With Will Muschamp prepping for his finale, D.J. Durkin readies for bigger role
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Earlier this season as the Gators struggled and critics turned up the volume, Florida head coach Will Muschamp was asked about his job security.
"They’re all temporary jobs," Muschamp said of life as a college football coach.
That’s the truth.
As Muschamp prepares for his final game on Saturday at Florida State, only four assistant coaches from his inaugural staff 48 games ago remain: defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, secondary coach Travaris Robinson, tight ends coach Derek Lewis and running backs coach Brian White.
With Muschamp’s time as their boss down to a few days, the rest of the staff is trying to balance concerns over uncertain futures with doing their jobs and keeping players focused. The Gators became bowl eligible with Saturday’s win over Eastern Kentucky.
Durkin is serving as interim head coach for the bowl game.
One of two holdovers from Urban Meyer’s final UF coaching staff in 2010 Muschamp retained when he took over the program — White is the other — Durkin was elevated to defensive coordinator in 2013 after Dan Quinn left for the same position with the Seattle Seahawks.
Florida’s defense has continued to thrive under Durkin’s direction, finishing eighth in the country in total defense last season (314.2 yards per game) and currently ranking third in the SEC (311.5 ypg) this season.
Muschamp said the team is in good hands after Saturday’s trip to Tallahassee.
"He’ll do an outstanding job," Muschamp said. "He’s a really good football coach, he sees the big picture, he’s an outstanding recruiter, he’s got a tireless work ethic and he does a great job with our players. He will do a fabulous job."
Durkin, who turns 37 in January, started his coaching career as a graduate assistant under Meyer at Bowling Green, his alma mater, in 2001. He later made stops at Notre Dame and Stanford before joining UF’s staff as linebackers coach/special-teams coordinator.
When Ron Zook was let go at the end of the 2004 regular season, a similar scenario was in place as defensive coordinator Charlie Strong coached the Gators in the Peach Bowl, a 27-10 loss to Miami.
The job of an interim coach is never easy but one Durkin said Tuesday that he will embrace and make the best of.
"Any challenge is good. You welcome it. It’s something to learn from, a good experience," Durkin said. "To be honest with you I haven’t thought about it that much. Just getting ready for these guys [FSU] gives me plenty of things to think about right now. It’s a challenge, embrace it, see what we can do."
Florida sophomore safety Keanu Neal, when made aware Durkin had been appointed the interim head coach for Florida’s bowl game, was pleased at the news.
"Shoot, he’s a great coach. He’s always leading us and helping us out at everything," Neal said. "And he’s just like intense. I love that about him. As far as like head coach, I think he’s great for the role."
In what has been a difficult last two weeks since UF Athletic Director Jeremy Foley announced Nov. 16 that Muschamp would not return in 2015, the players and coaches have tried to make the best of a tough situation.
While some of the coaches have experienced similar circumstances — offensive line coach Mike Summers was at USC last season when head coach Lane Kiffin was replaced by Ed Orgeron midseason and rallied the Trojans to a bowl berth — the players have not.
Muschamp’s message has remained the same to keep a sense of order.
"I told the staff ‘do your job, do your job.’ You get hired by the University of Florida to do your job, and that’s to coach and to recruit and that’s to represent this university first class, and that’s what you do," Muschamp said. "I haven’t been involved in any recruiting since it happened. But our staff needs to continue to recruit and represent Florida. It’s a great place to come to school and play football and that’s what those guys are doing.
"They continue the phone calls and all that, and Sunday after Florida State, they’ll be out recruiting for the University of Florida and getting ready for a bowl game. You get hired to do a job and that’s your job. Go do your job."
Once the team returns from Tallahassee and the sun rises Sunday morning, Durkin’s message will be the same.
He’ll just be sharing it with more people than usual.
"It’s business as usual. We’ve had a great group of guys who have been able to do that all year, coaches and players alike," Durkin said. "And so that stuff [bowl preparations, player finals], we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, but I don’t anticipate it being any kind of an issue."