"I want to recruit guys that embrace that competition. So, to me, it's an easy sell," said Maryland's new football coach DJ Durkin when asked about recruiting. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
DJ Durkin played his entire junior season of high school football with a shredded ligament in his left knee — and didn't even know it until he went in for an unrelated surgery and the doctor told him.
"It had just disintegrated. But he kept playing, never went down," recalled Durkin's father, Daniel. "He's always been very driven."
The younger Durkin, officially introduced Thursday as the University of Maryland's new football coach, can't tell you exactly how he inherited his absurd energy or his obliviousness to difficulty. He's just always been that way. And he believes that above all, a man must be himself as he puts a stamp on the world.
"My way is that I'm very straightforward and honest with people," he said at his introductory press conference, overlooking Byrd Stadium. "This entire building will be filled with high-energy people."
Maryland administrators and fans are counting on the 37-year-old Durkin to bring his brand of inspiration to a football program that fell on hard times in 2015. The Terrapins finished with a 3-9 record after athletic director Kevin Anderson fired coach Randy Edsall midway through the season.
Durkin signed a five-year, $12.5 million contract, starting at $2.4 million in the first season and elevating to $2.6 million, according to a source. The contract includes a rollover clause, adding a sixth year worth $2.65 million at the back end if Durkin stays for at least one full year.
You don't get far into talking to anyone who knows Durkin without the word energy coming up.
"I was just sitting here giggling," said his high school coach, Dan Pallante, who woke at 2:30 a.m. to fly up from Florida for Durkin's news conference. "Because that energy he was talking about, he had it as a 15-year-old boy."
Some of it comes from his dad, a hard-charging realtor who ran 14 marathons in his spare time. Some he draws from his proudly blue-collar upbringing in Youngstown, Ohio, where Durkin worked construction even as he starred on the field for the Boardman Spartans. Some he gleaned from Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh, the famously driven coaches for whom he worked as an assistant.
Almost all coaches preach enthusiasm and nonstop effort. But Durkin lives those concepts, said friends and mentors, and better yet, he's always had a gift for inspiring others to work at the same pace.
"You would see him go and do something and the feeling was, 'I got to get there,' " recalled Brandon Hicks, who played with Durkin at Bowling Green State University in northwest Ohio. "You really did not want to disappoint him. And then if you did something great, recovered a fumble or something, Durk was the first one there jumping on you to celebrate."
As an assistant, he's made his mark on some of the most storied programs in college football, from Notre Dame to Florida to Michigan, where he coached under Harbaugh this season.
Gary Blackney knows Durkin, whom he coached at Bowling Green, and he knows Maryland, where he served as an assistant coach under Ralph Friedgen. Blackney said the man and the program are a perfect match.
"He's going to find a way to win," Blackney said. "The first thing you have to do is lock down your borders and sign the best of the best from Baltimore, Washington and Virginia. I don't think there's any question DJ has a leg up because he's recruited for some of the biggest programs in the country. When he gets in a home, he's going to impress players and parents."
That takes Blackney back to his own experience recruiting Durkin. "You could just see the environment light up when he was around his mother and father," the retired coach recalled. "I always looked to see how a guy interacted with his family. If you saw that kind of love, you knew you were getting a good guy."
Durkin, whose initials stand for Daniel John, grew up the middle child of three in Boardman, a township within Youngstown described by one friend as blue-collar suburbia. Residents suffered as Youngstown's steel industry declined. But rather than depression, Durkin seemed to learn determination from the difficult climate.
"What a great area to learn what a blue-collar mentality means," he said. "What a great place to learn what it means to work hard."
In addition to his father's realty business, Durkin's mother, Marianne, worked for a local employment services office. Both parents recalled an exuberant child who excelled at baseball, basketball and football from an early age. Young DJ also accompanied his father on many an afternoon run.
Competition shaped the household — the mantra was no matter the drill, do your best.
"A lot of people in my family would say I was running a boot camp," Durkin's father said, his eyes crinkling in amusement.
Durkin's fitness level amazed teammates. Hicks recalled that if the other defensive linemen at Bowling Green could stay within 10 yards of Durkin in conditioning drills, they figured they were doing okay.
"It was crazy man, crazy," Hicks said, laughing. "As linemen, we figured we'd all be about the same level. But no, he was way, way ahead."
Football lived especially deep in the community. Durkin grew up a Cleveland Browns fan, and the team's star quarterback, Bernie Kosar, had also played at Boardman High.
Durkin and his wife Sarah have two kids, 5-year-old Abigail and 2-year-old Luke. Durkin joked Abigail is 5 going on 17. When he informed her he'd accepted the Maryland job, she replied, "It's about time you became a head coach."
Durkin's father remains an active booster at Boardman, more than a decade after his youngest daughter graduated. And the school's current coach, Joe Ignazio, said the younger Durkin faithfully checks Saturday morning to see if his alma mater won the night before. He has also returned home to speak to Ignazio's players.
"Bring the juice," he tells them, explaining his all-out approach to life.
The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Durkin became an undersized defensive end at Bowling Green, suffering through four consecutive losing seasons. In an odd bit of fortune that marks successful lives, Meyer, who'd grow into one of the great coaches in America, arrived at Bowling Green just as Durkin was about to graduate. He offered him a job as a graduate assistant.
A career in marketing?
Durkin had earned a degree in business and was contemplating a career in marketing. But attending one business conference convinced him that world seemed too phony, and he asked Meyer to give him the assistant job after all.
From Meyer and later Harbaugh, who first hired him at Stanford in 2007, he learned that winning should be an assumed state and that no moment should be wasted in pursuit of it.
"Urban is just a fireball," Durkin's father said. "And it's very much the same with Harbaugh. So I think DJ got a lot of that from them, a lot of that determination."
Harbaugh and Durkin were two peas in a pod, overjoyed to batter one another in pick-up basketball games and to attack every day with what Harbaugh once called "enthusiasm unknown to mankind."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh got to know Durkin through his brother and noted the similarities in their "hard-nosed" approached.
"DJ Durkin is special, and he's going to do a great job," he said.
Durkin gradually built his reputation at Notre Dame, Stanford and then Florida, where he became defensive coordinator. He also won his one and only game as an interim head coach last December.
"What he was able to do especially in that role in that time, which was hard on everybody, he held it together.," said current Florida coach Jim McElwain. "He'd come in and visit between practices, that kind of stuff, and you could tell, 'This guy's a real guy and a great coach,' obviously. But more than that, I think a real good person and a guy that really cares about his players."
Pallante's son, Brady, played for Michigan this year. And he described to his father the culture of perfectionism Harbaugh and Durkin instilled.
"Dad, it's what's expected," he said.
The elder Pallante could only chuckle at how similar the Durkin of today sounded to the high school kid who could run a road race with his dad, lift weights for football and play a prep basketball game, all in the same day.
"He never does stop," Brady Pallante would tell his father. "He really doesn't."