Maryland’s Mike Locksley is winning games, but he’s focused on changing lives

Sports saved the Washington, D.C., native’s life and he’s determined to pay it forward

Published on: November 04, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: November 04, 2022 2:24 PM EDT

Maryland head coach Mike Locksley questions a call during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Indiana, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022, in Bloomington, Ind

The 6-2 Maryland Terrapins are looking to notch their fourth conference win in a season for the first time since they joined the Big Ten in 2014 when they face the 4-4 Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison on Saturday.

Star Terps quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, who missed a 31-24 victory over Northwestern two weeks ago with a sprained right medial collateral ligament, is expected to return to action against the Badgers.

Tagovailoa, who’s having an exceptional redshirt junior campaign with 2,001 passing yards and 13 touchdowns, needs just 430 more yards to become the school’s all-time passing leader. He directs an explosive attack, with Maryland having scored 27 or more points in 10 consecutive games.

The combination of Tagovailoa and running back Roman Hemby, who had 179 yards and three rushing touchdowns against Northwestern, including the scintillating 75-yard game winner, is one of college football’s most potent.

Head coach Mike Locksley is no stranger to devising incendiary offensive attacks. As the offensive coordinator during his previous stint at Alabama in 2018, when he won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach with Taulia’s brother Tua running the offense, the Crimson Tide averaged 45.6 points and 522 yards per game.

Locksley’s recruiting skills are well known, having secured commitments from the likes of NFL standouts Vernon Davis, Shawne Merriman, LaMont Jordan, D’Qwell Jackson, EJ Henderson, Yannick Ngakoue and Stefon Diggs over the years.

Coach Locks, as he’s affectionately known, began his coaching career with his alma mater, Towson University, shortly after being named the team’s defensive MVP as a senior in 1991.

There were numerous stops over the years as he climbed the coaching ranks, with some exalted highs like winning a national championship at Alabama, and extreme lows like being fired after going 2-26 in his first head coaching job at the University of New Mexico.

Football is much more than a game for Locksley. His desire to win and build something special at Maryland is unquestionable. But he’s also in the business to inspire, encourage and build men of character, and give back to the game what it has ultimately given him.

The Banner sat down with Locksley this week before the Terps got on the road to Wisconsin to talk about his journey, this team, the program and what he ultimately hopes to build in College Park.

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Banner: Take us back to a young Coach Locks growing up in a rugged section of D.C. and give us a sense of who you were as a little guy.

Mike Locksley: I was a Boys and Girls Club kid that grew up in the Southwest section of D.C. My parents divorced really early in my life, around the time I was going into the sixth grade. From that point on I didn’t have a real strong relationship with my dad. So, Mom was a single mom that raised three boys and a girl.

What role did sports play early on in terms of your identity, values and personal development?

Sports saved my life. My two older brothers spent most of their adult lives in prison, in federal penitentiaries since D.C. isn’t a state. One was serving time on the West Coast, and the other was up and down the East Coast. Being a Boys and Girls Club guy, I played every sport known to man.

In the D.C. area, they were run by the metropolitan police. That was community policing at its best. They told me to use sports and take it as far as I could take it. I was the first in my family to go to college and graduated from Towson University with a business degree. From there, I started my coaching career.

There’s a rumor going around that not only were you a menace as a college football cornerback and safety, but that you also suited up for the basketball squad at Towson as well. Any truth to that?

I always tell my players, “Don’t let the belly fool you.” Growing up where I grew up, you were gonna play some serious basketball. We played all sports, which is different from today where most kids specialize in one thing at an early age. I played basketball, football, baseball, soccer, and I boxed. We went from sport to sport to sport all year long.

Who were some of your mentors and role models from the neighborhood that made a significant impact on a young Coach Locks?

A couple of dudes that grew up in my neighborhood like Jeff Baxter, who played point guard at Maryland. I always followed him. Joe Howard Johnson, [who] played at Carroll and went to play football at Notre Dame, was another. I always loved the guys from my hood who had the ability to make it out.

My coaches were the ones who most influenced me. Willie Boarden was a police officer and my coach. My high school coach, Frank Young, drove us all over the country taking us on college visits and kept us out of the street and on the straight and narrow. And obviously my college coaches, who gave me my first opportunity to break into coaching.

Did you know you wanted to be a coach early on?

Yeah, I always knew that if I didn’t end up playing at the next level after college, I wanted to be involved in sports. I remember at an early age when most people would doodle and draw stick figures, I was drawing up football plays. The X’s and O’s were in my blood.

You were a defensive standout as a player, and now you’ve lorded over some of the most explosive offenses in modern college football. How did that happen?

One of the things I learned early on in coaching, especially being a minority, is the more things you can do as a coach, the more opportunities you allow yourself to have. I played corner and safety at Towson, played quarterback growing up and moved over to DB in high school.

The first seven or eight years of my career, I coached on the defensive side of the ball. When I took a job at West Point, I moved over to offense for the first time.

Is there any position that you haven’t coached?

I’ve coached every position in major Division I football except for the offensive line. I learned at an early age that if you want to keep a job, it’s better to be able to do a lot of different things.

Because of my defensive background, that helped me as a play caller and offensive schemer because you understand the structure of how defenses are put together and what the weaknesses are. As an offense, we try to attack those. That gave me a flip-side perspective that has allowed the offense that we’ve put together to become what it’s become.

Anybody who observes how you coach and run the program can immediately sense that this is much bigger than simply winning football games for you. It’s equally about leadership, education and the development of young men.

When you go sit in the homes of the Vernon Davises, the Stephon Diggses who lost his dad early, a guy like Rakim Jarrett who’s dealt with a lot of things growing up, that’s kind of how I grew up. I was able to take this 12-inch leather ball and change the trajectory of my family because of it.

And you don’t have to be a guy who grew up rough to be impacted by the program we put together. You could be a guy who grew up with everything in a material sense, but maybe you didn’t have love, maybe you didn’t have a parent that hugged you and told you that you were important, that you matter, they just gave you everything.

Knowing your background and story, it’s easy to see why that is.

Maybe it’s overkill growing up with just a single mom, not having that dad there when I needed him and experiencing my brothers being incarcerated. To me, it’s taking some of my experiences and blending it into my philosophy, and that’s to help take players where they can’t take themselves.

The football piece is easy because that’s what they want to do. I always use the analogy, the twelve Saturdays that we play, the players are responsible for. And the other 353 days I’m responsible for, making sure that I’m giving them everything they need to be successful with or without the football. Everybody is not going to make it to the NFL. I didn’t. But I’ve still been able to use my degree to better the opportunities for my kids and their kids.

Speaking of the football piece, you’ve got that thing humming. You guys are already bowl-eligible at 6-2 and the excitement around the future of Maryland football, and what you’re in the process of building, is really starting to percolate.

We’re still in the foundational stage of it and probably a little further ahead than what was initially expected. This whole thing is about getting the culture in that locker room right. We’re not there yet. I caution everybody, we’re 6-2 and we have yet to play our best football. For us to take the next step as a program, it starts with controlling the DMV area in recruiting.

Folks assume that Florida, California and Texas have a monopoly on the best high school talent, but the D.C., Maryland and Virginia area is some supremely fertile ground that produces great talent year after year.

A lot of people don’t understand the power of the type of players that are in this area. I do, because I’ve been recruiting it for 30 years. Five or six of the top high school programs in the country are located right here in our backyard. We have to get the top players in this area to stay at home and away from going to a few of the so-called powerhouse programs and show them that we’re not the same old Maryland.

How do you accomplish that to take the program to the next level?

The vision that we try to sell in recruiting, kids are starting to see it come to fruition. But we’re not there yet. It takes a community; it takes everyone rallying behind the program to help us get it there. The new $200 million facility we moved into a year ago is a game-changer.

The Big Ten is one of the best academic and football conferences, so we have the best of both worlds right here. Kids don’t have to go far in order to reach their goals, whether it’s to make it to the NFL, because we have first-round draft picks coming out of here, or to earn a degree from an outstanding institution of higher learning and get a great job here in a community like this, which is one of the richest minority areas in the world.

You suffered an unspeakable, tragic loss when your son Meiko was murdered in 2017. You’ve been a huge advocate of providing mental health programs and services for the players that come up under your wing, giving them access to opportunities to address the issues they might be struggling with.

The gun violence in this area and having lost a son to that is something that you never get over. You just learn to get through it. And getting through it is a lot more mental than it is physical. Having a son that dealt with mental health issues prior to his death made me realize that we needed to have some things in place for players that need help.

We’re around the same age and from similar neighborhoods, where it was taboo to talk about mental health. If somebody was going through an episode, the best explanation we heard was “Yeah, your boy bugged out.”

I grew up in an era where your auntie said, “Oh, she had a nervous breakdown,” or your best friend was like, “Man, he was just lunchin.’ ” Through the experiences that I’ve gone through, I learned that those are serious diseases and illnesses that people are dealing with. Unlike a broken arm where you have a cast on and people can see that you’re hurt, when you’re mentally hurt, you can’t see it.

What I try to do with the platform I have is to create a safe environment for these 18-to-22-year olds, the age group where some of the initial onsets of mental illness kick in. I’m dealing with them daily, and I’ve seen those looks, the same ones I saw out of my son. But I didn’t recognize them because I didn’t know what they were. As an advocate, I’m opening up Pandora’s box because some of the kids that come here to play show up carrying some heavy luggage from their childhoods and things they’ve experienced.

In simple terms, how do you do that?

As an adult with a platform, we have to create a safe environment where it’s OK to say, “I’m not OK.” We’re not doing anything special in my opinion other than providing a community where our players can feel comfortable saying, “Hey coach, I’m not good.”

We’ve hired mental health personnel to work with our team. Our athletic department has invested resources towards the mental health of our student athletes because they’re under a lot of pressure and face similar childhood tragedies to the ones I faced. I’ve been blessed with the opportunities that I’ve been given and try to pay things forward with servitude and leadership.

Speaking of paying things forward and advocacy, representation as it relates to the number of African American head coaches in major Division I football is alarmingly low and unacceptable. Talk about what you and your colleagues have been doing to ensure that those paltry numbers increase.

We formed the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches. It was born during the pandemic when we where also dealing with the George Floyd murder and other social injustices that were taking place. It made me reflect because for the first time in my life, everything paused. I was stuck in the house, there was no coaching, no practices to go to, no games, no recruits to go see.

That allowed me to “Quality Control” my life and where I was at that time. When I looked at my career, what I’d done, where I’d come from and where I was in my life, it made me think about how truly blessed I was. I was a failed head coach earlier in my career at New Mexico, and now I’m sitting in my dream job some 10 years later getting a second opportunity.

What was your goal in forming the organization?

I wanted to use my journey and experience to help open the doors up for other young coaches and even some older coaches and try to give them a pathway. There was no other organization out there. I grew up in the era of Black Coaches Association, where the BCA was the advocate for us.

I thought about where my career was and now that I’m on what I like to say is the “back nine” of my professional journey, I picked up the phone and called a bunch of my close friends and mentors that have helped me get back to this head coach’s seat: Mike Tomlin, Nick Saban, Rick Smith, Ozzie Newsome, Doug Williams. All these people played a major role in my coaching career.

What did you tell them?

I said, “Hey, look, I want to put together an organization that focuses on helping football coaches ascend to the next level.” So, the youth coach that wants to become a high school coach, the high school coach that wants to do it in college, the college coach that wants to be an NFL assistant, the NFL assistant that wants to be a head coach. We want to create pathways where we prepare, promote and produce the next level of minority coaches that are coming through the ranks.

Taulia Tagovailoa was recently named as a candidate for the Davey O’Brien Award, annually awarded to the best quarterback in the nation. His composure and accuracy are phenomenal, his stats boggle the mind and when his career is ultimately finished, he’ll go down as one of the program’s all-time greats.

You directed one of the most potent offenses in the history of college football and won a national championship coaching his gifted older brother Tua as an assistant to Nick Saban at Alabama. What makes those guys so special?

It’s their family. Galu and Diane Tagovailoa are special, special people and special parents. Their culture, the Samoan culture, is one in which family and faith are huge. They see the best in everybody, and they’re very prayerful people.

From a football standpoint, their dad was their first quarterback coach and he’s a guy that knows football. But he also knows life. They have two incredible sisters, and Mom is the backbone of the family that keeps it all together. Quality parents produce quality kids. I’ve had the fortune of coaching both of them and being a part of their journey. They’ve helped me as much as I’ve helped them, I can tell you that.

Big game coming up, going on the road to face Wisconsin, followed by two huge ones: away at No. 15 Penn State next week before the big, bad Ohio State Buckeyes, the No. 2 team in the nation, come to face you guys in College Park. What are you stressing to the players as you’re approaching this gauntlet and coming down the homestretch?

The biggest thing is maintaining that “one game at a time” mentality and not looking at things collectively until the season is over. The second part is understanding that we’ve put ourselves in a position to do something really special this year. We need to enjoy the walk. When you enjoy the walk, you go further than if you just enjoy getting to the destination.

Break down “The Walk”.

If you enjoy the walk, which is the work, you usually reach goals that you didn’t think you could reach, because you’re being intentional about the process, the journey, and not the destination.

Wisconsin is a great opportunity for us. They’re playing some inspired football under their interim head coach, and Camp Randall Stadium is an awesome venue and environment to go play in. It’s an exciting time for Maryland football. I’m telling our players to embrace this opportunity. This is part of our walk, and we design our program to finish everything strong, whether it’s the semester, whether it’s in the weight room, whether it’s a rep on the practice field.

The fan base is bubbling right now, excited about where you guys stand and what you’re building long term.

We’ve got four more opportunities, and we’re in the fourth quarter of our season. We’re 6-2 right now, but that’s not the destination. We’re bowl-eligible, we’re done talking about that.

We’re in playoff football mode, where every game is a playoff-type game because with every game where we’re successful, it creates a better opportunity for us. So, let’s focus on this step, and then take the next step.