DJ Durkin came to Maryland nearly three years ago as a relative unknown, an up-and-coming assistant who had worked for two of college football’s biggest-name coaches in Jim Harbaugh at Michigan and Stanford, as well as Urban Meyer at Florida.
Durkin, 40, will be departing College Park without having coached a game during the 2018 season, trying to restart his once-promising career after his image took a significant beating the past five months in the wake of player Jordan McNair’s collapse and death of heatstroke and reports of a “toxic” football culture at Maryland.
One day after the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents announced its recommendation to reinstate Durkin immediately and put him back on the sideline for Saturday’s home game against Michigan State, university president Wallace Loh fired Durkin without cause Wednesday.
The decision by Loh, who said Tuesday that he would retire at the end of the 2018-2019 academic year next June, likely means that offensive coordinator Matt Canada will remain as the team’s interim coach for the remainder of the season.
Maryland (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten) is one win away from being bowl-eligible.
The termination of Durkin ends a tragic and tumultuous five-month stretch for the program that began when McNair, a former standout at McDonogh, fell ill during a team conditioning test May 29 and was not treated properly by athletic trainers, who failed to take his temperature or place the 6-foot-5, 346-pound lineman into a cold-water immersion bath. He was taken to a local hospital and then transported to the Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, where he died June 13.
A commission investigating the football program — initially hired by the university and later expanded by the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents — found “a culture where problems festered” but did not deem the environment “toxic.” In the roughly 200-page investigative report, obtained by The Baltimore Sun, commissioners stated that they did not find “that the culture caused the tragic death of Jordan McNair.”
According to a copy of his contract, Durkin will be owed $5.4 million for the final two years of what was initially a five-year deal.
Durkin compiled a 10-15 record at Maryland after coming to the school with the mandate of turning around the moribund program that had suffered three losing seasons in Randy Edsall’s five years — the last a 3-9 season when Edsall was fired midyear.
Durkin’s tenure began with what he thought was a perfect fit of his coaching style and the program itself.
"I really identify with this program," Durkin said at his introductory news conference. "I think this is a blue-collar place, a blue-collar university, a blue-collar program. I think we compete in one of the best divisions and best conferences in the country. I embrace competition, and I want to recruit guys who embrace that competition. To me, it's an easy sell."
After the Terps won his first four games in 2016, Maryland staggered to the finish but became bowl-eligible with a home win over Rutgers in the season finale. Maryland then lost to Boston College in the Quick Lane Bowl to finish 6-7.
The Terps were hampered by quarterback injuries in Durkin’s second season. Just as what seemed to befall both Edsall and Ralph Friedgen, Durkin lost his top two quarterbacks, Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill, in the first three games in 2017.
Pigrome tore his ACL in a season-opening road win at then-No. 23 Texas, and Hill suffered the same fate two games later in a home loss to Central Florida. After third-stringer Max Bortenschlager led the Terps to a road win at Minnesota to push their record to 3-1, Maryland lost seven of its last eight games.
The Terps finished the season with a 66-3 loss at home to then-No. 10 Penn State, a performance that left Durkin visibly upset with the way his team appeared to give up.
"A season of adversity got to us, and it wasn't our best effort put forth," Durkin said that afternoon. "Obviously, you lose two quarterbacks in the first nine quarters of the season and you can ride emotion a little bit. We rode that when we went to Minnesota, but it just wore on us and we slowly deteriorated."
It turned out to be the last Maryland game Durkin ever coached.
Here’s a brief look back at Durkin’s tenure and what’s ahead for the football team:
Aside from starting his first season with four straight wins, and then making a bowl game, the single-game highlight has to be Maryland’s 51-41 victory over then-No. 23 Texas in Austin to open the 2017 season.
Despite losing a big first-half lead and then Pigrome early in the fourth quarter, the Terps held on behind the late-game heroics of Hill, who was playing in his first college game.
When the Terps returned to College Park, they resurrected a tradition that began with Friedgen to put up a tombstone in the corner of the practice area commemorating the win over a Top 25 team.
Along with the 63-point defeat to the Nittany Lions to close the 2017 season, there were also the back-to-back losses at No. 2 Michigan (59-3) and at home to No. 6 Ohio State (62-3) in 2016 that were the worst back-to-back defeats for a Maryland team since its inaugural season of football in 1892, when the team lost its first two games to St. John’s of Annapolis and Johns Hopkins by a combined score of 112-0.
The Terps followed the losses to the Wolverines and Buckeyes with a 28-7 road loss at Nebraska before clinching bowl eligibility in the last game of the season with a 31-13 home win over Rutgers.
While Durkin will be remembered mostly for the end of his short tenure at Maryland, beginning with the death of McNair, he also showed that some of the best local players are willing to stay close to home.
With the exception of seniors starters such as Ty Johnson, Jessie Aniebonam, Darnell Savage Jr. and graduate Taivon Jacobs, every player who has made an impact this season was recruited by Durkin and his staff.
It will be interesting to see whether Canada or whoever gets hired to the permanent position can be as successful as Durkin was in recruiting local talent.
After Saturday’s game against Michigan State, the Terps will play a road game at Indiana, then a home game with Ohio State and a road trip to close the season at Penn State.
There’s a good chance that Maryland, which goes into the game against the Spartans as 3-point underdogs, will not be favored in any of the remaining games.
Right now, bowl projections have the Terps either headed back to the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit, where they lost to Boston College in 2016, or to the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.
Who’s the next coach?
Canada, 46, could go a long way into securing a long-term deal with two more victories in the last four games, which will be difficult.
Considering the turmoil both that led to Durkin’s firing, as well as being in what is one of college football’s toughest divisions, the list of candidates might not be very long for athletic director Damon Evans and Loh to consider.
One obvious and familiar name to Maryland fans is Mike Locksley, a former assistant under Friedgen and offensive coordinator under Edsall who took over when Edsall was fired during the 2015 season. Locksley is the offensive coordinator at No. 1 Alabama.