Before Urban Meyer was the head coach at Ohio State, before he won three national championships and before he garnered numerous national coach of the year awards, he was an unproven head coach looking to turn around Bowling Green. He was hired for his first head coaching job there before the 2001 season, and the Falcons had won just two games in the year prior to his arrival.
On his staff was a first-time coach, a graduate assistant who had been popular enough among his teammates as a player that he was named a two-time captain at Bowling Green during the final two years of his playing career in 1999 and 2000. His passion for the game of football was evident to the coaching staff, and they believed he could help turn the Falcons around.
His name was D.J. Durkin.
Durkin, now Michigan’s defensive coordinator, has worked extensively with both head coaches involved in this year’s Michigan-Ohio State rivalry. He worked under Meyer at Bowling Green in 2001 and 2002, and then was hired by the Buckeyes’ coach to be Florida’s linebackers and special teams coach in 2010. Meyer left Florida after that season, but Durkin stayed on and became the Gators’ defensive coordinator in 2013. Before that, Durkin worked with Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh at Stanford as the special teams coordinator from 2007 to 2009.
He’s firmly entrenched on Harbaugh’s side of the rivalry now, but a coach who worked with both of them doesn’t think Meyer and Durkin are all that different in terms of their intensity, their ability to motivate and the way they get their players to play hard.
John Bowers, now assistant head coach at James Madison, was the linebackers coach at Bowling Green during Meyer’s tenure there and also worked for Meyer at Ohio State as a recruiting assistant in 2013. He watched Durkin in his first year as a graduate assistant and came away impressed. He knows Meyer did, too.
“Urban’s smart: He sees guys that work their butts off and the guys that can relate to players and get them to go to a different level, and I think he saw that in D.J. right away,” Bowers said.
At Bowling Green, was tasked with coaching players who had just been his teammates, but he did not let that become a deterrent. He helped Meyer right the ship, and the Falcons turned two wins into eight in his first season.
Durkin’s tasks weren’t always exciting at Bowling Green. He wasn’t the coach in charge, or anything close to that. But he still made his mark. Bowers remembers Durkin’s energy during 5:30 a.m. practices and his willingness to work late into the night. Graduate assistants often did not go home until after the full-time coaches had already left.
Recruiting was something that excited him even back then. Durkin spent hours upon hours with high school coaches in Ohio, explaining Bowling Green’s schemes until the coaches understood them. He went above and beyond in that role, Bowers said, making an effort to meet with coaches even at odd hours of the day or night.
Durkin doesn’t appear to have lost that excitement over the game of football. He leaps and runs toward his players after big plays, and he has also been inclined to lose his temper over officiating calls.
It’s difficult to argue with the results. The Wolverines rank second in the country in yards allowed per game, and much of that success has been attributed to Durkin, the defense’s leader.
Yahoo! Sports reported Wednesday morning that Durkin has already interviewed at Maryland for the head coaching job, and his name has appeared on many speculative lists about potential coaching candidates.
For now, Durkin insists his focus is on preparing for Saturday’s game, when he will face his old boss and friend. But for others, it’s a foregone conclusion that Durkin will eventually be a head coach.
“The thing that he will be when he becomes a head coach is, he’ll be D.J. Durkin,” Bowers said. “Because he’s got a great confidence as a person and he will not try to be Urban Meyer, he will not try to be Jim Harbaugh.”
Instead, he will take what he has learned from Harbaugh and Meyer and apply it to his own team. Durkin makes it clear, though, which coach he believes has had the greatest impact on his coaching career, at least right now.
“I’ve been very fortunate in my career to work for a lot of great head coaches, and No. 1, Coach Harbaugh,” Durkin said Wednesday. “There’s things I learn from him every single day.”