Help from someone who has been there
Locksley’s personal grief eases Terps’ challenge after teammate’s death
Mike Locksley’s hope is never again to add to his kitchen decor.
For years, he has hung a plaque in chronological order for each of his football coaching stops. Like most in the profession, moving vans have been a big part of his career. The list includes his first offensive coordinator job at Illinois (2005-08), his first head coaching job at New Mexico (2009-11) and most recently a three-year stint at Alabama, the last two as offensive coordinator.
He added his third Maryland plaque in December when he was hired as head coach. He coached the Terrapins running backs from 1997 to 2002 and returned as offensive coordinator from 2012 to ’15.
“It says, ‘Home is wherever football takes us,’ ” Locksley said Thursday at Big Ten media days. “I hope it’s the last plaque that I add to my home.”
The 49-year-old Washington, D.C., native called Maryland his “dream job.”
“I grew up in the mid-‘70s when Maryland was a giant in college athletics, and they had an undefeated team in ‘76 when I was 7 years old and had a three- or four-year run there,” he recalled. “(In) the mid-‘80s … having an opportunity to see Boomer Esiason, Frank Reich, Neil O’Donnell, Stan Gelbaugh, all these great quarterbacks and players.”
He worked there under Ralph Friedgen in 2001 and ’02 and helped the Terrapins win the ACC championship in ’01.
“We won 10 games a year for three straight years (including 2003, when Locksley was at Florida) and produced great players like Vernon Davis, Shawne Merriman, LaMont Jordan, E.J. Henderson — a bunch of great players,” Locksley said. “So that’s the Maryland that I know. A lot of people outside of that (D.C./ Maryland/Virginia) area don’t understand, but we have a history and tradition of great success.”
While he savors those glory days, Maryland is far from them. Locksley takes over a program going through its most turbulent time.
It started with the death in June 2018 from heatstroke of offensive lineman Jordan McNair, 19, who had shown signs of extreme heat exhaustion during a conditioning workout but received delayed medical attention.
An ESPN investigation found evidence of inappropriate coaching tactics and fostering a toxic culture by coach DJ Durkin, who was placed on administrative leave in August. The university’s board of regents recommended in late October that Durkin be reinstated, over the objections of President Wallace Loh, before Loh reversed course the next day and fired Durkin after backlash, including from current players who walked out of Durkin’s first team meeting.
Two trainers also were fired, and Loh announced his resignation.
Maryland wasn’t just looking for a coach with creative schemes or strong recruiting ties. The Terrapins needed someone who could help the program move forward and create a stable environment.
Locksley said he could understand the trauma enveloping the school and the players. His son Meiko was fatally shot in September 2017 in a case that remains unsolved.
“Losing my son and Jordan dying 8 months later, I was able to sort of mentor (McNair’s father) Marty through it,” Locksley said. “The circle of life isn’t built for parents to lose their child. It’s like an itch you can’t scratch. It’s hard for people who don’t know. When they say, ‘I feel your pain,’ you really don’t. That’s what cemented our bond, as well as Tonya (Wilson, McNair’s mother).
“It allowed me to have empathy for the (Maryland) team. They lost a brother. My kids dealt with losing their brother. I had a unique perspective on what to do to heal as well as how to move the program along the right way.”
Locksley had recruited McNair and became friends with his parents. His daughter, Kori, who plays soccer for Auburn, attended the same high school as McNair, and they signed their letters of intent at the same time.
Marty McNair appeared at Locksley’s introductory news conference as a sign of support.
“We talk about moving forward the right way,” Locksley said. “We want to honor Jordan with the way we play, practice and prepare.”
He said he has fostered a familial atmosphere with an open-office-doors policy, coaches serving as mentors and “Sunday Fun Days,” when players come to his home to ride go-karts, swim and eat dinner.
“Make sure we spend really meaningful time with our players outside of coaching,” he said. “(We’re) making sure we are there to support them.”
Maryland is coming off a 5-7 season but returns some key offensive components. Running back Anthony McFarland Jr. set a school freshman rushing record with 1,034 yards. The Terps also welcome Virginia Tech quarterback transfer Josh Jackson.
The defense returns only three starters from a unit that struggled last season, giving up 390.4 yards per game.
The hope for the Terrapins lies in Locksley’s recruiting record. At Illinois, he brought in D.C. natives Arrelious Benn, Vontae Davis, Eddie McGee and Tavon Wilson. The 2007 Illini offense became the only third in school history to surpass the 5,000-yard mark.
Locksley was listed as a top-25 recruiter in the nation three times (2003, ’05 and ’06) and was a finalist for Rivals.com’s 2007 recruiter of the year award.
He said he absorbed lessons the last three seasons under Nick Saban.
“We’d need a whole other two-hour session for me to talk about the things I learned from Nick,” he said. “But if I learned anything from Coach Saban, it’s consistency in your messaging. He talks about the process. I call it behaviors and habits.
“I know he oftentimes says, ‘Hey, don’t waste a failure.’ But when we had success, we still went back and looked at why it was successful and we asked the tough questions of how we can make it better.”
Locksley doesn’t come to Maryland without his own baggage. He went 2-26 at New Mexico before he was fired four games into his third season.
In 2009, he was suspended for one game after punching an assistant coach. He was sued earlier that year for age and sex discrimination by a former administrative assistant, though she later withdrew the claim. A friend of his son’s was arrested for DWI while driving a car registered to the Locksley family.
Locksley said he has grown emotionally over the years.
“With those plaques that I described, each one of my experiences has given me an opportunity to learn, grow and move forward as a head coach,” he said.
For Maryland to become a stable program, a safe environment and a successful team, Locksley must call on all of the lessons he has learned.
“I see Maryland being able to reach the success that we all want,” he said.
“I had a unique perspective on what to do to heal as well as how to move the program along the right way.” — Maryland coach Mike Locksley