WASHINGTON — DJ Durkin has been Maryland's football coach for a shade more than six months, and in that time on the job — which he had been waiting a "long, long time for," he said when he was hired in December — he's worked to put his stamp on a program that went 3-9 last season. Durkin has preached relentless toughness, energy and intensity to his team on the field, and his players have responded for an easy transition to the first-time head coach.
But at the National Zoo in Washington on Thursday night as part of the annual Maryland Pride tour, Durkin was holding court in a far different space than usual. Instead of the locker rooms or Glazer Auditorium in Gossett Team House, Durkin spoke next to an elephant exhibit as he continues to try to connect with the Maryland community and continue the excitement he's fostered since his hiring.
"We've had a tremendous amount of support, and just the way it's gone with the community and with our fan support, with recruiting, with the high schools and everything, it's been great," Durkin said. "It's been a great reception."
Durkin spoke to about 300 attendees with Maryland gymnastics coach Brett Nelligan, volleyball coach Steve Aird and wrestling coach Kerry McCoy. The coaches spoke of the importance of recruiting, especially with Maryland entering its third year in the Big Ten Conference.
The programs represented Thursday have experienced growing pains in the Big Ten with more national powers on the schedule and a host of adjustments. But for the coaches, the same refrain held true: Durkin and company are facing tough opponents, and that's what they want.
"You want to be part of the best competition at whatever you're doing," Durkin said. "That's what it's all about. You want to go recruit players that want to play against the best competition and be part of that."
Ethan Tabor of Greenbelt originally hails from Youngstown, Ohio — Durkin's hometown — and grew up as an Ohio State fan. He said he's excited about Durkin's energy and previous success as a defensive coordinator at Michigan and Florida as a "foundation" for the Maryland's future. But he also realizes the long odds the Terps faces in the Big Ten's East division, which features the Buckeyes and Wolverines, along with Michigan State.
"I have realistic expectations," Tabor said. "It'll take time [to] build a program here."
Spiro Kaldis of North Silver Spring said he's been going to Maryland football games since he was 4 years old. He also understands the uphill climb that the Terps face in their own division, much less the conference. But he feels something different around the program, and he said the prime example of that was how many people came out to meet Durkin.
"I haven't been this excited since Ralph Friedgen was hired," Kaldis said.
For Durkin, the night was a change of pace from the host of satellite camps he and his staff have attended and helped host this month. He fielded more offbeat questions — he's "a big fan of giraffes" while he thinks his coaching style is most similar to a gorilla or lion — in a different space. While he spoke to reporters, his wife, Sarah, and young children, Abigail and Luke, took in the elephant exhibit. The Durkin family has a membership to the National Zoo, and he said it's one of his children's favorite places.
Durkin has made significant in-roads on the recruiting trail since his hiring in December, and Maryland's Class of 2017 is ranked as a top-15 class by multiple recruiting services. He wants to turn Maryland into a place where it's not a surprise to compete with Ohio State and Michigan.
And while he has yet to set foot on the turf at Maryland Stadium for a regular season game, he communicated that to the fans and donors in attendance Thursday.
"Someone's got to give me a reason because I haven't found one and I've looked hard: What is a reason that Maryland, we can't be on top of that best competition on top of the Big Ten?" Durkin said while those in attendance applauded. "There's no reason."