At his introductory news conference Thursday, Michael Locksley stood before a lectern inside Cole Field House and said he was not the same coach and man he once was. The coaching career that led him to Maryland’s top job has indeed been one of re-invention, from a low-level assistant coach to high-profile offensive coordinator, from troubles at New Mexico to new beginnings in College Park.
But what led him back to the Terps, he said — that much had not changed. A native of Southwest Washington, he grew up “worshipping” Maryland. In the mid-1980s, he’d spend time with his best friend outside Cole Field House and watch games at what is now Maryland Stadium, hoping he could one day play there. After his playing career at Towson State ended, and with it his dreams of making it professionally, he resolved to coach.
Maryland, he said, “was the job I've coveted since the day I put a whistle around my neck as a coach. Some people grow up wanting to be the head coach at the University of Alabama, Michigan, all the storied programs. For Locks, this was it.”
Joined on Cole Field House’s indoor football field by family and friends, the 48-year-old Locksley recognized the local high school football coaches in attendance, whose top players he will look to help rebuild a program mired in mediocrity. He thanked current and former players for their support of his homecoming. He acknowledged his gratitude toward athletic director Damon Evans and a Maryland administration that has come under fire for the June death of former McDonogh lineman Jordan McNair and a reportedly toxic culture under former coach DJ Durkin.
And he asked that Martin McNair, Jordan’s father and Locksley’s friend, wave from the crowd as Locksley celebrated “this joyous day.”
“When you lose a child, the circle of life isn't built for parents to bury kids,” said Locksley, whose own son, Meiko, then 25, was killed in September 2017 in what remains an unsolved homicide in Howard County. “So I've been a sounding board for Marty. He's been an ear for me. Our relationship has continued to grow, and for him to be here today just means the world to me and my family.”
Speaking to a crowd of boosters, officials and media in the same building where Gary Williams once presided over a proud men’s basketball team, Locksley invoked the same kind of pathos that Williams had when he left Ohio State for his alma mater in 1989.
Williams, hired in the wake of former Terps star Len Bias’ 1986 death and coach Bob Wade’s subsequent scandal-marred tenure, was emotional then as he explained his decision to return to Maryland: “As you go along in coaching, and the years go by, you don’t think you’ll ever get a chance. I thought I might never get another chance.” On Thursday, Locksley’s reasoning differed little. Four times he said Maryland was his “dream” job.
It will not be an easy one, in the near or long term. Locksley, who signed a deal for five years with an option for a sixth worth $2.5 million annually, joked that he would have to wear two hats for now: Alabama offensive coordinator and Maryland head coach. He said he planned to remain for at least another week in Maryland, where he would meet with players individually and the team’s assistants, construct a coaching staff and start his recruitment of a class that currently ranks last in the Big Ten Conference.
Then it will be back to Tuscaloosa, Ala., where the undefeated and defending national champion Crimson Tide will on Dec. 14 resume practice ahead of their College Football Playoff semifinal matchup with Oklahoma. Locksley could remain on staff there for as long as the next month; the national championship is not until Jan. 7, a month before national signing day.
“I just spent three years saturated in winning and seeing what it's like to be done right,” said Locksley, who landed on Alabama’s staff in 2016 and was promoted to offensive coordinator this season. On Tuesday, he was named the Frank Broyles Award winner, given annually to the nation’s top assistant, for his oversight of an explosive attack led by quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, a Heisman Trophy finalist.
“I can only hope that I can take just a little bit of what I've learned from Coach Saban the past three years to implement and install here.”
In alluding several times to the death of his own son and of Jordan McNair, Locksley seemed to acknowledge that his most important role as Maryland coach will be one of caretaker. He said every decision he’d make “will put the health, welfare and safety of the students first, like I would my own children.”
Critics of Locksley have noted not only his 2-26 record at New Mexico but also a string of off-field issues in Albuquerque, including an allegation that Locksley choked and punched a Lobos assistant coach. During the interview process, Evans said, Locksley discussed his volatile past. He was more eager to look ahead Thursday.
“I'm so far removed from that New Mexico experience,” Locksley said. “Who I've become as a coach and who I've become as a person, as everyone else, you mature, you grow.”
Added Evans: “He indicated what he had learned, and you can just see in him where he was then, which was eight to 10 years ago, to where he is now. He's had a lot of life lessons, as we all have.”
In Maryland, Locksley will take over a program perhaps just as far from Alabama’s heights as it is from New Mexico’s depths. The Terps have failed to appear in a bowl game three of the past four seasons. They last won more than seven games in 2010. They’ve yet to finish with a winning record in Big Ten play.
But Locksley recalled watching Maryland and then-interim coach Matt Canada face then-No. 23 Texas in its season opener this fall as he prepared for Alabama’s own. In a victory over a Longhorns team that would make the Big 12 Conference championship game, the Terps played with “passion, energy, toughness,” he said with admiration.
Locksley, maybe more than most, knows the program’s limitations and its possibilities. His career has overlapped with that of Maryland’s four previous head coaches. He worked for coach Ron Vanderlinden in the late 1990s and reached the Orange Bowl on coach Ralph Friedgen’s staff in the early 2000s. He served as offensive coordinator under Randy Edsall, never winning more than seven games. And he saw the early days of Durkin’s program after being passed over for the position that is now, at long last, his.
“I've seen the good, bad and ugly of Maryland,” Locksley said. But that would not deter him.