College Park — The introduction of Michael Locksley as Maryland’s new head football coach was accompanied by much fanfare. The band played. The cheerleaders cheered. A large crowd of boosters, former players and various well-wishers applauded as he took the stage at the newly renovated Cole Field House.
Perhaps the most important face in that crowd stood inconspicuously on the edge of the gathering, offering a tacit endorsement of the man who was chosen to lead the Terrapin football program out of the saddest period in its history.
Marty McNair, who lost his son Jordan in June to a poorly treated case of exertional heatstroke, did not speak at the introductory media conference and waved off interview requests afterward, but his presence in support of Locksley spoke loudly about the new beginning that the university and its athletic department hope the new coach represents.
“Marty and my relationship goes back a long way,’’ Locksley said during his opening remarks. “Our kids went to school together. We both tragically lost our kids. I’ve been a mentor for Marty and Marty has been a sounding board for me the last year, year and a half as we’ve worked through the emotions and the toughness of losing a child.”
Locksley tragically lost his son nine months before McNair was stricken during a spring conditioning drill. Meiko Anthony Locksley was shot to death in Columbia, and the crime remains unsolved.
Their shared grief brought Michael and his wife, Kia, together with Marty McNair and Jordan’s mother, Tonya, and it has kept them close.
“We have a common bond,’’ Locksley added later. “The circle of life isn’t built for parents to bury kids. Our relationship has continued to grow, and for him to be here today means the world to me and my family.”
When McNair died in June, it set off a series of events that led to the firing of head football coach D.J. Durkin, the announcement that UM president Wallace Loh will retire at the end of this school year and, now, the hiring of Locksley to rescue a football program that badly needs someone with his recent track record and highly regarded recruiting skills.
Maybe it is a controversial hire, considering that Locksley’s first Division I head coaching job at New Mexico ended badly both on the field and off, but his “homecoming” was partly the result of a groundswell of support for him in the UM community.
He is popular with some of the program’s biggest boosters and he already has shown the ability to lure top-flight local talent to Maryland. Terps fans haven’t forgotten that the young man who has an outside chance to win this year’s Heisman Trophy — record-setting Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins — was a Maryland commit who originally vowed to be a magnet for other top local recruits before backing out when Locksley was not hired to replace Randy Edsall three years ago.
If that was the right decision at the time in light of Locksley’s 3-31 record as a head coach at New Mexico and for six games as interim head coach here in 2015, his three-year tenure as an assistant to Alabama coaching legend Nick Saban apparently answered whatever questions the search committee had about his qualifications for the unique challenge he has just accepted.
“I just spent three years of my 28 years in this business coaching under a guy that I feel is the greatest coach in the history of college football, if not football alone,” Locksley said. “And I just spent three years saturating and seeing what it’s like to be done right and I can only hope that I can take just a little bit of what I’ve learned from coach Saban the last three years and implement and install it here at the University of Maryland.”
Locksley said that it would take hours to list everything he learned from Saban on the way to winning the Frank Broyles Award this year as the top assistant coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision, but he gave it a try.
“I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned from being under coach Saban is, focus on the process and not the results,’’ he said. “Don’t worry about game day. Don’t look up at the scoreboard. Let’s win every day and maximize every opportunity in your program. … The man is amazing in terms of his preparation. There’s nobody that works harder than Nick Saban.”
Whether Locksley will turn out to be the perfect choice to lead the Terps program forward obviously remains to be seen, but his life experience and personal proximity to the McNair family should give comfort to the parents of current players and future recruits.
“Every decision I make with these kids will be made as if they were my own child,” Locksley said. “That’s not anything I take lightly. I’m proud of the way they came together and fought adversity after losing a brother in Jordan. I know what it’s like to lose someone you love, having lost my son Meiko here.”
Locksley tiptoed around a question about the alleged “toxic” football culture that was described in an ESPN expose last summer, instead complimenting interim coach Matt Canada and the players for the way they held the program together this past season.
“I can really only comment on where I see this program going forward,’’ he said. “It’s my goal to build this team into a football family. … There are always going to be issues that come up and the No. 1 thing for me, just like being a father in a family, is ensuring that every decision I make moving forward as the leader of this family will put the health, welfare and safety of the students first like I would my own children.”