Is Marylandís DJ Durkin overly intense or just passionate? It depends on whom you ask.
At the end of 2015, DJ Durkin addressed the Maryland football team for the first time. Some players viewed him with skepticism, the natural reaction of hypercompetitive college athletes - who is this new guy, anyway? Standing before the players, pacing back and forth, Durkin chipped away at their doubt. He declared the Terrapins would become a great team under his watch if they bought into his vision. Players could sense his passion and intensity. They understood what the position meant to him.
"The guy worked his entire life to become a head coach, and he was going to do it to perfection," former Maryland defensive end Roman Braglio said. "This guy had really dedicated his life to football."
In less than two decades, Durkin rose from undersized defensive end at Bowling Green to Big Ten head coach. He built his coaching rťsumť on a consuming work ethic and renowned intensity, working under some of the most successful coaches of the era, until he signed a five-year, $12.5 million contract to revive Maryland. Born in Youngstown, Ohio, a small city referred to as the Cradle of Coaches for the number of high-profile coaches it has produced, Durkin established himself as one of the brightest young minds in football.
Over the past two months, Durkin, 40, has presided over tragedy and watched his rapid ascent unravel. The University of Maryland placed him on administrative leave Saturday, after an ESPN report described a "toxic" atmosphere that contributed to the June 13 death from external heatstroke of Jordan McNair. The 19-year-old offensive lineman collapsed during a May 29 workout. The job Durkin worked so obsessively toward and the career that had been pointed on an upward trajectory is in severe jeopardy.
University of Maryland president Wallace Loh announced Tuesday the school would investigate reports of abusive tactics used by Durkin and his staff. Regardless of what the school finds, Durkin was in charge of a program on the day a player suffered a death experts viewed as preventable.
Former players during Durkinís tenure as an assistant at Stanford, Florida and Michigan described Durkin as passionate, caring, demanding and devoted to football. Several former players interviewed for this story supported Durkin and credited him with helping not only their football careers, but their lives off the field. Others have indicated they perceived Durkin as overly intense, even as an assistant coach.
"Coach Durkin was a different guy," former Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers said Wednesday on "The Rich Eisen Show." "His tactics were different. It felt extreme at times. Iím just as shocked reading all the stuff thatís going on now, because I thought he was only like that because it was his first time coaching us.
"Itís just the way he goes about getting the most out of his players. Me being from where Iím from, I didnít like it, but at the end of the day I knew what the overall goal was. The way I would describe it, kind of like bully coaching. I donít think he meant anything by it, but itís kind of how it comes out."
Multiple players who played under Durkin during his first season at Maryland said they were shocked to read about allegations of a team culture rife with intimidation and humiliation. For them, the coach they called "Durk" brought infectious energy to his teams, quick to crack a smile or leap to bump bodies with players to celebrate a big play in practice.
"It was surprising, because abusive is a word I wouldnít connect to Durk," former Florida linebacker Michael Taylor said. "But we played high-level football. It is very demanding. He just wanted you to do things his way."
Durkin began his coaching career at Bowling Green in 2001, immediately after he ended his playing career. First-year head coach Urban Meyer hired him as a graduate assistant.
"I immediately gave him full-time responsibility after about the first few weeks we were together," Meyer said in 2016. Meyer wanted to hire Durkin on a permanent basis, and he might have had he not left Bowling Green for Utah. "Thatís how good he was," Meyer said.
After another stint as a graduate assistant at Notre Dame, Durkin joined Jim Harbaughís staff at Stanford in 2007. For three years, starting in his late 20s, Durkin coached defensive ends and ran special teams. Even as a young coach, Durkinís prowess managing special teams made his promise evident.
"Itís a football team within a football team," said Erik Lorig, a Stanford defensive end who would play six years in the NFL. "He ran special teams like it was a national football team. We were treated that way, and we had high expectations all the time. DJ was on his way up to be a football great, and to be a great football coach."
Lorig described Durkin as "inspiring" and meticulous, eager to review and critique every snap Lorig played, hunting for ways to improve even his best performances.
"He brought a level of intensity of you wanted," Lorig said. "I couldnít have asked for anyone better than him, based on what I wanted out of my college football experience. I went from a pretty obscure college football athlete who hadnít done anything profound to an NFL-caliber player who was dominant in the Pac-12 Conference and went on to a six-year NFL career. I would not have done that without DJ Durkin."
Under Harbaugh, Durkin burnished his reputation as a coach who pushed his competitiveness to the edge, even away from football. He and Harbaugh played brutal one-on-one basketball games, high on physicality, low on skill. "There was no fouls being called, and there was a lot of blood on the court," Durkin once said on a radio interview.
"His pregame speeches are some of the best Iíve ever heard," former Redskins linebacker Trent Murphy, whom Durkin recruited to Stanford, said in 2015. "Heíd talk about how the opponents were coming into our house and we were going to lock the gate behind them and not let them out Ďtil we were done with them. Stuff like that. Just stuff that gets college guys fired up and ready to go run through a brick wall."
Durkin reunited with Meyer in 2010, moving to coach linebackers for him at Florida. He would eventually become Floridaís defensive coordinator under Will Muschamp, who replaced Meyer after he left to confront health issues. Durkinís defenses produced loads of NFL players and ranked among the stingiest in the country. Rivals.com named him its recruiter of the year in 2012.
"Durk was good with us," former Florida safety Marcus Maye, who now plays for the New York Jets. "I mean, he did a great job with us at Florida, as a coach, as a person. I really donít know whatís going on over there, but as far as my experience with him, it was all good."
Durkin rejoined Harbaugh at Michigan in 2015, and he led one of the nationís best defenses before Maryland hired him. Some players said Durkin boosted morale upon arrival. Braglio recalled himself and teammates feeling embarrassed under former coach Randy Edsall, who would frequently single out players in team film sessions.
"The first team meeting we had with ?Durkin?, I knew that he was the guy that Maryland needed," former offensive lineman Michael Dunn said. "Heís been around so many big-time programs, and he had an idea how he wanted to achieve winning."
Cornerback Jarrett Ross, who said he "loved" playing for Durkin, said Durkin used grueling workouts, led by strength coach Rick Court, to establish his own culture. At one summer practice his first season, according to a 2016 story in the Carroll County Times, Durkin yelled at players, "No one cares if youíre tired" as they slogged from one station to another, before making them walk back 20 yards and retrace their steps on a sprint.
Court resigned from Maryland on Monday, becoming the first Maryland employee to lose his job in the wake of McNairís death.
"Itís tragic," Ross said. "No kid should ever go after college and have to go through something like that. Thatís not how it should be. I looked at it as a shock. I never thought things would be this way, based on how it was when I was there. They looked after everybody. Seeing some of the reports, it just doesnít sound like Durk and Court. I guess things changed, according to some people."
Even after the tragedy, many of Durkinís former players have remained loyal to him. Dunn emphasized he didnít know the facts of the workout that led to McNairís death, but he portrayed Durkin as uncommonly attentive among football coaches. Lorig, the former Stanford player, remembered Durkin comforting him after he tore his groin his senior season, which diminished his NFL stock.
"It wasnít just he cared about his players to help him win games," said Dunn, now in training camp with the Jacksonville Jaguars. "He cared about his guys even after they left. Thatís one of the biggest things about Coach Durkin, I just have so much respect for that. I know plenty of other coaches who might be all talk when it comes to stuff like that."
The Washington Postís Kimberley A. Martin in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report.