It feels like it was a very long time ago that the Maryland football team embarked on a new era under coach Mike Locksley with a promising start that — looking back — now seems like a cruel joke.
The season opened with an emotional 79-0 victory over Howard in which the Terps’ huge point total just happened to match the uniform number of fallen offensive lineman Jordan McNair, whose death from heatstroke in 2018 forced a sweeping re-evaluation of the program, as well as the firing of third-year coach DJ Durkin.
The following week, the Terps delivered a stunning 63-20 victory over No. 21 Syracuse, which appeared to validate the decision last December to bring back Locksley three years after he filled in as interim coach when Randy Edsall was fired near the end of the 2015 season.
It was the right decision at the time for several reasons, from Locksley’s previous coaching experience at Maryland to his close friendship with the McNair family. He was the logical choice to help the athletic community heal and re-energize local recruiting.
Much has happened since the Terps delivered those resounding and uplifting wins — almost none of it good. They have won just one more game and will head into their season finale against Michigan State in a six-game tailspin during which they have been beaten by an average score of 49-13.
Locksley won’t be coaching for his job when the Terps take the field in East Lansing on Saturday. He returned late last year under difficult circumstances and hasn’t had nearly enough time to get his arms around the program. But the fact that his team was beaten so soundly by a couple of the lesser lights in the Big Ten during this losing streak leaves room to question whether the Terps are even pointed in the right direction.
No doubt, there are plenty of disappointed fans and boosters who were doing just that after last week’s embarrassing 54-7 home loss to a Nebraska team that had only two previous conference victories.
During his Tuesday news conference, Locksley reminded everyone that he considers 2019 to be “Year Zero” because of his limited ability to recruit after assuming full responsibility for the program in January.
“There’s nothing more important to me than to get this program back to the type of football that our fans and our team and our alums can be really proud of,” he said, “and I promise you that everything that I continue to do will be all about building this thing the right way on a really strong foundation.”
Obviously, that’s a tall order, especially in a Big Ten that currently includes the most ranked teams (six) in the College Football Playoff Top 25 of any Power 5 conference ... and especially for a coach who has a 6-39 record in parts of five seasons at New Mexico and Maryland.
With a new university president expected to replace Wallace Loh next year, there’s no way of knowing just how many seasons Locksley will get to turn the football program around, but he made it clear that this is still his dream job even as he reaches the end of a nightmare season.
“I’m as happy today to be the head coach at the University of Maryland as I was when I took the job, and that’s not just coachspeak," he said. "This is something I’m really passionate about and we’re going to do everything we need to do to get this program going in the right direction and I feel really confident that we will.”
Of course, what else is Locksley going to say at this point? The more important thing is how his leadership has impacted the young men who have taken this difficult journey with him and will return next year to take the next one.
“I feel like, through all the adversity, we stuck together," junior running back Javon Leake said. “This team has been through a lot of stuff throughout the years, so I just feel like we’ve got a lot of stuff to improve on on both sides of the ball and I know Coach Locksley is going to get the whole program right.”