Few college football coaches — interim coaches, in particular — have had a bigger stage for a second chance than Mike Locksley did Saturday.
Four years after his disastrous tenure as a first-time head coach ended at New Mexico with a three-point home loss to a Football Championship Subdivision team before the school's smallest crowd in nearly two decades, Locksley was back in charge against Penn State at M&T Bank Stadium before an announced 68,948.
Nearly two weeks after replacing Randy Edsall, Locksley's six-game stint as Maryland's interim coach began with a wrenching 31-30 loss to the Nittany Lions. If this was considered a tryout — "auditioning" is how legendary Washington-area high school coach Willie Stewart, a longtime Locksley confidant, called it a few hours before heading up to Baltimore — the first showcase didn't kill his long-shot bid.
Still, for now, Locksley is considered more of a half-season caretaker than a legitimate candidate.
Those who play and played for him think Locksley deserves more serious consideration.
A half-hour after the clock ran out following the third interception and fifth turnover by Terps junior quarterback Perry Hills, senior running back Brandon Ross said the team wanted to win for the man everyone calls "Coach Locks."
"I think you tried to make sure that wasn't our mindset, but as players, that's what we're all trying to do," Ross said. "He took over such a tough situation and tried to make it as much of a relaxed environment as he could. Guys definitely fed off it. It actually motivated guys to actually want to play harder and do better. That was definitely a factor."
Since he was named interim coach Oct. 11, the day Edsall was fired, Locksley has said the second half of the season was about the players and the program, not his own job security. Though his second-half clock management left him open to criticism, there was no doubt the Terps played with more emotion under Locksley for four quarters than they had under Edsall for most of the previous four seasons.
It didn't matter to Locksley that Maryland played its first close game of the season.
"We're way beyond moral victories," he said. "What I did tell them is, 'If you can come into that locker room after a game like today and look yourself in the mirror and know you did everything you could to possibly win that ballgame, then the scoreboard won't define you.' I don't have a problem with that."
Locksley has a lot of supporters who believe he shouldn't be defined by his 2-27 record as a head coach.
Former Maryland star LaMont Jordan, the school's all-time leading rusher, said the man who served as the team's running backs coach for all of Jordan's career deserves a second shot at head coaching with the Terps.
"I'm not sure what's going to happen today or what's going to happen the rest of the season, but I've been saying it for years: Once Coach Locks gets a head coaching job at Maryland … he's a perfect guy for the job. I think he can take us to the top," Jordan said Saturday morning.
Though Jordan's duties as a volunteer coach at Northwestern in Hyattsville prevented him from attending Saturday's game, Jordan said he would watch the game on his cellphone. He credited the tutelage he received from Locksley as "definitely a key piece in me having a nine-year career in the NFL."
Jordan added that every program Locksley has been with — except New Mexico — turned into a winner with his help.
"Illinois was doing absolutely nothing before Locks got there, and he got some guys to go there and got that program turned around," Jordan said. "If you look with him when he was with [Ron] Zook down in Florida, Urban Meyer comes in. All of those guys that Urban Meyer was winning with, those were Locksley's kids.
"I know [Maryland officials are] looking on the outside, but there's no better guy for this job. I don't think there's anyone more deserving, He's from the area. You look at guys like myself, E.J. Henderson, Vernon Davis, Shawne Merriman — the list goes on and on. These are all Coach Locksley's guys."
Former Maryland wide receiver Deon Long knows more than anyone what kind of coach Locksley was in two-plus seasons at New Mexico, and what he might do at Maryland. Long spent his first two seasons in Albuquerque; in his second, Locksley was fired four games into the 2011 season, gone after a 48-45 loss to Sam Houston State before fewer than 20,000 fans.
"He's learned a lot of things he should do and shouldn't do as a head coach coming from New Mexico," Long said, standing on the sideline before Saturday's game. "He's a players' coach. He's going to run a play that's going to suit his players. For me, personally, I think the attitude of the team starts with the head coach. Just like raising your son, he takes the identity of his father."
Said Jordan: "Other guys can come with big names and big resumes, but look at someone like Bill Belichick. You learn from those mistakes, you learn from them and you move on. Coach Locks is a DMV guy. He's one of the best recruiters in the country. He's perfect for Maryland. I don't care what the guy's resume is, Coach Locks should be the next coach."
Even if that doesn't happen, Stewart said Maryland would be foolish to let Locksley get away.
"If he is not hired [as head coach], he should be the new coach's first hire," Stewart said.
As the season and Lockley's tenure as interim coach winds down and athletic director Kevin Anderson's search for Edsall's permanent replacement heats up, some might look back on Saturday's one-point loss and say it didn't matter either way.
"It's still a good story," longtime University System of Maryland Board of Regents member Larry Grabenstein of Baltimore said on the sideline as the final seconds ticked away. "But it's not a fairy tale."