Michael Locksley wasn’t in College Park last season while the Maryland football program navigated both controversy and pain following the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair. He worked at Alabama, about 800 miles from the Maryland campus, only catching occasional glimpses of the Terrapins. Yet that was enough for him to notice their resiliency.
Locksley wasn’t with the players in June when they filed into the team meeting room and heard about the loss of their teammate or when a few walked out of that same room as DJ Durkin addressed the players during his brief return. Locksley wasn’t there for any of it. But he still understood.
Nearly two years ago, Locksley lost his son Meiko, who was shot and killed in Columbia, Md. After Locksley accepted the Maryland coaching job, he said, “I know what it’s like to lose somebody you love.”
When Locksley built his staff, he didn’t retain any assistants from last season, so none of his hires were on the field the day McNair suffered heatstroke. But they also weren’t there as the players and coaches banded together and found a way to compete each weekend despite the chaos that surrounded them. The assistants’ leadership through the season could have made some of them strong candidates to stay.
Instead, 10 new assistants are part of a rebuilding effort, mending what had broken before they arrived. The players felt ready for that change as they continued to move further from the turmoil and toward normalcy.
“As a team, we hit rock bottom already,” running back Javon Leake said after a practice this spring. “So we know what it feels like to be there. We know what it feels like to get through the adversity. When the coaches came in, we already knew what we had to do. We wanted a fresh start as a team.”
The coaches range from 28-year-old tight ends coach Mike Miller to veterans with decades of experience. While some are new to the area, many have local ties. Defensive line coach Delbert Cowsette played for the Terps. Special teams coordinator and inside linebackers coach John Papuchis graduated from Quince Orchard High in Montgomery County. Running backs coach Elijah Brooks came from local high school power DeMatha. Cornerbacks coach Cory Robinson, a Baltimore native, served as Maryland’s director of player personnel in 2015.
But upon arrival, they all had to begin building relationships with the players, sometimes from scratch but occasionally with the help of existing ties. The process starts with a conversation and is forged through time devoted to establishing trust.
Miller talked to his tight ends just as he would when meeting anyone for the first time. He asked about the past year, not necessarily what happened in the program but just to gauge where the players stood in football and in life. Miller asked about players’ goals and their hometowns, their parents and their siblings.
“I want to know about who you are as a person,” Miller said. “I genuinely think players can sniff out the bull crap and see through it.”
So the coaches spend time with the team off the field, just as any new staff would. Miller will have players over to his house on Easter. Outside linebackers coach Brian Williams tries to give his players just as much information about himself as he asks from them. That has been an emphasis this spring, on top of teaching new systems, identifying key players and preparing for a season in one of college football’s toughest conferences.
The focus remains the present, offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery said, adding that the staff doesn’t discuss what happened last year. But there’s still an awareness of what the players went through. Even while coaching in other programs around the country, the national headlines proved unavoidable, so most assistants had at least surface-level knowledge of last season’s events.
When considering this job, “I certainly thought about it,” offensive line coach John Reagan said. “In all honesty, as I've told the Locks and I told the guys in the room, I said this is more than just a job offer to me. It was more of a calling. I felt like this was something I needed to do at this point in time.”
Reagan stepped in to lead the position group most intimately affected by death of McNair. Johnny Jordan lived with McNair in College Park. Ellis McKennie lived on his street growing up. Reagan said his group is closer because of what it went through. Thanks to individual conversations, Reagan feels he has received the information he needed to connect with the players.
“One of the hardest things for 18- to 22-year-old men to do is trust other men,” Reagan said. “It’s not something that society looks at and says, ‘Hey, it’s okay to love each other.’ But it is. And I think those guys feel that and know that and know that I’m there for them. And I think they know that they’re there for each other. All of us are needed, so let’s go. Let’s get it done together.”
That sense of unity has been preached all spring as a pillar of the program, in each position group room and among the whole team. That’s not only what the program needs to move forward but what it feels is necessary to win games.
“I can’t demand excellence if I don’t have a relationship with them and let them know: ‘Hey, I care about you. I love you. I want what’s best for you on and off the field. You’ve got to trust me,’ ” Miller said. “That process takes time. Obviously we’ve got to develop relationships with the kids. They received us with open arms.”