He speaks of building the team into a Big Ten contender, increasing the lackluster attendance at home games and filling holes left by graduation. He also concedes that, at least for now, these are secondary goals for a sullied program coming off a season unlike any other.
Locksley knows his most important task is forming a bond with players who last year dealt with the death of a teammate and the subsequent backlash that made the program notable for all the wrong reasons.
“I’m going to make every decision for each individual kid as if he was my child,” Locksley said. “If you do that, then it’s tough to make a bad choice. The decisions I make will be with their best interest at heart, ensuring their safety and welfare.”
Sophomore offensive lineman Jordan McNair collapsed on the practice field last May and later died of heatstroke. That led to two external investigations, the resignation of strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, the firing of two trainers and the suspension, one-day return and subsequent dismissal of head coach DJ Durkin.
After a 5-7 season that ended with four straight defeats, a coaching search landed Locksley, who had long coveted the post. Before saying yes, however, Locksley sought the blessing McNair’s parents, Martin McNair and Tonya Wilson, with whom he had previously formed an unusual bond.
Not only had Locksley’s daughter and Jordan McNair attended McDonogh High School together, but the coach knows the anguish of losing a son. In September 2017, Meiko Locksley was shot and killed in Columbia, Maryland, at age 25.
“It was important to me that they were on board with this,” Locksley said of his hiring.
Although the move represents the next chapter in Maryland football, Jordan McNair remains an important part of the program.
“As parents, Kia and I will never get over losing Meiko. Just like these team members and Tonya and Marty won’t get over losing Jordan,” Locksley said. “We’re not moving on, we’re learning how to get through those memories and the hurt of losing someone you love and care about. It’s a new year, but we’ll utilize all our experiences. As my wife says about Meiko, instead of mourning the loss of him, we’re going to honor the memory of him.”
That will be the focus this season.
“The memory of Jordan will live within us forever,” redshirt sophomore running back Anthony McFarland Jr. said. “But I feel like we’re past everything that happened last year, and we’re ready to move forward. That’s something we say Jordan would want us to do — not necessarily forget about it, and just keep pushing forward. We want to get better and honor Jordan. Those are two things we want to do this year.”
It would seem that recruiting at Maryland would be a formidable task, but Locksley told concerned parents that the school has implemented new safeguards designed to ensure the well-being of the student athletes.
“We were very honest and transparent in the recruiting process,” he said. “Because of what happened with Jordan, we created a process now we feel that is foolproof to ensure as best as we can that it never happens again.”
Locksley, 49, is in his third stint at Maryland. He was running backs coach and recruiting coordinator from 1997-2002 and offensive coordinator from 2012-15. After a highly successful run as offensive coordinator at Alabama, he comes to Maryland looking to improve on a 3-31 record as a head coach, which includes going 2-26 at New Mexico and 1-5 as interim coach at Maryland for Randy Edsall in 2015.
“There’s no doubt I want to prove I can be a successful head coach, and I’m very thankful that I have Maryland as the place I get to do that,” Locksley said.
Armed with a five-year contract, Locksley just might bring stability to a program that has been looking for the right fit since Ralph Friedgen left in 2010. Edsall was followed by Durkin, who was suspended before the 2018 season and fired while interim coach Matt Canada ruled the sideline.
McFarland, who was recruited by Locksley as a ninth-grader, said, “It’s been a crazy ride, not just having a lot of head coaches but three different running back coaches.”
He looks forward to finishing his career with Locksley in charge.
“As soon as he got the coaching job, I knew the environment would change,” McFarland said. “No disrespect to DJ Durkin, but one of the things that stood out to me with ‘Locks’ is, the first day he came here he said he wanted to make this a family. Not just football. I’ve never heard that from a coach. It makes you want to play for a coach like that, someone who really loves you and see you as a son.”