COLUMBUS, Ohio — For Zach Smith, the long hours, the sleepless nights, the minuscule pay — they were all worth it.
Serving as a graduate assistant at the height of the Urban Meyer era at Florida, the now-Ohio State wide receivers coach knew he was placing his career on a one-way path to success.
“It’s not easy. Most people probably wouldn’t want to do it or survive it,” Smith said of his time as a Gators G.A. from 2008-09. “But you learn how to be a coach at the highest, highest level. It’s legitimately like winning the lottery.
“If you get the opportunity, it’s like, ‘Wow, I better take advantage of this.’ ”
On Saturday, Smith will see the standard that’s been set when it comes to the select few who have had such opportunity. The goal isn’t to be next to the three-time national champion head coach on the sideline, but across from him.
A decade-and-a-half after signing on as a G.A. at Bowling Green, that’s where D.J. Durkin will be when the first-year Maryland head coach welcomes the Buckeyes — and his former boss — to College Park for a 3:30 p.m. ET kick.
Unlike what Smith did during his time in Gainesville, Durkin had little clue at the time that his first job would wind up being one of his most important.
At Bowling Green, where Durkin played linebacker from 1997-2000 and served as a two-time captain, such an idea probably seemed unfathomable. Yet following his senior season — in which the Falcons compiled a 2-9 record and fired head coach Gary Blackney— the Youngstown, Ohio, native wanted to stay onboard to get a jump-start on his coaching career.
Before doing so, he’d first have to get the blessing of a 36-year-old first-year head coach.
“I was recommended by one of the coaches that was still on staff,” Durkin said. “[Meyer] brought me in and interviewed me. I think I met with him two or three times — maybe even a couple of more before I was given the job — but it all worked out.”
Although Meyer was a relative unknown in the coaching ranks, his most notable previous experience having come as the wide receivers coach at Notre Dame, it didn’t take long for Durkin to see he was a part of something special as Bowling Green enjoyed a 17-6 record from 2001-02.
“It was hard work, [but] it was very enjoyable,” said Durkin. “I learned a lot from it. A lot of things I learned then are still things that are a major part of my philosophy and what I believe in today.”
Meyer saw enough in the then-23-year-old Durkin to put an uncommon amount of trust in an assistant who wasn’t even one of the primary members of the Falcons staff.
“I immediately gave him full-time responsibility after about the first few weeks we were together,” Meyer recalls.
Meyer wanted to hire Durkin on a full-time basis — “that’s how good he was,” he says — before leaving Bowling Green to become the head coach at Utah in 2003. After two additional years as a G.A. at Notre Dame, Durkin returned to his alma mater as a defensive ends coach under Meyer’s former offensive coordinator, Gregg Brandon.
It didn’t take long for Durkin to ascend one of college football’s fastest rising assistants, with Jim Harbaugh hiring him as a part of his first Stanford staff in 2007. Meyer, meanwhile, had just won his first national title at Florida and was about to win another, in the process becoming one of the country’s most prominent head coaches.
The two would reunite in 2010, with Durkin joining the Gators staff as a linebackers/special teams coach following the departure of Charlie Strong. While the reunion would only last one season before Meyer’s one-year hiatus from coaching, it proved fruitful from at least one standpoint.
In Meyer’s final class in Gainesville, Durkin solidified his status as one of the nation’s top assistants on the recruiting trail, leading the charge in luring the nation’s top-ranked offensive tackle, D.J. Humphries, to Gainesville.
His ascent would only continue, first as the defensive coordinator at Florida (2013-14) and then in the same role with Harbaugh at Michigan. Given the training he received under Meyer, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that his strength as a recruiter was one of the primary reasons Maryland quickly moved to hire him last winter.
In less than a year on the job, Durkin’s potential as a head coach has become apparent. Not only have the Terrapins’ already eclipsed their win total from a season ago at 5-4 on the year, but Maryland currently possesses the nation’s 14th-ranked class for 2017.
Only two Big Ten coaches can claim a higher ranking for the current recruiting cycle. And they each used to be Durkin’s boss.
“I’m not surprised,” Durkin said of his early success on the recruiting trail. “There’s a lot of reasons Maryland is great and will be great.”
Coming off a 59-3 loss to one ex-boss in Harbaugh and preparing to face another in Meyer, Durkin finds himself in between two speed bumps of sorts on his team’s schedule. But with just one more win, the Terrapins will become bowl eligible — no small feat in the top-heavy Big Ten East.
“People understand where we’re at as a program,” Durkin said. “We’re building. There’s a lot of things pointing up.”
For Maryland, the same line of logic applies to its head coach.
Given the lottery he hit 15 years ago, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.