For many Penn State fans, it’s probably hard to keep track of the various Big Ten head coaches from year to year, especially considering the ever-accelerating turnover rate, let alone their various assistants. But your team has had plenty of close encounters with the new Maryland head coach, about to be announced Thursday morning, even if you don’t remember them.
Mike Locksley not only head coached a game against Penn State for the Terrapins in 2015 after Randy Edsall was fired (remember the wild 31-30 game in Baltimore?), he also was the single biggest reason behind Illinois’ shocking resurrection in the mid-‘00s. You may recall the Illini, just two years after being destroyed by Penn State 63-10, beating the Nittany Lions 27-20 in 2007 on the way to a wholly unexpected visit to the Rose Bowl (where they were thrashed by Pete Carroll’s #7-ranked Southern California Trojans, 49-17).
You might ask: How did that happen at Illinois, anyway? Locksley mined his home turf of the District of Columbia and vicinity for Illini head coach Ron Zook and brought in future NFL talent such as CB Vontae Davis, LB Nate Bussey and WR Arellious Benn, that’s how. Once Locksley left to be head coach at New Mexico in 2008, the Illini plunged right back to Big Ten oblivion, where they’ve resided since.
Mike Locksley has been, along with Larry Johnson (of Penn State and now Ohio State) and Fred Jackson (retired, previously of Wisconsin, Purdue and Michigan), among the elite recruiters in the modern history of the Big Ten. He has a reputation among high school coaches and player families in the DMV region (DC-MD-VA) around Washington and surrounding counties unmatched by anyone other than perhaps Johnson. Locksley has had two previous stints at Maryland as an assistant.
Meanwhile, Maryland has an atmosphere around its program since the Jordan McNair tragedy that can only be termed radioactive. Effective recruiting, at least in the near-term, had been viewed as virtually impossible.
It’s not that anyone has identified Locksley as necessarily ready to take on the CEO responsibilities of a Power Five job. In his only previous gig as a head coach (2009-11), his New Mexico Lobos went 2-26 and he was fired among after a chaotic string of events that included a fistfight with an assistant and sex- and age-discrimination lawsuit filed by a program administrator who claimed he told her they needed more hot younger women around the program for recruiting purposes – an accusation he denied.
So, even though Locksley has been cooling his heels with Nick Saban as Alabama’s co-OC the past three seasons, he was not considered a hot-ticket hire by any school in the Power Five – except one. And even that one, Maryland, passed him over three years ago when they hired D.J. Durkin. That’s why he departed UMd (where he’d been Edsall’s OC) for Bama in the first place.
So, the decision by Maryland to sign Locksley could not be more utilitarian. Call it gratuitous or expedient or whatever you like, but it fits the immediate needs of Maryland football. The Terrapins must fix their broken recruiting machine now or it might be unfixable.
No matter his head coaching acumen, Locksley accomplishes that goal. Nobody has stronger ties and greater cred among the high schools of the DMV that commonly produce elite-level talent – St. Francis Xavier, DeMatha Catholic, St. John’s College, Gonzaga College, Friendship Academy, Dunbar, Woodson and on and on. Everybody who matters knows him.
Amid the sort of public fiasco that’s gone on at Maryland with the suspension, retention and finally dismissal of Durkin, do the Terps really need this guy and his baggage crash landing into College Park? Couldn’t they have made a play on a do-more-with-less type from a Group of 5 school out to triple his salary, like Buffalo’s Lance Leipold or Appalachian State’s Scott Satterfield (since hired by Louisville)?
I don’t think they could have. I think it’s pretty much like this: Maryland can’t hire anyone else with a decent pedigree. And “Locks” can’t get hired anywhere else. At least not in the Power Five. Right now, they fit together and meet each other’s aims perfectly. And if he turns out to be Willie Taggart North as a coach, well, at least UMd will have stocked some talent.
How will this affect Penn State and the rest of the Big Ten East? Everyone in the division pays plenty of attention to the DMV and all parts of Maryland, Virginia and the mid-Atlantic. It’s commonly the most fertile recruiting ground in the Big Ten footprint. That’s one of the main reasons Jim Delany asked Maryland into the conference.
So, the Locksley hiring is very much on the antennae of OSU’s Johnson and PSU’s James Franklin both of whom know him well; Franklin and Locksley, in fact, were on Ralph Friedgen’s Maryland staff together for two years (2000-02) as young up-n-comers. Johnson gained his coaching chops at DMV high schools for nearly two decades before he came to Penn State in 1996. Both have recruited on and off against Locksley for many years.
Now, after a 3-year hiatus, he’s back in his own backyard. And so, the fight for the region’s talent promises to get a little more manic.