A few weeks into his first coaching gig — as a graduate assistant for a first-year head coach at a Mid-American Conference school — DJ Durkin decided he wanted to remember everything.
His boss radiated charisma and relentlessness, and success seemed inevitable to Durkin, then just 23. It felt like there were valuable lessons flying around the facility. He didn’t want to forget them.
“And so I started just taking notes,” Maryland’s new football coach recently explained. “I was kind of like ‘Man, there’s some good stuff going on here. I need to have a record of this.’ You’re trying to keep your head above the water, not get your [rear end] ripped every day. But it was like, ‘This is good stuff.’ You just knew it was.”
Durkin never discussed the spiral notebook he began keeping with that head coach, a guy named Urban Meyer. He didn’t discuss it with his fellow assistants either. As Durkin flew through the coaching ranks — from Bowling Green to Notre Dame back to Bowling Green, and then to Stanford and Florida and Michigan — his original notebook became two, and then four, and then 10.
The lessons from Meyer were soon supplemented with the thoughts of Jim Harbaugh and Will Muschamp, Tyrone Willingham and Gregg Brandon, and with observations from outside of football, too. The notebooks went in a bin that accompanied Durkin and his family as they moved around the country, with the most recent ones remaining in his office. And before he interviewed for the Maryland opening, Durkin did what he always figured he would: He took out his old notebooks to review those lessons about building a college football program he’d been storing up for 15 years.
“I’m going into a meeting and talking about how I’m going to run a program; I’ve got to gather my thoughts, and so it forces you to go back through some things,” the 38-year old Durkin said on a recent morning in his office. “It’s like: ‘Here are my thoughts, here’s what I believe in.’ … You’ve got to have a clean viewpoint in your own mind of how this thing’s going to go, a baseline of core values and organization that you’re always going to go back to.”
The lessons cover all sorts of topics: running staff meetings and dealing with players, handling recruiting and dishing out discipline, creating handouts and crafting talking points. He always has used his notes as a coaching reference point, but it’s happened even more frequently in the hectic months since his hiring.
Durkin has plenty of his own plans, too. He has filled three spiral notebooks since arriving at Maryland in December, and “If something went on that didn’t really fit me or what I would have done, it’s not something I put in the notebooks,” he said. But he has spent his career around some of his sport’s most impressive names, and their words came with him to College Park.
“He has his own ideas about how the game should be played, how the program should be run, but you have to take advantage of the people that you’ve worked for as you become a head coach,” said Gary Williams, who has gotten close with Durkin and says the football coach reminds him of himself. “Without the background I had, [and] who I was with, I’m not sure I could have gotten it done. The great thing is, when you build your philosophy off of really outstanding coaches, it’s going to be pretty good.”
This all intrigues me for a couple reasons. Durkin, like many writers, is obsessive about making sure his thoughts don’t escape. When he gets out of the shower, he jots down notes right away, because he knows more ideas will come while he’s getting dressed. He keeps a calendar with a record of what he’s done every day on the job, creating a reference point for next year. (On the day we met, that calendar entry will include a meeting with his defensive coordinator about red zone coverage, a planning session with school officials about the team’s new indoor facility, and a bunch of strange questions from a Washington Post columnist.)
Before he heads home at night, he’ll take more notes on what he’s done and what needs to happen next; “kind of my own moment in my office,” he said. The football program is digital, but the coach’s personal stash of information is all handwritten, because “that’s how I learn, that’s how I remember things, is jotting notes, underlining, highlighting,” he said.
This is different from my own stash of in some ways — my home is filled with scribbled story ideas and quotes from Russian novelists — but the impulse is the same: preserving a record and a reference point.
Keeping such journals also implies a sense of humility, of seeking feedback and learning from others. Durkin is overflowing with confidence; he likes asking audiences for a reason Maryland football can’t prosper, “because I haven’t found one, and I’ve looked hard.” Still, the Terps job is a monster. A bit of grace and humility can come in handy, as the school’s previous football coach might attest.
So Durkin has made listening a theme of his meetings with local prep coaches; “I genuinely sat down with people, looked them in the eye and said, ‘Tell me what you think,'” he said. “You listen to them all, take note of them all, and then it’s like okay, are there some common themes going on here? Everyone just wants to be heard.”
That approach already seems to be working; two popular recruiting services rank Durkin’s 2017 class among the nation’s top 25.
He also hired three former head coaches as assistants (although one left for personal reasons), not worrying about establishing his own authority. “Embrace other opinions — that’s what I’ve tried to do,” he said. “I don’t shy away from that. I don’t get offended by it. I think it’s good. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to do it that way, but I still like hearing it.”
And he’s helped foster a feeling of peace between the school’s most important programs. The Turgeons recruited the Durkins to live in their Kensington neighborhood, with Mark Turgeon’s son even babysitting Durkin’s kids. And the new football coach invited Williams to address his players during their recent end-of-spring banquet.
Williams said it was his first such invitation from the football program since Ron Vanderlinden left College Park more than 15 years ago. He told the football players stories about getting an education and building a program, compared their Big Ten East competition to the Duke/Carolina gauntlet he used to face in the ACC, and offered some praise of their coach.
“I was just thrilled,” Williams said. “You get to talk to the football team; I mean, how many people from the outside get to do that? You know, I played and I coached and I was a student there, so I’ve done all that. And hopefully whatever I can throw out to them makes some sense.”
“Just an amazing person,” Durkin said of Williams. “Obviously he was outstanding speaking to the team.”
Which of course raises the question: Will any lessons from Gary Williams find their way into one of Durkin’s notebooks?
“Yes,” Durkin said. “Absolutely.”