When top-seeded Alabama meets fourth-seeded Oklahoma in Miami Gardens, Fla., on Saturday night in the second semifinal of this year’s College Football Playoff, it will mark the second time Michael Locksley will coach in the Orange Bowl.
The first time came in January 2002, when Locksley was a member of Ralph Friedgen’s staff at Maryland. The sixth-ranked Terps, the biggest surprise of the 2001 college football season, wound up losing to fifth-ranked Florida, 56-23.
Though this year’s game will be played under different circumstances with the CFP and the Crimson Tide are staying in a different hotel than the Terps did 17 years ago, Locksley said he’s having a few flashbacks this week.
“Some of the same people have been affiliated with the Orange Bowl even back then are still here,” Locksley said in a telephone interview Thursday.
Locksley was asked about the difference between the then-32-year-old running backs coach and recruiting coordinator for Maryland and the just-turned-49-year-old Alabama offensive coordinator.
“About 17 years of success and failures and learning, as I like to call it, the building of my toolbox,” Locksley said. “When you’re 32 years old, you feel invincible. You think there’s plenty of time to accomplish things. As you get older, that window of opportunity starts to close. So for me, the difference in the 49-year-old that’s here and the 32-year-old is just all the experiences good and bad I’ve had in my coaching career and in my personal life.
“You learn from them. I will continue to [build] on some of the things I’ve learned under Coach [Nick] Saban. He always says, ‘You don’t lose, you learn. And even when you win, you find things you can do better at.’ I hope that I've continued to learn from some of the things good and bad that have happened over the last 17 years, and if I can utilize some of them to help Maryland get back to a bowl game like this.”
While Locksley is hoping for a different ending this time by keeping the Crimson Tide in contention for their second straight national championship and third in four years, he also can’t wait to get back to College Park to start rebuilding the Terps.
Since being named DJ Durkin’s successor Dec. 4, Locksley has been wearing two hats in distinctly different shades of red, game-planning for Alabama and recruiting for Maryland.
The top priority right now remains the Crimson Tide.
“Obviously the goal is for me to give Alabama the best opportunity as offensive coordinator to put together a plan to win the game,” Locksley said.
Having signed six players to begin Maryland’s 2019 recruiting class Dec. 19 — with plans to fill out the 25 spots available by the second signing period beginning Feb. 6 — Locksley is also recruiting coaches to join his staff.
Only one has officially been named, former DeMatha head coach Elijah Brooks, who will coach the running backs. Locksley said during a news conference Wednesday in Florida that Lloyd Richards, a former college coach, NFL scout and front office executive, will serve as the Terps director of football operations.
The hirings of two others, former Rutgers cornerbacks coach Cory Robinson and former North Carolina defensive coordinator John Papuchis, have been confirmed by the university, though their positions have not been made public.
Locksley conceded his involvement with Alabama right now makes it difficult to fulfill some of his duties with Maryland, even though the NCAA’s recruiting dead period is in place until Jan. 10, three days after this year’s national championship game is scheduled to be played in Santa Clara, Calif.
“The dead period running up against me being hired, you still have the phone calls, you still have the texting. It takes you off the road as the head coach,” Locksley said. “You’re still at a disadvantage where other head coaches are doing home visits.
“With the Christmas holiday and the New Year, recruiting is tough anyway because even recruits have family obligations that they have to take care of. [The dead period] does help, because it allows me to lock into the football piece of Oklahoma prep and the organizational structure things at the University of Maryland.”
Among those who have been mentioned as possibilities to join Locksley’s Maryland staff is former Tennessee and Cincinnati head coach Butch Jones, who similar to Locksley joined Saban’s staff in an administrative role after being fired by Tennessee after last season. Locksley came to Alabama in 2015 as a quality control assistant after not being retained at Maryland.
Though not naming Jones specifically, Locksley alluded to him during his Orange Bowl news conference when asked about the importance of having former head coaches on his staff at Maryland.
“Yeah, being able to have guys that have sat in that chair before — obviously I had a cup of coffee there in that chair there at New Mexico, but having guys like Butch, if he were to come on board or any of these guys that have had head coaching experience, I think when you're bouncing around thoughts, bouncing around ideas, that it's good to have somebody that's had the opportunity to be in that position and to help you maybe make the right choices,” Locksley said.
Locksley acknowledged Thursday that he’s no rush to complete his coaching staff.
“I’ll take as long as I need to take,” he said. “I want to make sure I get it right the first time that I don’t have a bunch of hires that can come back to [haunt me] when you’re rushed and you don’t do your due diligence.
“I will say I’ll have the brunt of it pretty close to being completed, so we’ll have our full force of guys that can be on the road selling Maryland and the vision I have for Maryland football.”
Friedgen was not allowed by former Georgia Tech coach George O'Leary to continue in his role as offensive coordinator when he took the Maryland job after the 2000 season.
O’Leary promoted Bill O’Brien, now the coach of the Houston Texans, and Friedgen wound up watching the Peach Bowl from a private box at the Georgia Dome as the Yellow Jackets lost to LSU, which at the time was coached by Saban.
“George’s attitude was, ‘When you’re gone, you’re gone,’ ” Friedgen said in a telephone interview Thursday. “He wouldn’t even give me tickets to the game.”
Friedgen said filling the staff is perhaps Locksley’s biggest distraction.
“Where it’s tough right now, he’s trying to hire a staff, probably has people in mind, but he’s focused on this game,” Friedgen said. “I have a feeling he doesn’t want to let Nick Saban down in this situation. He owes Nick a lot. I think Mike will be able to handle it fine."
Locksley, who was named the 2018 Broyles Award winner as the nation’s top Football Bowl Subdivision assistant, is the fourth Alabama coordinator in as many seasons to be doing double-duty during the playoffs.
Kirby Smart was Alabama defensive coordinator during the 2015 championship run before fully taking over as head coach at Georgia after already being hired Dec. 6, 2015, then facing Saban in last season’s national championship game. Jeremy Pruitt was the Crimson Tide defensive coordinator last season before taking over as head coach at Tennessee after being hired in early December 2017.
The only glitch in this equation came in 2016, when Saban fired offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who was on his way to Florida Atlantic, after a semifinal win over Washington. Former Southern California and Washington coach Steve Sarkisian served as offensive coordinator in Alabama’s loss to Clemson in the CFP final.
“I think the big thing, and I’ve said this before, the way our schedule is so regimented under Coach Saban, when I’m here and I’m doing Alabama prep for Oklahoma, there’s a very regimented schedule that you follow and you kind of know when you’re going to have opportunities for me to work on all things Maryland or to get caught up,” Locksley said.
“When I do have my free time to work on all things Maryland, I do have a checklist of people I have to talk to, things I’ve got to get accomplished, phone calls to make and try to build off of that ... so I can set the foundation to hit the ground running whenever my season’s done here.”
Just as Friedgen gained some attention for the Terps when ESPN’s cameras interviewed him during the Peach Bowl and showed him watching the game from a box, Locksley should be able to get some publicity for Maryland in his role as Alabama’s offensive coordinator.
“I think it’s helpful,” Friedgen said. “Here you are taking a guy who could be potentially coaching for a national championship, and he’s going to be your next head coach at Maryland. It can’t hurt. Not at all.”
Locksley celebrated his birthday on Christmas Day, meaning he shares the same birthday as legendary Maryland coach and 2018 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Lefty Driesell, who turned 87 on Tuesday.
“Wow, I did not know that,” Locksley said. “That’s a good trivia question.”
Locksley hopes to have the same kind of run Driesell had in his 17-year career in College Park. Much of Locksley’s foundation came during his three years at Alabama, culminating with this season as the team’s offensive coordinator.
“I hope this is not the pinnacle of my career,” he said. “I’m hoping to continue some of the successes we’ve had here at Maryland. I know there’s a lot of work to be done to get the Maryland program to where we have this one.
“I’ve been at [a Bowl Championship Series game] with Maryland. I’ve coached in the Rose Bowl with the Illinois team in 2007-2008. To be able to compete for a national championship — I’ve been to two of them since I’ve been at Alabama — it’s definitely as a coach what you dream of and by far one of my greatest accomplishments.”