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The Alabama football machine rebuilt Michael Locksley’s career

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Michael Locksley arrived at Alabama three years ago, more than 20 years into his career, in need of a new start. He had been passed over for the job he coveted and carried an abysmal record as a head coach.

Locksley will coach his final game with the Crimson Tide on Monday night at the pinnacle of college football before moving full time into that dream job, as the head coach at Maryland. He will still have a career record of 3-31 attached to his name, but it will be overshadowed by the most recent and most impressive line on his résumé: He is the offensive coordinator who helped lead Alabama to its fourth consecutive appearance in the College Football Playoff national championship game. More than that, he will be known as a member of the Nick Saban coaching tree.

Locksley went to Alabama, where coaches go to be coached, to learn why results such as this year’s title-game appearance have become the norm. He started over, first taking the behind-the-scenes role of analyst, then coaching wide receivers before becoming offensive coordinator and primary play caller this season. Locksley, a D.C. native, has repeatedly called the Maryland job one that he has always wanted, but he said “it wouldn’t have happened had it not been for this Alabama experience.”

About 30 seconds into his first remarks as Maryland’s head coach Dec. 6, Locksley mentioned Saban. In Locksley’s bio on Maryland’s website, Saban’s name appears in the third sentence. Locksley’s qualifications for the position are rooted in this association. After all, he didn’t get the same job three years earlier, when he had yet to spend time with Saban and lead one of the nation’s most prolific offenses.

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“Having the opportunity to work for Coach Saban, you can’t help but get better,” said Locksley, 49. “When you’re around this guy and you get to see the work ethic, you get to see the organization, you get to see the structure, the discipline, how he goes about doing things, it rubs off not just on players but coaches as well.”

Working under Saban is “like coming to coaching boot camp,” said Alabama co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Josh Gattis, who is finishing his first year with the program.

Locksley used a different metaphor: He called it “the Nick Saban witness protection program” last month after accepting the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant.

“Some of us have had a little tougher go at it,” Locksley said before Alabama’s win over Oklahoma at the Orange Bowl in the CFP semifinals. “And coming into his program, I think the structure that people respect him for, the discipline of his program, that if you can make it through his program unscathed per se, you’ll leave here usually with an opportunity to better yourself as a coach.”

In 2016, Locksley went behind Alabama’s curtain — which keeps assistants mostly out of view, with Saban not making them available to speak with media members — and tried to understand how the Crimson Tide just keeps winning. Sure, Alabama recruits the nation’s best players and then relies on game-planning, but assistants and players point toward the culture of consistency and the program’s routine-based approach as key reasons for its success.

The expectations, the schedules, the nuances — they all stay the same, whether Alabama is preparing to play The Citadel or Auburn. The Crimson Tide doesn’t play music during practice. Wide receiver Jerry Jeudy said practice feels like a game; in high school, it felt like, well, practice. Before bowl games, some programs take on a lighter load to keep the players fresh, running back Damien Harris said, but Alabama refuses to deviate.

Coaches emphasize “deliberate practice habits,” which Harris said means “every single day going in with the same exact mind-set, same exact determination to get better and improve, and just a desire to be great.”

Harris said he isn’t sure whether Locksley picked up that mantra from Saban or vice versa; he just knows that both say it. It turns out that Locksley learned the phrase during his first stint at Maryland, when a sports psychologist explained how Tiger Woods practiced.

“I’ve carried that along the way,” Locksley said as a printed practice plan rested on the table where he sat during Orange Bowl media day. “But I’m going to give Coach credit for it.”

The culture of consistency and discipline bleeds down from Saban. For the Crimson Tide, Saban’s way is the way that works, so assistants embrace his principles and sometimes carry them to their next stops.

When asked whether Alabama analyst Butch Jones’s offensive philosophies align with his own, Locksley said: “They align with Coach Saban’s. That’s the most important thing here at Alabama.”

As Locksley moves into his role at Maryland, he knows he can’t simply replicate Saban’s fine-tuned machine, which continues to produce championships, even as assistants and players come and go. In his job interview, Locksley said Maryland is not going to be a version of Alabama. He’ll pull from what has worked in Tuscaloosa, but Locksley said the resources and structures in College Park are different.

“I can take from how we’ve done things here,” Locksley said. “But like a play caller … each coordinator kind of puts his personality on those philosophies, and that’s what I plan to do at Maryland.”

As empty nesters, Locksley and his wife, Kia, invited players to their home for burgers on Thursday nights this season. What started as a crowd of around a dozen offensive players grew closer to 30 or 40, Locksley said, with defensive players sometimes joining in. They’re “almost like those rave parties, where you don’t get invited; you just kind of show up,” Locksley said, noting how players come at different times. (Terrell Lewis, a junior linebacker and D.C. native, once arrived at 10:50 p.m., when the grill was already off.)

After a hard week of practice, Locksley said, those Thursday nights eating burgers and watching football felt personal.

“I’ve never been around a guy like him that had that many great leadership skills,” Gattis said. “It’s really led to the success of our offense. If you put it on one person, it’s not [quarterback Tua Tagovailoa], it’s not anybody. I think it’s been Coach Locksley’s leadership skills.”

With those traits, Locksley has garnered praise for what he accomplished under Saban — the play-calling, the relationship-building, the winning — and Maryland soon will find out whether he can do it on his own.

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