here, living close by, and it's been great.
TT: That's great. And I know you get here, and you have basically two months until Signing Day. I'm curious what it was like cramming that process, at least for Maryland, into two months after being somewhere else for the last year.
Durkin: The hardest part in recruiting, it's about building relationships. I'm the type of recruiter that kind of stays on it and consistent and relentless about it, and just keeps going. But when you shrink that time down, it's hard to do that. Relationships are built, and you may be able to recruit a certain player, but you don't know everything, or the mom, the dad, the aunt, the grandmother – whoever all is involved, and everyone has different involvement, where if you get a full year you get an evaluation of that whole picture. And the best recruiters can identify things and say, "OK, he's the most important piece here," and they can recruit to someone else. It's circled back in the end, because that's who that guy's leaning on to make his decision.
When you're shrunk down to this much time, it's hard to even figure that whole puzzle out, let alone effectively recruit to that puzzle. It's not the first time I've been up against that. I've been at a couple different programs now where we took over. And you take over in the winter; that's just the timetable when things happen. And you've just gotta do it and do the best you can. You're going to get the guys you're supposed to get, and there may be some guys in a normal year you would've gotten that you're not gonna get. You can't sit there and worry about it. You just live with it, and you keep going.
Durkin sits with his family at his introductory press conference in December. (Sung-Min Kim/Testudo Times)
TT: You've been at other programs – Stanford, Michigan and Florida – that are pretty established recruiting powers when it comes to college football. How was it different recruiting on behalf of Maryland, which isn't traditionally quite at that level just yet, compared to those other schools you've been at in the past?
Durkin: I don't think there's any difference in terms of how you recruit or what you're doing. We're probably more regional recruiting, just how we outline things. We have a great area right here in the DMV, so obviously we're going to spend a lot of our time right there. Some of those other places you mentioned: Stanford is definitely a more national recruiting base. You just look at their roster, and there's guys from a lot of different places. But I don't think it changes how you recruit, other than specific strategy of what areas we're going to go into. But a good recruiter can be effective in any place. You target guys you're going after: "Here's the product we have to sell." And we have an unbelievable product here to sell. You just have an awareness of that and recruiting to it.
TT: We mention your name a lot with Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer, because you've worked with them before. And now you're recruiting against them in the same division. What's that been like?
Durkin: Those guys are really good at what they do. They're good recruiters. They have good programs to sell as well. But I think we have enough differences in our program that are positive differences. You just look at where we're located in terms of what that can provide, in lifelong job opportunities, being where we are. Two major cities, probably the most powerful city in the world is less than 10 miles from our campus. That makes us unique to any other program, let alone the couple you just mentioned. I think, again, recruiting in this area, the pride that people want to stay at home and play for the hometown team, represent their hometown, play in front of their families, their people. We have ways that we're unique and different from those programs you've mentioned, as well as any others. That's what we recruit to and spend our time selling ourselves. There's a ton to sell here about Maryland, and that's what we focus on.
TT: Turning to the job, now that you have it here: You came here with Michigan last year and beat Maryland pretty handily. When you were here last year coaching on the other side, what'd you see on that visit – if there was anything – that made you think, "I can coach this team. I can do this job"?
Durkin: To tell you the truth, I didn't think about it. It wasn't like a thought on my mind. I was just focused on our gameplan, what we were doing that game. When you take road trips with a football team, it's weird. You go right from the airport and bus right to a hotel. You get in the hotel, you have meetings. You're eating, meetings, all that. You're in the hotel room. Next time you leave the hotel room, you're hopping back on a bus and going right to a stadium, going to play a game. You get right back on the bus, go right to the airport and fly out. When you go to a place, you really don't see anything other than the hotel and the stadium. Number one, my thoughts weren't even thinking that way. Number two, it's such a minimal thing – I had the experience of being in this stadium, and obviously the circumstances of that weekend were crazy. There was a hurricane in the area, they moved the game time up and there was a lot of different things going on. So, long story short, it really didn't cross my mind at all."
(Sung-Min Kim/Testudo Times)
TT: Then, when you first made contact with Maryland and considered this job, what was it, if there was one thing about coming to Maryland, that made you think you wanted to do this?
Durkin: From the outside looking in, before you even invest time and start figuring more things out, I said to myself, "This is a place with an unbelievable recruiting base," which, to me, you've always got to look at a job and say, "OK, where am I gonna get my players from?" And if you have a base in your area, in a 50-, 100-mile radius of your own campus, it's going to produce players every year, to me that's a huge bonus. Because that is not the case everywhere. We have that here. Obviously our relationship with Under Armour, I think, makes us kind of a national brand, a very recognizable program and team that was like, to me, "If we can get this thing going, get it turned around and start winning, it'll explode. It'll be a monster." I believe that more today than I did two, three months ago. But that was my initial thought: "This is something I really want to look into and investigate."
TT: Has there been anything since you got here that's been either distinctly easier or harder than you thought it would be in the first two months?
Durkin: I don't know; that's a tough one to answer. I came in with expectations. It's a hard job at any program, here or anywhere. When you come in as a coach and want to take over a program, change the entire culture of a building, of a team, of a program, it's a daunting task. To me, it's an enjoyable one. I haven't sat there and weighed it out, like "I thought this was going to be easier or harder." I was "ankles taped, mouthpieces in, let's go attack it." It's been very enjoyable. I really believe that the staff we've assembled has been awesome, and they've been very helpful along the way. They've made a lot of things go smoother than probably it would've otherwise. But it's been fun. We've got a lot of work to do. We're getting involved with our players now and our workouts and all that. But it's been going good, and every day, it's a new challenge. You keep going after it.
TT: You mentioned your staff, and you hired so many head coaches from the past. Has that made it easier, to have guys who have had a similar job to the one you have now, right next to you here?
Durkin: Yeah, definitely. They're good guys to lean on and go to for advice, and they can speak from experience. This is something I've been preparing for almost my whole career. Man, I've thought about this forever. But you still don't know until you actually start doing this job what all it actually entails. And so it's good to have guys on staff that actually understand that, too, that have been there before, done that and can have a sense of, a feeling of what you're going through. "OK, here's how you make big-picture decisions." When guys are looking [straight ahead], that's what they see because they're a position coach. But all of a sudden now, you make a decision, it affects all these other people. So you've got to think all that through and make decisions accordingly, and having guys that understand that and have done that before – that's a huge benefit.
TT: On the other side, Walt Bell: We didn't know him like we knew Scott Shafer and Mike London and some of those folks. What's it been like, and what did you see in him to bring in an offensive coordinator who's young and energetic from a Sun Belt program? What was that process like?
Durkin: That was a very important hire for me, the offensive coordinator. I've had all my background as a defensive coordinator, a special teams coordinator. I feel good in both those areas about what we're going to do and how we're going to be, so that was a huge hire. I talked to a lot of people, spent a lot of time – as well as with Walt, and it was easy to tell, sitting with him. The guy has unbelievable confidence, and not arrogance. Confidence. And he's backed it up with what he's done and how he's called games and coached. You talk to any person who's ever worked with him or he's worked for, and it checks out with flying colors.
The No. 1 thing that probably drew me to him after sitting down and spending time with him was that he can adapt to his personnel. You look at where he's been, from one year to the next, they've been very different. It's not just, "Hey, this is our system, this is what we're going to run." You come to Maryland, maybe we don't have the guys to run that certain system. Then what do we do? I think you see that across the country every year in college football. It's like, maybe one coach was somewhere and he was really good, and then he goes somewhere else, a certain player graduates, and then the next year it's high production to almost-can't-even-get-a-first-down the next year. Well, how does that happen? Why does that happen? I think you've got to be able to adapt as a coach. You're not always going to have the same guys. You can't just say, "This is what we run. This is our system."
Yeah, you have a set of beliefs and core values which you build around, but you've got to be able to adapt, and he has shown and definitely has the ability to do that. That was good to me, because coming into this, I still don't know our team as well as we're gonna need to know them. We're gonna identify what our strengths are, what are talents are, who the people are who need to be on the field. And we're gonna build what we do around them.
(Sung-Min Kim/Testudo Times)
TT: I know you said when you came that you've done evaluations of your players and that you shared them from when you were at Michigan. Have you felt like you've had the chance to dig into the roster as you have it, or have a sense of the guys who were already here, at least reasonably well – what their strengths and weaknesses are?
Durkin: That's a hard one to define: "reasonably well." It's getting better every day. No, I'm not in a comfort zone of, like, "I know what our team is." Absolutely not. That's an ongoing process. We can't practice with a football until we start spring ball March 8. We're evaluating, identifying, doing a lot of things in our workouts. I'm trying to find who the competitors are and the mentally tough guys and all that. In terms of football, that's something we won't know, really, until we get into spring practice.
TT: I know you worry a lot about building the program when you're recruiting. If there were one thing, or even a couple of things, you were going to tell Maryland fans after the last couple of years to be excited about with the 2016 Maryland Terrapins in particular, what do you think it will be about this team that you're most proud of or looking forward to?
Durkin: My thing is I want to build a blue-collar team, blue-collar program. OK, "blue collar," that's probably a term obviously thrown around before or whatever, so we kind of try to define what that is for us. "Blue collar" is we're going to be a team that plays with great effort. Whatever we do, we're going to do it with great effort. Lifting, we're on the field, we're practicing, academically, guys that give great effort to what they're doing, guys that are tough. Physically and mentally tough.
Guys that work like crazy and make ourselves a tougher football team, plays physical, mentally tough, competitive. That's the ultimate thing. Maybe we have some deficiencies on our roster. Maybe we have some areas where we're not as strong as an opponent we're playing or whatever else, but competitors find a way to rise up and somehow overcome whatever those deficiencies are and go find a way to win. We want to have a group of guys that are competitors, and the last thing, that do things right.
I want to have a team on the field that does things right, that operates by the rules and does things the right way and has respect for the game and what we're doing, and a team that does things right on and off the field. Those four areas are how we define "blue collar," and that's what our team's going to be made up of. That's an ongoing process. We're hammering that home every single day. How soon that happens, I don't know. It'll be how soon our guys decide they want to buy into what we're doing. But eventually, that's what we're going to be. That's the staff we have. That's what I wholeheartedly believe in. That's what we're going to be as a program.
TT: When your season starts, the first game here at the end of the summer against Howard, when you run out of the tunnel below us – You've mentioned before that you've thought a lot about being a head coach and wanting to get to this point – What do you think it will be like? What do you think will be going through your mind when you finally get to take the field with this team?
Durkin: I don't know. That's a good question. Obviously I'll be excited for that. I think football's one of those sports where if you count up all the practices, all the workouts, all that you do, the days you put into it for the amount of game opportunities you get, it's a very lopsided number. You look at basketball, baseball and how many games they play compared to how many practices. Football's one of those sports where you have to enjoy the grind, enjoy the hard work, enjoy what goes into it and really have an appreciation for it.
And then, on the flip side, man, you have to make the most of those opportunities. You're only guaranteed 12 of them, and if you do well with those 12, you might get a 13th or a 14th or whatever else it is. I'm hoping by that point, our guys, based on how hard we've worked and what's gone into it, coaches, players all alike, that we've sold out and invested everything we have, every ounce of everything we have to get to that point – to where, now, it'll be, "Let's go let loose and have some fun." That's how I want that to be.