Maryland hires Mike Locksley, 3 years after it didn’t

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Locksley’s first job is to move the team past a painful chapter.

Maryland hired Alabama offensive coordinator Mike Locksley as its next football coach, the school announced Tuesday night. It’s a homecoming for Locksley, a D.C. native who used to be Maryland’s offensive coordinator and then interim coach. Earlier in the week, Locksley won the Broyles Award, which goes to the nation’s best assistant coach.

He replaces DJ Durkin, whom the university fired under public pressure on Halloween. Durkin had been on administrative leave for the first eight games of the 2018 season while a university commission investigated his program’s culture in the wake of lineman Jordan McNair’s death following an offseason team workout.

Those investigators found Durkin’s program had a culture “where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out.” The school briefly reinstated Durkin and appeared to be trying hard to absolve him, for no clear reason.

Maryland’s players, facing difficult circumstances and playing under an interim coach in Matt Canada, put together a respectable season. They beat Texas in Week 1 and almost beat Ohio State in Week 12, when they fell painfully short on the last play. Losses in the final four games left Maryland one win short of bowl eligibility.

Now, the school’s settled on a long-term solution, three years after it hired Durkin. And it’s the guy Maryland picked Durkin over last time.

Locksley was interim coach for the back half of the 2015 season, after the school fired Randy Edsall. A camp of local high school coaches and Maryland boosters wanted him. But the school chose Durkin, who’d been Michigan’s defensive coordinator, instead.

Maryland’s current AD, Damon Evans, was involved in that search, though he wasn’t technically in charge. Locksley then went to Alabama, where he was an analyst for a year and a coordinator for the last two. He’s long been regarded as one of the best recruiters of talent in Maryland’s geographic footprint, and that certainly helped his case.

Locksley had been Edsall’s offensive coordinator before his time as interim coach. He’s coached at a bunch of stops and was a full-time head coach once before: at New Mexico, where he went 2-26 from 2009-11 and left amid misconduct allegations.

Especially given the circumstances ahead of his hiring, Locksley will have to answer questions about that exit. At UNM reportedly had a physical altercation with an assistant coach, had an EEOC complaint filed against him and then resolved, and once reportedly had some kind of confrontation with a student reporter at a bar. Maryland’s already hired Locksley once since then, as has Nick Saban’s Bama.

Locksley’s taking over a job that’s always had theoretical upside, but that comes with significant on- and off-field challenges.

There are enduring points of intrigue around this job, which have long suggested Maryland might be able to break through. The D.C., Maryland, and Virginia area — the DMV, as people from there will call it — has plenty of blue-chip recruits. The university opened an expensive indoor practice facility two seasons ago, which caught it up to other teams in this sport’s ongoing facility wars. It has a close relationship with Under Armour, whose founder, Kevin Plank, used to play for the team. It’s not Nike, but that relationship’s something.

The biggest barrier to success is simple, though. Maryland plays in the Big Ten East. To make anything of itself, it has to be better than at least a couple of Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and Michigan State in any given year. Since joining the Big Ten in 2014, Maryland’s struggled to keep up with those heavy hitters. The Terps have been a peer to Indiana (if a little behind) and a slight step ahead of Rutgers, which isn’t saying much.

The scandal that unfolded after McNair’s death has made the job a lot harder, in higher-stakes ways. The first task in front of the program over coming months is to rebuild trust at home, with players and families who have entrusted themselves to it. It’ll take time for Maryland’s reputation to start to recover, and that’ll extend to recruiting, where it’s likely to sign one of the lowest-ranked classes in the power conferences in 2019. The school’s also created a lot of administrative instability as it’s bungled the response to McNair’s death.

Some people close to the program have maintained that Locksley is the best man to help Maryland move forward. Many of Maryland’s players are already familiar with him, and some boosters have publicly speculated that only Locksley could prevent a transfer exodus this offseason. There’s no absolute consensus on Locksley from Maryland boosters, but he enjoyed significant booster support when the school considered him in 2015 and has again this year. That comes largely from a faith in his ability to recruit.

As Maryland blog Testudo Times writes:

[His time at Bama] and Locksley’s decorated history of recruiting the DMV area were his two biggest strengths as a candidate. While Maryland’s recruiting class rankings were mostly uninspiring under Edsall, Locksley was the lead recruiter on five-star prospects Stefon Diggs and Damian Prince. He also scored a commitment from quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who ultimately flipped to Ohio State after Locksley was not retained and is now a Heisman finalist. At Alabama, Locksley led the recruitment for five-star defensive end Eyabi Anoma in 2018 and four-star linebacker Shane Lee in 2019; both prospects are from St. Frances Academy in Baltimore.

The program has the tools in place to have more good years than it’s had in the last decade. But building the Terps into a winner will be a long project, and that can’t happen until the team’s leadership builds confidence that it will be a better place than it was under Durkin.

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