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Mike Locksley’s long, winding road back home to Maryland

PISCATAWAY, NJ - NOVEMBER 28: Head coach Mike Locksley of the Maryland Terrapins looks on before a game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at High Point Solutions Stadium on November 28, 2015 in Piscataway, New Jersey. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

During Black History Month, WTOP is highlighting black men and women in the area who are doing groundbreaking work to better the community. This is the fourth and final installment of the series, the rest of which can be found here.

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Quick: name the best college football program to coach for right now. Some number of you no doubt picked Alabama, home of perennially dominant recruiting classes and winners of half of the national championships over the last decade.

Now, name the worst.

There are certainly teams with poorer records in recent years than the Maryland Terrapins. But the fact that the program hasn’t had a 10-win season in 15 years pales in the face of Jordan McNair’s death and the scandal and fallout that have followed.

Why would someone choose to come coach at Maryland? Why would Mike Locksley — newly-minted Broyles Award winner as the top assistant in college football — leave his post as offensive coordinator for the powerhouse Crimson Tide to return to the university where he was once an interim head coach, but not hired on as the permanent leader, to a program in turmoil, back to the area where the biggest tragedy of his life occurred?

The more you learn about Locksley — his roots, his dreams, his particular path — the more you come to the realization that it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone else taking charge of the Maryland football program at this particular moment in history.

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Tragedies have a way of echoing throughout our lives. Maybe there’s something cosmic to it, maybe we just tend to notice other people’s pain more once we’ve experienced it in kind ourselves.

In Locksley’s first game as Alabama’s offensive coordinator in 2017, the top-ranked Crimson Tide whipped No. 3 Florida State on national TV, 24/7. Afterward, Locksley shared a call with his 25-year-old son, Meiko, who was optimistic that his dad’s squad would win the national title, something they would go on to accomplish four months later. Late that night, Meiko was shot and killed in Columbia, Maryland. His killer has never been found.

Locksley was born and grew up in the Greenleaf Gardens section of Southwest D.C., an area now halfway between Nationals Park and the Wharf. As he grew up, his family moved over to Linda Pollin Memorial Housing Project in Southeast, just across the street from the Maryland border, and he eventually graduated from Ballou High School. The Pollin complex was built by former Washington Capitals, Mystics and Wizards owner Abe Pollin and named after his daughter, who died at 16 from congenital heart disease.

The Pollin Project was designed to try to provide a better model for low income housing, one that he built with the hopes that it might offer those who grew up there a springboard to better opportunities.

Locksley was hired as a head coach for the first time in the fall of 2009 and got his first win on Nov. 21, three days before Abe Pollin died in D.C.

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When he talks about Maryland’s past, Locksley speaks of the era of former Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, and of returning the program to what it was then.

“I’ve been here for some of those really, really good times,” he said, specifically referencing big wins over Clemson and NC State. “And I was here before that to see how it was built. That’s how I remember Maryland. And I know it can get back there.”

The Terps went 75-50 in 10 years under Friedgen, making seven bowl games and winning five of them, taking home the ACC title in 2001.

Like Locksley, Friedgen won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant, shortly before coming back to Maryland to become head coach. Like Locksley, Friedgen’s return marked his third stint at Maryland.

After a three-year career as an offensive guard, Friedgen joined the coaching staff as a graduate assistant in 1969. Following stops at The Citadel, William & Mary and Murray State, he returned for five years in the ‘80s as offensive coordinator. Then, after two stints at Georgia Tech sandwiched around five years in the NFL with the Chargers, Friedgen returned to College Park as head coach in 2001, where Locksley was already on staff as the running backs coach.

Even then, Locksley knew being head coach at Maryland was his dream job, and he wasn’t shy about it.

“This job is the one job I always coveted,” he said. “The first time I met with [Friedgen], I basically told him. I said, ‘One day, I’m going to be the coach here.’”

The paths that both he and the Maryland program have traveled to get to this point, though, haven’t been as either would have envisioned.

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Locksley is still living out of a hotel for now — though he is closing on a house soon — only one of the many ways in which, despite his familiarity with the school and the area, it will take him a while to get settled.

This return to College Park is different from his last one. Then, he was coming off two-and-a-half seasons of on-field failure at New Mexico, surviving less than half of the six-year contract he signed, winning just a single game in each of his seasons in Albuquerque. He had a complaint filed against him by an administrative assistant and was suspended for 10 days without pay after an altercation with an assistant coach.

The dream of being a college football coach had come true, but didn’t look anything like what Locksley hoped he might live out one day at Maryland. But Maryland was the one that once again gave him a chance, as he returned to be the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach under Randy Edsall. It was a chance to rebuild his profile, but also a chance to do so where he was most comfortable.

“This is my hometown, college team that I rooted for,” said Locksley. “I’m very prideful about this area. Most people who grew up here are kind of hometown, prideful people. We’re a little different from other areas in the country.”

Now, as he returns once more, it’s the program looking to redeem itself.

***

Nine months after his own son’s death, Jordan McNair suffered heatstroke on the field not far from where Locksley’s office sits today. McNair fell into a coma and died 15 days later at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center, the same hospital where Meiko died.

Locksley had helped recruit McNair to Maryland in the first place. Of course he had — his daughter was in the same graduating class as McNair at McDonough. But their connection goes back even further. One of Locksley’s other sons, Kai, played with McNair on Bub Carrington’s AAU team in middle school. Locksley has known Jordan’s father Marty ever since.

That’s where the story of Locksley and Maryland, of fathers and sons, biological and communal, all starts to come together.

As much as the words he repeats over and over, it’s the words Locksley never once utters that speak volumes about his approach. There is no “Big Ten,” no “bowl eligibility,” no mention of the most recent coaching regime. Instead Locksley speaks of a commitment to attracting the kids around the D.C. area, providing them a place to play football and earn their education, the same path Locksley used to achieve the life he has now.

“We play pretty good football in the DMV. And I think a lot of people notice it, which is why so many other programs now flock to this area to recruit our guys,” he said. “More than anything to me is to convince our people in this area, the players, that you can reach every goal you have for yourself as a football player, as a student, as a person going to school here at the University of Maryland.”

Lockley’s first order of business upon his return to College Park has been to build a cadre of assistants who he believes can accomplish that, in whom he believes and trusts, more than anything. While they need to understand football, the Xs and Os, how to scheme and recruit, all of that takes a back seat to what the program needs most.

“Coaches are like fathers. They’ve gotta be mentors. They’ve gotta be guys that these players want to be around,” said Locksley.

“To me, that’s how you build a family.”

***

Does any of it mean anything — the parallels of unfathomable loss, of returning once more to the place you feel you’re supposed to be, older and hopefully wiser than when you left? That probably depends on whether or not you believe in fate, or simply in coincidences.

But what’s not an accident is Locksley ending up back at Maryland, back at home. That was always his dream, his plan. Neither he, nor the Maryland program, would have chosen the circumstances that brought such an arrangement to be. But now that he is here, it’s hard to imagine anyone else leading Maryland football into the future.

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