COLLEGE PARK — As he made his way around the ballroom at the Adele H. Stamp Student Union on a recent Saturday afternoon, DJ Durkin looked more like a seasoned, popular politician speaking to his constituency than a second-year coach trying to rebuild the Maryland football program.
About 500 fans had come to eat crabs and talk to Durkin about his Terps, who will open the 2017 season Sept. 2 at Texas. As important as it is for Durkin to recruit players, which he has done exceedingly well to date, it is also crucial for him to fire up what has historically been a fickle, and often apathetic, fan base.
Durkin, who at age 39 still exudes a boyish charm that belies his rapidly graying hair, worked the room with the same focus that that he had shown on the sidelines at Maryland Stadium during an open scrimmage earlier that day. While seemingly more relaxed with the fans, there was still a purpose to Durkin's appearance.
Put it this way: Durkin didn't crack open a single hardshell during the two-hour lunch.
"I think the main goal when you go to an event like that is for the personal interaction with our players and our coaching staff," Durkin said Friday. "There's a lot of great people involved in our program and anytime you can have a personal connection with someone, there's a stronger sense of support and that they will want to help."
If last season was the proverbial honeymoon most coaches receive in their first year, especially when the team starts 4-0 and reaches a bowl game despite a brutal stretch when crushed by a trio of Big Ten powers, this season will be a crucible of sorts.
Not for Durkin's young team — which is expected to be more competitive, but faces the most difficult schedule in the league and one of the toughest in the Football Bowl Subdivision — but for the fans. Will the fans continue to support Durkin and his team amid the program's anticipated growing pains?
Ben Page, a 2001 graduate from Thurmont who has remained as hardcore a fan as he was when he was in college, is hopeful. He said he believes Durkin's confident and contagious personality will keep most fans positive no matter the outcome on the field. .
Maryland averaged 39,615 at home in Durkin's first season — around 12,000 under capacity — which ranked 12th among the 14 Big Ten teams.
"Obviously the energy is extremely attractive," said Page, who is organizing a group of about 60 Maryland fans going to Texas for the opener. "I think the people are tuned behind a horse they know can run, and now we want to see how fast it can run."
Said longtime Terps booster Rick Jaklitsch, who earned both his undergraduate and law degrees at Maryland in the early 1980s, "I think the whole fan base is thrilled with DJ. He's done everything right. Recruiting, just the tone he sets, his approachability, the players love him."
Added Jaklitsch with a tinge of well-developed cynicism, "If DJ can't make it here, no one will be successful."
Durkin, who has coached in college-football meccas such as Gainesville, Fla., and Ann Arbor, Mich., said Maryland is no different in some ways.
"You talk about how large a population it is, it really has a small-town feel to me in terms of the football community and recruiting," he said. "You can connect all the dots; it's amazing. All these parents know one another, who they went to school with, their cousin or uncle or brother, whatever it might be. We've really worked hard to entrench ourselves in this area with the coaching staff."
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Like many college programs located in an urban market dominated by professional sports teams, Maryland has never been able to sustain, or even build, a passionate fan base in football. The interest tends to grow when the team is winning.
It happened during the three straight years Maryland won the Atlantic Coast Conference under Bobby Ross, culminating with a then-record average attendance of 49,385 at Byrd Stadium in 1985.
It happened again when the Terps, after more than a decade of mostly losing under a succession of coaches, won the ACC in 2001 in Ralph Friedgen's first season to start a three-year run when Maryland went 31-8. A byproduct of that hot start was an average at home games of 49,393 in 2006.
Four years later, despite a 9-4 record in what turned out to be Friedgen's last season, attendance had dropped to 39,210 in what had become a 54,000-seat stadium.
While attendance eventually improved under Randy Edsall, much of the increase had more to do with the Terps moving to the Big Ten and drawing teams such as Ohio State and Michigan, which brought thousands of their own fans. Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson said he believes Durkin could relight the flame.
"I was immediately impressed with DJ's energy. When I talked to him, he was very enthusiastic," Anderson said Thursday. "He has a passion, not only for football but for life. The thing that comes across with all our fans is how genuine he is."
Kevin Hornbeak, a 2003 Maryland graduate who lives in Darnestown, has witnessed that trait at several events where Durkin is the featured guest.
"He's exactly the same person at every single event," Hornbeak said. "He treats the fan that sits in the 300 section the same as the high-level donors. He's a very busy man, so you can't take up too much of his time, but when he's with you, he's 100 percent with you and then — boom — he's off to do his next thing."
Hornbeak was struck by how normal Durkin seemed when their paths crossed at a Terps on Tour function at Dave & Busters in Silver Spring in June.
"My kids are playing on the little Mario kart and his kids are there and we're laughing. He was just like another dad playing with the kids," Hornbeak said. "He treats people with respect, honesty; he isn't just slapping you on the back, telling you what you want to hear. As a fan, you know he's busting his butt and recruiting."
Said Durkin, "We are — I am excited about everything we do. When you talk to them [the fans], you talk about what they do, where they work. That works way better than trying to sell something to someone. I think there is a great amount of excitement about the program. All we're trying to do is spread the good word out there and get people to feel the same way we do."
Page, who is trying to form a fan group called "Durkin's Disciples," acknowledged that whoever replaced Edsall would have been able to get better support.
"You could have put a puppy in front of us and we would have followed it," Page said.
Still, how Durkin's personality translates into attracting fans — as well as donations to the program — will eventually be based on results.
According to an athletic department spokesman, donations from members of the Champions Club — who commit at least $25,000 annually for three years — are up more than 33 percent from last year. At the recent crab feast, which was for fans who donate at least $5,500 annually, attendance was up 150 from last year.
Around 2,000 Maryland fans are expected to go to Austin, according to an athletic department spokesman.
Jaklitsch said that fans are more excited under Durkin than they were under Edsall largely because of the uptick in recruiting.
"They see the commitment staff-wide to recruiting," Jaklitsch said. "Under Randy, you had [Mike] Locksley was the recruiter. Under DJ, they're all recruiters. You see the difference in what he's bringing into the university. With [the reopening of] Cole, that's just going to explode what he's able to do."
Said Anderson, "His staff is mostly just like him. It starts with the top and I think it's so infectious. What you see is what we're getting now."