A reasonable assessment, given Maryland plays Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State every year. A reasonable assessment, given Maryland’s football program and athletic department were left in disarray following the death of freshman lineman Jordan McNair in the spring of 2018. A reasonable assessment, given Locksley had at his disposal Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and a slew of offensive players who certainly will star in the NFL. In the winter of 2018-19, the club of “better jobs than Maryland” was hardly exclusive.
And yet Locksley thought what no one else in the country would think.
“In the back of my mind,” Locksley said, “as I’m listening to him, I’m thinking, ‘There really ain’t a better job than Maryland.’”
From anyone else, that’s an insane evaluation, and maybe a year from now, five years from now, Locksley will reconsider. But on the eve of the Terrapins’ first season with tragedy and turmoil fully in the rearview mirror, they have as their head coach not someone climbing to reach the next job, but someone who climbed to get the job he finally has. At a time when the program was teetering on the edge, that matters.
“When he first came and said that this is the only job he wanted, everybody kind of believed it and bought in because he’s been here for a long time,” redshirt sophomore running back Anthony McFarland said. “He’s from this area. He coached some of the greatest players we’ve had on the field, recruited some of the best to play here at Maryland. At the end of the day, I think it speaks for itself how much love he has for this university.”
That part is real, because Locksley not only used to sneak into (now-renamed) Byrd Stadium as a kid who grew up in Southwest D.C. back in the day, but he spent two stints as a Maryland assistant — the first under Ron Vanderlinden and then Ralph Friedgen in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the next under Randy Edsall from 2012-15, a run that concluded with a tenure as the interim head coach when Edsall was fired midseason. When Locksley bucked Saban’s advice and accepted the Maryland job, he did so with eyes wide open.
“I know the fleas of the place — meaning the good, bad and the ugly,” he said. “I’ve been a part of a lot of the good. I’ve seen it growing up. I’ve seen it as a young coach that you can win here.”
When Maryland won an ACC championship and 30 games in three years under Friedgen, it did so with studs Locksley recruited from this area: tight end Vernon Davis, sack machine Shawne Merriman, linebacker E.J. Henderson, safety Madieu Williams and others. When Locksley left to be the recruiting coordinator at Florida, he plucked defensive end Derrick Harvey from Prince George’s County. When he followed fired Florida coach Ron Zook to Illinois, he stole wide receiver Arrelious Benn and defensive back Vontae Davis (Vernon’s brother) from the District and linebacker Ian Thomas from DeMatha; they became the core of the 2007 team that sent the Illini to the Rose Bowl for the first time in a quarter-century.
Think it’s a coincidence that this year’s Alabama roster features eight players from Maryland and the District? It’s not.
“To me, I kind of opened up people’s eyes,” Locksley said. “Like, ‘Wow. There’s that type of talent in that area?’”
The trick, for Locksley, is to understand Maryland’s challenges even as he tries to stress its potential. Those challenges are significant both in the near and the long term. Some are solvable. Some aren’t going away.
What will be a perennial battle: the success Locksley remembers Maryland having all came in the ACC, a basketball conference in which the Terps occasionally excelled in football, highlighted by three straight league championships under Bobby Ross in the 1980s. The present and the future means life in the Big Ten East, with annual dates against those Buckeyes, Wolverines and Nittany Lions. Since the Terps joined the conference in 2014, they have gone 2-13 against that trio, and the average scores of those games has been roughly 43-16. That’s not competitive. And that’s not going away.
“If we can figure out — which we will — how to control the recruiting base here,” Locksley said, “we’ll be able to accelerate turning this program around.”
But there’s another, more immediate concern that has nothing to do with Maryland’s environs, but rather concerns the very identity not just of the football program or the athletic department, but of the entire school: How does Maryland right itself after McNair’s death, now more than 14 months ago? The investigations are over. Coach DJ Durkin and his staff are gone.
Can Maryland move forward now?
“I feel like our team is not in the healing process no more,” McFarland said. “We’re always going to play for Jordan McNair. But as a team, we feel like you’ve got to sink to rock bottom to hit the top. We feel like that’s the story we want to tell.”
Throughout the unsavoriness of 2018, it was always — and often only — the players who acquitted themselves well. Interim coach Matt Canada did his best to navigate seas Magellan would have found too rough to sail. But the program, then, had no choice but to live week to week, day-to-day, hour to hour.
Now, Locksley has to provide stability and direction not just for the week leading into the season opener against Howard, but into next year and beyond. He has an entire program to build on sands that have only shifted.
The steps he took to that end were immediate and, he believes, important. He and his staff spent the offseason eating dinner with the players nightly at Gossett Football Team House. He broke the squad into position groups and invited each over to his house on Sundays for time in the pool and at the grill. He took the Terps to see the Packers and Ravens play an exhibition in Baltimore. He organized a karaoke night in which he endured earsplitting renditions of some rap songs — “kind of awful,” he said — before the coach himself, wearing a crown, implored the team to join him in Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.”
“I think you can coach a kid any kind of way you want to if he knows you care about them,” Locksley said. “Time is our most valuable commodity, and when you give these kids your personal time, it’s really important to ’em. . . . I just think the time you invest in them like that, when they see you outside of being ‘Coach,’ makes it easier to be ‘Coach.’”
He is the coach at the University of Maryland, one of the very few who could say with a straight face it’s the job he has wanted his whole life. But because of the circumstances he stepped into — circumstances that left the best in the business advising him to stay away — Michael Locksley has challenges other first-year coaches don’t face. Not just the athletic department, but the entire school, needs him to succeed so that reputations are restored, so that the flagship university can become a place where the best the state has to offer — football players or not — can come feeling they’ll be cared for.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.