Michael Locksley remembers the conversation vividly.
He’d completed his fourth season as running backs coach at Maryland in the fall of 2000, and his head coach, Ron Vanderlinden, had recently been fired.
Locksley sat down for a talk with his new boss, Ralph Friedgen.
Friedgen had played on Maryland’s offensive line in the 1960s and twice served on the Terps’ coaching staff in the ’70s and ’80s. He had been hired to guide the program back to the prominence it hadn’t experienced since the days of Bobby Ross in the mid-’80s.
“I said to Ralph my ultimate goal was to be the head coach here at Maryland,” Locksley said. “He kind of chuckled at me and said, ‘As long as it’s not right now.'”
Nearly 20 years after that conversation, the job is finally his. He was hired in early December, marking the Washington, D.C., native’s return to Maryland after a long football sojourn that featured 10 stops — including two at Maryland — plus a disastrous first go as a head coach at New Mexico. His journey culminated with a national title at Alabama in 2017.
“From the day that I got into coaching, this has been the one job that I’ve coveted,” Locksley said.
Now that he has it, Locksley’s task is significant. He must steady a program that has posted just one winning record since it moved to the Big Ten in 2014 and is a little more than a year removed from the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair, who died June 13, 2018, after suffering heatstroke during a team workout two weeks earlier. McNair’s death ignited months of controversy, bad press and a multitude of firings, including that of former head coach DJ Durkin.
But despite the fragile time Maryland currently finds itself in, Locksley believes he can make the team a winner for the first time in years. The blueprint is his first stint at Maryland from 1997-2002. On paper, there wasn’t much success in the Vanderlinden years — four sub-.500 seasons from 1997-2000 — but Locksley calls those seasons “the foundation for the great Maryland era.”
Under Vanderlinden, the Terps laid the groundwork for the team that won 31 games during a three-year period from 2001-2003 and an ACC championship in 2001.
“So, why I think [we can be successful is] because I witnessed it. I was here to build it firsthand,” Locksley said. “We built it slowly but we did it the right way. We really did a great job of evaluating talent, and we were bringing in some really great players that were the catalyst to the 2001 season.
“My vision of Maryland may be a little different than people who haven’t grown up or don’t know the history of this place. I know that it can be done because I was here to be a part of doing it, whether it was building it during the Vanderlinden era or seeing it through with the time I spent under Ralph.”
But the reason Locksley is so confident he can win where only a handful of coaches have before goes deeper than simply being present during the success of the past. He is a “hometown homer,” as he calls it — a homegrown former player, coach and family man whose sole purpose is to convince the state’s best talent to stay at Maryland and make his Terps competitive in the Big Ten.
BUILDING A FAMILY
Growing up in a single-parent home in a rough neighborhood in southeast Washington, D.C., Locksley saw his two older brothers spend the majority of their lives in prison. He went to Ballou High School and was a defensive back for Towson State from 1988-1991, winning the team’s Defensive Player of the Year award as a senior. Football was his escape from a difficult life. His teammates became his family members. His coaches were father figures.
“I’m a huge believer in most of the success I’ve had in coaching and recruiting stems from having direct, personal, deep, organic relationships with people, to where if they know you care about them — like really care about them, like love them — they will play their tails off for you,” Locksley said.
One of the countless deep bonds Locksley developed was with former linebacker E.J. Henderson, who came to Maryland as an unheralded recruit out of Aberdeen High School in 1999 and left a two-time first-team All-American and an ACC champion.
“He was always more like an uncle than a coach or more like an older brother than a coach. That’s kind of how we treated each other,” Henderson said. “We went from winning three games a year or five games a year to working our way up, going through all the battles to being ACC champions, another 10-win season, playing the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. And that’s something that Maryland had never experienced. We will always have that connection because we went from the bottom to the top of the top together.”
Locksley carried that family ethos wherever he coached throughout the next two decades.
Locksley and his wife, Kia, hosted burger night on Thursdays at Alabama. After two grueling days of practice on Tuesday and Wednesday, Locksley would light a cigar and fire up the grill as his players unwound by watching football on TV or playing video games.
“They see you outside of just coach and it becomes really personal and intimate,” Locksley said. “So when you hit a tough spot or when things don’t go your way or when you face adversity, there’s a little different way of responding because there’s a lot of personal commitment in relationships that you typically only get with family.”
Locksley has revived the tradition with Terp Tuesdays at his Montgomery County home, complete with pool games, basketball and go-kart racing.
“The more they know you care about them, the harder they’ll play,” he said.
The mentality has already begun to permeate the team. After Maryland’s spring football practice sessions in April, players trooped into a small locker room just off the Terps’ practice field to answer questions from media members about their preparation for the upcoming season and their new head coach.
To a man, when asked what the culture was like under Locksley, each said it felt like a family.
THE BEST FIT
Henderson, who went on to have a successful nine-year career with the Minnesota Vikings, said he still keeps in touch with Locksley and sees his hiring as a boon for local families who are considering sending their sons to play football at Maryland.
“[It’s an] extra layer of comfort to know that not just a position coach, but now the head coach, is from around the way,” Henderson said. “He went to Ballou High School. Any guy from D.C. or [Prince George’s] County in that area, he’s going to be familiar with their surroundings. … He can talk about growing up in the area. He might know their mom and dad, might know some of their cousins or might have gone to school with some of their cousins or uncles.”
There is a difference between someone who is from the area and one who might be coming from the outside who has little knowledge or understanding of what he’s getting into, Henderson said.
“That’s just how culture is,” the former linebacker said.
Not everyone was on board when Locksley was hired. Some were worried by his dismal head coaching record — 3-31 overall thanks to two one-win seasons at New Mexico and a 1-5 record as interim head coach at Maryland in 2015. Others pointed to his off-the-field issues at New Mexico, including a sexual harassment and age discrimination complaint that was filed against Locksley by a former staff member but later withdrawn and a one-game suspension in October 2009 stemming from an altercation with an assistant coach.
“A lot of people could point out the reasons why not to hire Mike Locksley,” said former University of Minnesota head coach Glen Mason, who now works as a Big Ten Network analyst. “But I think because of the situation Maryland was in — you might describe it as dysfunctional, disarray — I think bringing in one of your own, a guy that has great identification with the alumni, high school coaches, with media, I think it absolutely was the right way to go to put some stability right back in that program rather than hiring the hot name on the block.”
Nearly a decade after being fired at New Mexico, Locksley is the first to admit he made mistakes during his brief tenure in Albuquerque, N.M.
“It wasn’t obviously a successful stint as I would have liked, but I always felt after the New Mexico experience that I was prepared because one of the things you do [is] … you learn more from losses than you do from success,” he said. “The things that I learned from my New Mexico experience prepared me for the job even today.”
Locksley’s return to Maryland gave area coaches like Meade High School head coach Mike Francis comfort in knowing a familiar face would be back at the helm at the state’s flagship school.
“I thought it was best for Maryland because we have someone who wants all kids in Maryland to have a chance,” said Francis, whose son, former Maryland defensive lineman A.J. Francis, played for the Terps from 2009-2012. “There’s no doubt in my mind if we have any kids … they are looking to recruit, we are going to do everything we can to make sure Maryland has an opportunity to recruit those kids.”
“A RECRUITER DELUXE”
Everyone has a story about Locksley’s ability to recruit.
It’s one of the reasons he’s so well known in the area, from his early years as a recruiting coordinator in the late ’90s with Maryland to convincing elite players like current Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs to stay close to home and play for the Terps.
It’s why Friedgen kept Locksley on his staff in 2001 when all but two of Vanderlinden’s staff members were let go. The other who stayed on was wide receivers coach James Franklin, now the head coach at Penn State.
“I was going to keep Mike regardless because when I went recruiting with both of those guys, they were really good,” Friedgen said of Locksley and Franklin. “Not only knowing where the prospects were but when they got in the home and they got the tough questions, they had the answers right away.”
Friedgen recalled Locksley staying on the phone for more than two hours with the mother of Randy Starks, a highly-rated defensive lineman who was considering playing at either Maryland or Penn State.
“I don’t know if I would have had that much patience, but we ended up getting Randy and that was because of Mike’s perseverance,” Friedgen said.
That recruiting acumen is a significant benefit to Maryland, especially now that Locksley is not only well-connected in the Washington metro area but also in the south thanks to his time at Alabama. Thirteen of Maryland’s 19 recruits in the 2019 class are from Maryland (7), Washington, D.C. (1), Florida (2), Georgia (2) or Louisiana (1).
“He always had a reputation as a recruiter deluxe,” Mason said. “When you look at schools, the first thing you have to look at is the recruiting base. I look at Maryland as having great potential if you look at the wealth in their backyard. If you can’t recruit your own backyard, where are you going to recruit?”
One of those countless top-notch local talents was Diggs.
Andy Stefanelli was an assistant at Good Counsel during Diggs’ time at the school and is now the head man for the Falcons. Stefanelli is convinced the wide receiver, who played for Maryland from 2012-2014, would have almost certainly played college football elsewhere had it not been for the relationship he built with Locksley during his recruitment.
“He can walk into a room and you could have the 80-year-old grandmother and have the 12-year-old little sister and by the time he leaves, they’re going to love him as much as the player or the mom does,” Stefanelli said. “He has that ability to relate to different people regardless of background.
“Everybody is recruiting, but I think what separates the guys that are very successful from the guys that are good or OK at it is that ability to make people feel comfortable, build a relationship [and] have some trust. … That’s the magic potion you have to have.”
Locksley’s presence in the area has already been felt. He’s attracted several players originally from the area to come to Maryland, such as Isaiah Hazel, a consensus four-star wide receiver from Dr. Henry Wise (Upper Marlboro, Md.) who flipped his commitment from West Virginia to Maryland just days after Locksley was hired. Linebacker Keandre Jones and receiver Sean Savoy, both local products, transferred from Ohio State and Virginia Tech, respectively, thanks to their previous relationships with Locksley.
Even previous connections with current Maryland players have helped Locksley’s transition as he builds out the roster. Players like running backs Anthony McFarland and Lorenzo Harrison III and offensive lineman Ellis McKennie were all on Locksley’s radar in 2015, when he was last with the team.
“Comparisons are the kiss of death” is a phrase Locksley uses often, especially when he’s asked to measure the job of rebuilding Maryland against the history of the 20 head coaches that have come before him.
The quote is a “Sabanism” as Locksley calls it — a line often used by Alabama head coach Nick Saban, whom Locksley spent the last three seasons studying under. Locksley rose from offensive analyst to offensive coordinator from 2016-2018 and earned the Broyles Award for the top coaching assistant in college football last season.
But while he avoids comparing himself to other coaches and eras, Locksley is adroit enough to recognize when a tactic, coaching style or scheme works well enough to use it himself.
“I always say, ‘Success leaves clues,'” he said. “Out of all the guys I worked for I took little pieces.”
One of Locksley’s early stops during his coaching career was Pacific University (Calif.), and Locksley still recalls head coach Chuck Shelton telling him, “Work for the job you have, not for the job you want,” an early bit of advice to be patient and one day the Maryland job he wanted so badly could be his.
Under Vanderlinden, Locksley learned to evaluate the raw talent of a player — regardless of his star rating — to determine if he had what it took to be great. Ron Zook at Florida showed him the passion and boundless energy required to recruit at the highest levels. Randy Edsall, whom Locksley worked under as the offensive coordinator at Maryland from 2012-2015, taught him about discipline and organizational structure.
Friedgen gave him his offensive philosophy.
“There is no greater play-caller, game planner, organizer of offensive systems than Ralph Friedgen,” said Locksley, who still uses much of Friedgen’s tactics to this day.
And of course, there’s Saban.
“With Coach Saban, I think it was the culmination of the structure,” Locksley said. “It’s like putting a puzzle together. It’s got to be the right fit. How he’s able to get a talented group of recruits to play as a team and seeing how he … motivated the players. To me, that was the icing on the cake.”
But for Locksley, not only is the possibility of making Maryland a winner again within reach, the process — another Sabanism — has already begun. In Locksley’s words, “maximize it.”
The “it” is whatever Maryland players are doing at the moment. In April, it was spring practice. In June, it was preseason conditioning. The first fall practice was Aug. 2, and the Terps open the season against Howard Aug. 31.
“We can’t be result-oriented; we’ve really got to be more process-oriented. And again, that’s something I’ve learned along the way, maybe even the hard way,” Locksley said. “I can remember the first go at it when I became a head coach, being really excited about, ‘Oh, we’re going to do this and we’re going to do that.'”
When asked what he thought success might look like in his first season, he said, “To me, if I can get them to play with great discipline, great effort, mental and physical toughness, play together, play with Maryland pride — those are the things that are all culture-driven — I would say that we would have had success.”
But don’t mistake Locksley’s focus on process over results as short-sighted. He’s waited for this job for almost 30 years. He plans to be here for the long term. And for the first time in his career, he can see the whole picture.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox and Courtesy of Maryland Athletics
Issue 256: August 2019