Each time Mike Locksley took a job with the Maryland football team, it was a homecoming of sorts — an opportunity to reconnect, and in one case to rebuild his reputation.
The first time came in 1997. Locksley was a relatively unknown 27-year-old who had started building his coaching resume at Towson, his alma mater, then Navy prep school, University of the Pacific and Army.
The second time came seven years ago, after he was fired at New Mexico following a disastrous 33-month tenure that included an embarrassing 2-26 record for the first-time head coach.
The most recent came in December. Three years after he wasn’t promoted from interim to permanent coach and left Maryland, Locksley returned to College Park from Alabama, where he went from being an offensive analyst on Nick Saban’s staff to co-offensive coordinator in 2017 to offensive coordinator last season.
Speaking of his first stint with the Terps, which lasted six years as running backs coach and eventually recruiting coordinator under Ron Vanderlinden and Ralph Friedgen, Locksley said: “When I came back in ’97, for me at that point in my career, I felt like I had arrived because this is my school that I grew up rooting for. … I felt like it was an ‘aha’ moment for me as a coach. I was pretty pumped up.”
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The return trip in 2012 was a much more sobering experience.
“Coming back here in ’12, probably wasn’t as much of a homecoming as it was for me to recover,” Locksley said. “I had a rough two years and four games in New Mexico, where I was a villain. It was more about, ‘Hey, I’m going to prove to people I can coach.’ It was more a therapeutic deal to be around people who knew me, cared about me, knew who I was as a person.”
Will the third time be the last time — and last a long time — for Locksley?
Locksley’s first season as Maryland coach, which begins Saturday at home against Howard, is still about the Terps continuing to grieve the June 2018 heatstroke death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair (McDonogh). It is also about Locksley running the program differently than DJ Durkin, who was put on administrative leave after allegations of a “toxic culture” and was ultimately fired.
And it’s about Locksley trying to distance himself from his time at New Mexico, which included off-field problems. He was named in a complaint, which was later settled out of court, alleging sexual harassment and age discrimination against a female athletic department aide. He also had been suspended 10 days without pay for a physical altercation with an assistant coach.
Now back with the Terps, he wants to show he is better than his head-coaching record, which also includes a 1-5 mark with the Terps after taking over when Randy Edsall was fired midway through the 2015 season.
“You are your record. I’ve got to own 3-31,” Locksley said on a recent afternoon, sitting in his Gossett Team House office that overlooks the field at Maryland Stadium. “It is who I am, but I do see this as being a fresh start. I have an opportunity, a great talent base, we’ve got great facilities being built. But this is a fresh start for me.”
Locksley, 49, said it might have been for the best that he wasn’t hired in 2015, since he believes he is a better coach after spending three years working under Saban.
“The big thing for me after I left after the ’15 season, obviously disappointed that I didn’t get the job,” Locksley said, “but was really thankful because I got to spend the next three years almost as a sabbatical initially going there in Year 1, of getting behind the walls of a really successful program and seeing how and why and the nuts and bolts of what made it successful.”
Those who know Locksley say he has grown from his time in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, but many say he hasn’t changed much from his passionate and understanding self in the past two decades, perhaps dating to his days as a player and then an assistant at Towson.
Gordy Combs was the Tigers defensive coordinator during Locksley’s playing career and gave Locksley his first assistant job after taking over for head coach Phil Albert in 1992. Combs recently said what made Locksley a natural leader on defense as a safety has helped him become a successful recruiter — his ability to talk to people who were both the same and different than himself.
“I’ve always thought that Mike could recruit the inner-city kid and then he could go into a family that is a little bit aloof and he can deal with them, too,” Combs said. “He’s not a used-car salesman. That would be the best way I can put it. He can get right to the level of that prospective student-athlete, no matter if he’s black or white."
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Locksley, who will turn 50 on Christmas Day, said he has pretty much the same personality as when he was growing up in Washington.
“I’ve always been a big believer in ‘I am who I am,’ ” Locksley said. “I’ve always cared very deeply about people I loved. My family, my close friends. I have no problem in meeting new friends. I just don’t know how to be fake. I’m loyal, and to me that’s another trait of growing up in a tough neighborhood. Loyalty carries you a long way. I’m loyal to this area.”
If there was an event that made the bond with his family even stronger, it came when Locksley was “in the fifth or sixth grade” and his parents divorced. His father worked for the D.C. fire department and his mother took care of three sons and a daughter. Locksley said the family lived in Southwest D.C., and he and his two older brothers went to Catholic school.
His mother, Venita, who passed away this summer at age 72, tried her best to keep the family together, but struggled to the point in which she and her children were evicted from their home.
“She couldn’t afford the bills and we went from being middle class, living in a townhome, to end up moving into the housing projects in Southeast,” Locksley recalled. “We became challenged financially, and by being evicted from our house, we had to live with different relatives until we could get on our feet. When we got evicted, our stuff was on the street, which was very embarrassing obviously.”
The memories of that day haven’t left him.
“The big thing for me, no matter what, as a parent, was that I was going to make sure my family never had to deal with coming home to see your stuff on the street,” he said. “It was traumatic for me initially.”
Locksley has suffered even more trauma as a parent. His 25-year-old son Meiko was shot and killed in September 2017 in what remains an unsolved homicide, according to Howard County police. His son’s death proved to be a conduit of sorts when Martin McNair and Tonya Wilson, Jordan McNair’s parents, reached out to Locksley and his wife, Kia, to offer their condolences.
The Locksleys did the same last summer when Jordan, a friend and former McDonogh classmate of their daughter, Kori, died. Martin McNair attended Locksley’s introductory news conference and Maryland coaches and players took part in a health and wellness clinic run by the Jordan McNair Foundation at McDonogh on the one-year anniversary of his death.
Martin McNair said recently that Locksley called both he and Wilson the night he took the Maryland job.
“From the beginning, he’s always been genuine,” Martin McNair said last week. “Our relationship isn’t really based on football, it’s based on family, to be honest with you. It’s based on being there for each other, one father to another. That’s where Maryland was at [in hiring a new coach] overall. It had to go outside of football to bring it back together.”
What also helped in the transition was Locksley’s familiarity with many of the players he was about to coach, as well as their parents.
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Locksley’s relationships with several players — including senior cornerback Tino Ellis, senior wide receiver DJ Turner, senior offensive guard Terrance Davis and redshirt junior running back Lorenzo Harrison III — date to when they were in middle school attending Maryland’s summer football camp. Ellis recalled his first contact with Locksley, in 2010.
“I was like star-struck. This was my first time ever meeting a college coach,” Ellis said in June. “We talked and he talked to my dad. I was like, ‘Coach Locksley’s cool, this is the place I want to be. I want to go to University of Maryland.’ ”
Said Locksley: “That was part of our recruiting process, to create this grassroots effort to make it cool to go to Maryland again. We wanted to get them on campus as much as we can.”
Locksley’s magic touch in recruiting, which landed eventual NFL stars Shawne Merriman and Vernon Davis in his first stint and Stefon Diggs in his second, has been evident since he returned.
It began when four-star safety Nick Cross flipped his commitment during the second signing period from Penn State, picking the Terps over Florida State. It also was an important factor in linebackers Shaq Smith and Keandre Jones leaving Clemson and Ohio State, respectively, to come home to finish their college careers.
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Asked why so many players seem to gravitate toward Locksley, Anthony McFarland Jr. said: “Just everything he’s been through. He’s from the area, he grew up from here, he went through a lot of adversity with coaching, lost his son. He’s been through adversity just like us, us losing a brother.
“I think when you have a coach like that and he shows you the family side of things, how much he cares for players. That’s somebody you want to go out there and play for on Saturday. He’s been bringing nothing but love into this program and I’m excited for him.”
Not that Locksley is expected to have immediate success, considering Maryland will play a schedule ESPN recently rated as the 17th toughest nationally and most difficult in the Big Ten.
These Terps were picked to finish sixth out of seven teams in the Big Ten East.
“I wouldn’t be upset that people don’t really give us an opportunity,” Locksley said. “We’ll know a lot more when we play our first game. As we work through our season, I’m sure we’ll face adversity and to me it’s how we respond that’s going to tell me a lot about who we are.”
Locksley recalls a conversation he had with Saban when it became apparent that he was among the favorites to land the Maryland job.
“I remember him saying, not in a bad way, ‘If you stay here and we continue to do the things we’ve been doing, you’ll get a better job than Maryland,’ “ Locksley said. “I can remember when he said it, thinking then and laughing now, there’s not a better job than Maryland to me. That’s the one for me. I didn’t grow up wanting to be the head coach at Florida or Texas in this profession. This to me was the ultimate job.”