COLLEGE PARK — When Pete Lembo first met DJ Durkin last June at a Michigan camp, he was taken with Jim Harbaugh's young defensive coordinator. Lembo, then the coach at Ball State, wouldn't have batted an eye if he had just spent the whole day with Harbaugh, spoke to the campers and then gone on his way.
But Durkin was interested in Lembo, and the two hit it off, with Lembo saying he felt like Durkin knew him already. It left a deep impression.
Six months later, Durkin called Lembo to join his staff at Maryland. It was an interesting proposal for a coach to leave one program to become an assistant at another — Lembo had just finished his 15th season as a head coach and though Ball State had struggled recently, Lembo won 19 games over two seasons earlier in his tenure — but Lembo listened.
And because of the seeds of a relationship that were sowed in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the summer, Lembo accepted a job as assistant head coach and special teams coordinator with the Terps.
"Wow, this is really intriguing," Lembo recalled telling his wife Tuesday. "I really think this is a genuine guy who is down to earth who would value my role, and I think I could make a meaningful contribution if this were to all work out."
Lembo was the third former head coach to join Durkin's staff after defensive coordinator Scott Shafer, the former Syracuse coach, and associate head coach and defensive line coach Mike London, who coached Virginia for six seasons, when he took the job in December. And he brings a unique background to a job that he called "the perfect opportunity at the perfect time."
While London and Shafer coached at programs in the ACC, one of the "Power Five" conferences, Lembo bided his time at the lower rungs of the profession. His first two jobs were at Lehigh and Elon, two Football Championship Subdivision teams, before he moved on to Ball State in the Mid-American Conference, one of the Group of Five conferences.
So Lembo comes to College Park with a unique background. Schools at the FCS level have smaller staffs — Durkin has nine full-time assistants at Maryland — so though Lembo was a head coach, he also coached tight ends and worked with special teams. The resume of Maryland's new special teams coordinator doesn't specifically say "special teams," but the experience is there.
"The head coach is typically coaching a position, and while I've been very involved with offense, I've never coordinated the offense," Lembo said. "I've never been the primary play-caller. So special teams has always sort of been my outlet as a head coach where I've been more hands on."
It doesn't hurt that Durkin coached special teams at Florida, Stanford, and Bowling Green.
"To work under a coach that believes in the importance of special teams, that was another big selling point to me," Lembo said. "To take this job and to be in an environment where special teams is just a sideshow, I don't know if that would have excited me as much. But DJ has been a special teams coordinator before, and he knows how involved I've been in special teams as a head coach, so I think that's going to be a terrific part of the situation as well."
As assistant head coach, Lembo — who will also coach tight ends — will act as a "consultant" to Durkin on the aspects of the program, while also helping offensive coordinator Walt Bell with his unit. Lembo said the system Bell is bringing from Arkansas State is similar to the one he's developed over his career.
More than anything, Lembo wants to be a resource for Durkin, Bell, and the rest of the coaching staff. The decision to leave Ball State for a job as a coordinator was a risk — "Obviously, this is a big move for the Lembo family," he said — but it was one he felt he was ready to take.
The bonds created during Lembo's brief meeting with Durkin back in June stayed with him and played a significant role in his decision to take the job.
"I've been a small school guy who's had to work his way up through the ranks," Lembo said. "I've had to earn it every step along the way. I'm the son of a New York City police officer, so very much like Coach Durkin, I'm a blue-collar guy. I was the first in my family to go away to school, and all the way along the line, it's been, 'You can't do this and you can't do that.' I've been trying to prove people wrong."