Midway through Mike Locksley’s introductory press conference at his “dream job,” Maryland football’s new head coach looked out at the crowd assembled inside Cole Field House and picked out Martin McNair.
Locksley’s daughter, Kori, attended McDonogh School with McNair’s son Jordan. They had signed their letters of intent together — Kori with Auburn soccer, Jordan with Maryland football — and as Maryland’s offensive coordinator, Locksley said he had started the recruiting process with Jordan before departing for Alabama three years ago.
So when Locksley’s son Meiko was fatally shot in Columbia in 2017, the McNairs became a support system. And when Jordan died earlier this year after suffering heatstroke at a team workout, Locksley provided the same in response.
A Washington, D.C., native, Locksley understands everything that transpired since May 29 and has a personal connection to it.
“We have a common bond, man,” Locksley said. “The circle of life isn’t built for parents to bury kids, so I’ve been a sounding board for Marty, he’s been an ear for me. Our relationship has continued to grow, and for him to be here today just means the world to me and my family, to see me take the reins of this football family.”
There’s plenty of work left to be done, but the Terps’ first priority — finding a coach willing to pick up the pieces of a program rocked by tragedy and external investigations — was completed Thursday.
And Locksley made it clear he was more than willing to fill the role he’s long dreamt of obtaining.
“Boy,” he said after reaching the lectern in a facility that was merely a blueprint the last time he worked in College Park, “it sure feels good to be home.”
[Read more: Maryland football hires Alabama OC Mike Locksley as head coach]
Locksley coached at Maryland for 10 years in two previous stints. Between 1997 and 2002, he was running backs coach. And between 2012 and 2015, he served as offensive coordinator before taking over as interim head coach after Randy Edsall was fired in October 2015.
Before that, Locksley recalled growing up as a Terps fan. He’d hang out in the parking lots outside Cole Field House before watching basketball games — though he admitted he couldn’t “tell you the stories” of why he was there.
Each weekend, he checks in on the scores of five teams: Ballou High School in D.C. and Towson, his alma maters; the Washington Redskins, whom he grew up watching; Maryland, where he learned the trade as an assistant; and whichever team he coaches for.
Now, that number will drop to four.
[Read more: Off-field turmoil defined Maryland football’s season as much as on-field performance]
Locksley — who will split time as Maryland’s coach and Alabama’s offensive coordinator until the end of the College Football Playoff — remembered sitting in his hotel room prior to the Crimson Tide’s season opener against Louisville, watching the Terps beat then-No. 23 Texas at FedEx Field.
“What passion, energy, toughness that this team played with,” Locksley said. “It’s a testament to Matt [Canada] and all the coaches on this coaching staff. … I’m not coming into a bare cupboard. I’m coming into a team that has fight in them. That has the toughness and characteristics that I feel like we can build on.”
It’s unclear exactly who “we” is at the moment. Both Locksley and athletic director Damon Evans commended the job Canada did as interim head coach, leading Maryland to a 5-7 season in hellish circumstances, but his future — and the future of the rest of the Terps’ staff — is uncertain.
Locksley said he’ll take his time with that decision and will meet with all the remaining staffers to decide who to retain. He looks for great communicators, recruiters, talent evaluators and mentors.
For the past three years, Locksley himself has learned from one of college football’s most accomplished coaches. Under Nick Saban at Alabama, Locksley rose from an offensive analyst to the offensive coordinator, leading the Crimson Tide to the second-best scoring offense in the country in 2018.
But before that, Locksley felt Maryland was where he “cut his teeth as a coach,” learning from Ron Vanderlinden, Ralph Friedgen, Randy Edsall and, for a short time, DJ Durkin.
Durkin’s firing Oct. 31 — one day after the University System of Maryland Board of Regents recommended his reinstatement — allowed for Locksley’s hiring. And while Locksley shied away from commenting on allegations of a “toxic” team culture, he vowed to make player safety his top priority.
“I want to create the right culture and environment, and winning will follow,” Locksley said. “Every decision I make moving forward as the leader of this family will put the health, welfare and safety of the student-athletes first, like I would my own children.”
Winning hasn’t followed in Lockley’s limited experience as a head coach. At New Mexico from 2009 to 2011, he accumulated a 2-26 record and was fired four games into his third season. He wasn’t able to find success as Maryland’s interim head coach, either, finishing 1-5.
In his first season at New Mexico, Locksley was named in a sexual harassment and age discrimination claim filed by administrative assistant Sylvia Lopez to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but the claim was later withdrawn.
Locksley also was suspended for 10 days in 2009 after an altercation with then-assistant coach J.B. Gerald, though Locksley and the school disputed parts of Gerald’s account.
“I’m so far removed from that New Mexico experience,” Locksley said, seeming to reference his 2-26 record rather than off-field developments. “You mature, you grow. I just spent three years saturated in winning under coach Nick Saban and the Alabama football program.”
Evans added that they had talked about those past incidents during the interview process, but felt Locksley has learned from them.
In 2010, Evans’ stint as Georgia’s athletic director ended abruptly after a DUI. A few years later, university President Wallace Loh offered Evans a lifeline, and he rose through the ranks at Maryland to become athletic director.
So he understands the importance of a second chance.
“Where he was then — which was eight to 10 years ago — to where he is now, he’s had a lot of life lessons, as we all have,” Evans said. “I could not be more proud than to have him sitting next to me on this stage.”
And Locksley couldn’t be more excited, either.
“This is the job I’ve coveted since the day I put a whistle around my neck as a coach,” Locksley said. “Some people grow up wanting to be the head coach of the University of Alabama, Michigan, all the storied programs. For Locks, this was it.”