ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Even as a student, D.J. Durkin was meticulous.
A math teacher in Boardman, Ohio, remembers how Durkin carried a three-ring binder divided into sections. Durkin’s notes for each of his classes were in one section. His homework assignments were in another section. A calendar that noted dates of quizzes and tests was in another section. A fourth section contained a list of academic and athletic goals.
Durkin was 12 years old, a seventh-grader in Jeff McLhinney’s class. What was apparent about Durkin even then was his attention to detail.
“He was never really satisfied with his grades,” McLhinney said of Durkin. “He always wanted to do better, and his focus to details and his organizational skills were apparent even when he was in the seventh grade.
“And he carried that on.”
More than 25 years later, Durkin’s attention to detail and preparation have helped elevate him to become head coach of the Maryland football team, his first FBS head coaching job. Michigan (8-0, 5-0), which is No. 3 in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings, hosts Maryland (5-3, 2-3) at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday.
Durkin will face one of the coaches who mentored him — Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. Durkin, 38, was Michigan’s defensive coordinator and linebackers coach in 2015, and was a special teams coordinator and defensive ends coach on Harbaugh’s Stanford staff from 2007 to 2009.
“I follow all the coaches that we worked with and pull for them when they’re not playing us,” Harbaugh said Monday. “Professionally, (it’s good) to see guys develop and reach their goals, especially when you know going in what their goals are. Because you ask them, you talk about it, and you want to see your friends have success and be good. He definitely has been at every job that he’s had.”
Back in Boardman, there is an entire community that witnessed and helped foster Durkin’s ascension in football, from player to coach.
“It’s pretty humbling when all the people, when you take a new job or on any given Saturday, the good lucks and congratulations on a win or whatever, all the people who reach out to you, that you know are following or thinking of you,” Durkin said. “It’s very humbling. I’ve been very fortunate to have a tremendous amount of support from family, friends and colleagues, and I’m thankful for that.”
A high-energy persona
Durkin’s intensity and his all-out approach to whatever he does is what stands out the most to others.
When Durkin was an assistant at Florida, he recruited Karan Higdon, who is now a running back at Michigan. Higdon saw that intensity when he went to football camps where Durkin coached, and even heard it during phone conversations with Durkin.
“He’s a great guy with great character and he definitely pushes his players,” Higdon said. “And I know we’re going to see an intense defense Saturday.”
When Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison met Durkin in 2003 at Notre Dame, he had one question about the graduate assistant: “Who’s that?”
“He was a really good player at Bowling Green,” several co-workers told Mattison, who at the time was Notre Dame’s defensive line coach.
It took about a week for Mattison to create a first impression of Durkin.
“Usually, when you bring a coach in you kind of know everybody, and he came walking in,” Mattison said. “I’ve never met this guy before, I don’t know anything about this guy. But he did a really good job.”
When they were reunited as co-workers in January 2015 — actually, as supervisor and subordinate, as Mattison became Harbaugh’s defensive line coach after four seasons as Brady Hoke’s defensive coordinator — there was no hostility. Mattison embraced being a part of Durkin’s defensive staff. Having success helped. Durkin oversaw the nation’s No. 4 defense (280.7 yards). Mattison coached one of the nation’s top defensive lines, which by the end of the 2015 season still had room for growth.
“He’s never been a climber, a guy who says ‘I gotta do this so I can go here or do that,’ ” Mattison said. “He’s always tried to do the best job that he could do with what he has and do it.
“I think that’s what great coaches do. They always look at the team first and they look at the players first and what can they do to help them be successful. That’s why you coach, and D.J.’s done that.”
Another side of Durkin
Durkin’s classmates, teammates, friends and teachers in Boardman didn’t just see a student who was diligent, or a teammate who had boundless intensity.
They saw a student who cared about his school’s community and who actively involved himself in things that were outside the realm of being a jock. If Durkin was involved in a community service project, he found people who would be good at certain roles and tasks.
When Durkin helped coach at youth football clinics, he took time to talk to the younger players, to include them, and to communicate their individual value to a team.
“He was always surrounding himself with people who weren’t necessarily in his athletic group,” McLhinney said. “He was a quiet leader, but when D.J. wanted to do something, he always found people who wanted to do something with him.”
A Washington Post story about Durkin working summers in high school for a local concrete company in Youngstown has become something of a legend in Boardman. The owner of that concrete company was Jim Pallante, whose brother, Dan, is Maryland’s assistant director of football operations. (Dan Pallante’s son, Brady, played football at Michigan in 2014 and 2015.)
“That story just speaks to the questions about D.J.’s work ethic, even at 16 years old,” said Joe Ignazio, Boardman High School’s athletic director and Durkin’s former high school football teammate. “He took jobs where his hands would bleed and he would be blistered, but then he went to football practice, and then went back to his job the next day, and worked like he had done the job for 20 years.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise that so many of Durkin’s habits and patterns as a student are now applicable at the college level. But it wasn’t until Durkin’s sophomore year at Bowling Green that McLhinney had a conversation with Durkin’s father at a Boardman High track meet.
“You and Dan Pallante must have had some sort of influence on him,” Durkin’s father, Dan, told McLhinney. “Now, he wants to go into coaching.”
And so began Durkin’s path.
|Bowling Green||2001-2002||Graduate assistant|
|Notre Dame||2003-2004||Graduate assistant|
|Bowling Green||2005-2006||Defensive ends coach, special teams coordinator, |
|Stanford||2007-2009||Defensive ends coach, special teams coordinator|
|Florida||2010-2014||Special teams coordinator, linebackers coach, |
defensive coordinator, interim head coach
|Michigan||2015||Defensive coordinator/linebackers coach|
A continuing path
Durkin is now in College Park, Md., a far cry from college football hotbeds like Gainesville, South Bend or Ann Arbor.
Still, many have made the 5 1/2-hour drive from Boardman to the gridlock of the Washington, D.C., suburbs to see Durkin coach at Maryland, including McLhinney, whose son lives in Maryland. The McLhinneys were on hand for Maryland’s 28-17 upset of Michigan State on Oct. 22, yet won’t be in Ann Arbor this weekend, as the family will attend a wedding.
However, Ignazio expects many people from the Youngstown area to make the 4-hour drive this weekend to Ann Arbor.
“That,” Ignazio said, “speaks to the relationships that D.J. still holds close.”