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A look into the Maryland football culture head coach Michael Locksley is creating

Will Maryland’s culture carry it to a bowl game for the first time since 2016?

Courtesy of Maryland Athletics

After Maryland football defeated Howard late on a Saturday night, head coach Michael Locksley prepared himself to tell the team that they would have to practice on Sunday. They had a shortened week with a road trip game to Illinois coming up quickly on Friday.

This is a technique Locksley learned from his stint at Alabama: one game on Saturday with the next on the following Friday, slide the practice schedule up and put the work in.

He gathered his leadership group of 14 players comprised of a mix of walk-ons and scholarship players to explain this philosophy. He braced himself for questions as to why they would have to practice on a Sunday night but as he explained the situation, the leadership group responded differently than his teams had in years prior.

They told their coach that of course they had to practice and Locksley described that first practice after the Howard game as business as usual.

“There was not one hint of ‘why are we out here on a Sunday night? We just got done, my body’s sore.’ Because when you play a game, regardless of who you play, that 24 hours later your body feels like you’ve been in a car accident,” Locksley told Testudo Times.

“But, I didn’t see [the pushback]. So, I did kind of have an aha moment, proud dad moment. We were out there with the lights and guys were energized, we put in the work and that made me feel good that hey, you know what? We’ve taken another step.”

The head coach didn't necessarily expect that kind of energy out of his squad as just nearly one year earlier when he delivered the schedule slide-up news to the team, he was met with far more resistance.

The difference in responses between seasons is due in part to the culture shift that Locksley has been instilling since he first took over as head coach of the Terps ahead of the 2019 season.

This year, the players have said it repeatedly, there is more buy-in among the team and it is evident to each of them.

“I feel like there is more of a buy in,” senior wide receiver Dontay Demus Jr. said in September. “I feel like guys are really just bought in to what Coach Locksley has been saying this whole time and really just bought into the family atmosphere and playing for not only yourself.”

Maryland started off winning its first four games against West Virginia, Howard, Illinois and Kent State, the team’s best start since the 2016 season. However, the Terps then returned home for one of their most highly anticipated games in a while— a matchup against a top-five opponent in Iowa.

The Hawkeyes walked all over the Terps at Capital One Field securing the victory, 51-14. The following week, Maryland traveled to Columbus, Ohio where it faced its second consecutive top-10 opponent in the Buckeyes. Maryland once again was demolished. This time, the score was 66-17.

After those first two losses, the team appeared to have a positive outlook on the remainder of the season. With the bye week approaching and a Minnesota team affected by injuries on the horizon, Maryland’s mindset seemed to be that the potential to succeed later down the line was still there.

“There’s a lot more people committed to building what we got going on. I couldn’t say there’s a specific thing that you’d find but just even after the two losses, maybe in years past, I think guys would have had their head down,” senior defensive back Jordan Mosley said. “And we’ve lost two games, I think everyone’s ready because we got six more games and six more opportunities and we still got a long season.”

However, that mindset was challenged when Maryland traveled into Minneapolis and was unable to stop the Golden Gophers’ running game allowing 326 rushing yards and four touchdowns en route to a 34-16 loss. It was not a surprise for Maryland’s defense that Minnesota would run the ball, yet they looked unprepared for the matchup despite having two weeks to prepare.

With five games remaining, the chances of Maryland qualifying for its first bowl game since 2016 are slimmer after the Minnesota loss. However, despite a rapid drop-off in the record, the accountability within the program is high as a result of Locksley’s coaching style, the relationships he’s been developing with the team and the strategies he’s been implementing over the past four years.

“I haven’t seen these guys quit so that to me encourages me every week when we come in,” Locksley said ahead of the Indiana game. “I like the way we started out [on Monday after the loss]. Being able to have accountability for the game, coaches and players alike as we dissected it, and I saw the guys take accountability for their actions just like we do as coaches and that’s encouraging.”

Locksley’s long and extensive career in football dates back to the early 1990s. After bouncing around schools from 1992-96, he worked at Maryland as a running backs coach and recruiting coordinator. His first stint at Maryland came to an end in 2002, he moved to Florida, then Illinois before a stretch as the head coach at New Mexico.

After amassing a 2-26 record with that program, Locksley made the return to College Park as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 2012-15.

In his two tenures at Maryland prior to his time as the head coach of the Terps, he helped bring in some of Maryland’s strongest talent including tight end Vernon Davis, defensive end Yannick Ngakoue and wide receiver Stefon Diggs.

After achieving recruiting success at Maryland, Locksley made the move to Alabama to work with six-time National Coach of the Year Nick Saban.

“My stint at Alabama was like for me probably going to Mecca in terms of, it’s the best football program in Division I at the time,” Locksley said. “So consistent with National Championships. I spent 26, 27 years prior not getting a sniff of a National Championship and then I go to three straight and just see the consistency.”

Locksley’s office in Jones-Hill House is a melting pot of mementos as his walls and shelves are filled with Maryland-related memorabilia and the rings he collected from his time in Tuscaloosa, Alabama are prominently displayed on his round table in the middle of the room.

Former Maryland offensive lineman Ellis McKennie played with the Terps from 2015 to 2019 before enrolling at George Washington Law School. McKennie played under Locksley during his time as the offensive coordinator and then again when he served as the interim head coach of the team.

Even when Maryland went 1-5 during Locksley’s interim period, McKennie saw the impact that coaching in Alabama had made.

“He had learned from Coach Saban about how to run a locker room, how to run a program and just little things like that about how to treat your players,” McKennie told Testudo Times. “And then, the business mentality that he went about. When you’re the coordinator and not the head guy, the responsibilities are a little different but I think after spending time with Coach Saban, he definitely learned a lot.”

When it comes to treating players with respect, Locksley is no stranger to the concept. As soon as he walked onto campus in 2018, he started building that trust.

When Locksley was named head coach and returned to College Park, the team, the school and the community were grieving the loss of offensive lineman Jordan McNair who collapsed during practice earlier that year in the spring.

Simultaneously, Locksley, who was also grieving the loss of McNair as his daughter attended McDonough with him, was grieving the loss of his own son Meiko. On Sept. 3, 2017, Meiko was shot and killed. A few years earlier, Meiko was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder which is a “chronic mental health condition characterized by symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hallucinations or delusions, and symptoms of a mood disorder, such as mania and depression,” according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Locksley's understanding of grief and mental illness enabled him to step into the program and provide support for the team.

A grieving program craving a cultural change welcomed a grieving coach filled with empathy, compassion and dedication to making his future players feel heard as he understood the importance of emphasizing mental health.

McNair’s death drew attention to the program and sparked an investigation to determine whether Maryland football had a “toxic culture.” There was not a toxic culture but rather the program “did have a culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out,” as per the report.

When Locksley came into the program, he focused on building relationships with players from the start. The head coach met with every player on the team, without first reviewing their files and told them that they would not be judged on their past but rather everything they did moving forward.

In all those conversations, Locksley knew what the players were going through, and rather than shying away from the tragedy, he spent time talking about it with players, coaches as well as McNair’s family.

“He got Jordan’s family back involved with the program and whatnot. He made sure we were always doing the right things in terms of hydration and things of that nature, making sure that Jordan’s memory is one that lasts forever,” McKennie told Testudo Times.

“I really appreciate the way Coach Locks integrated that into the beginning of his program... it’s the little things like that that Coach Locks understood and he didn’t shy away from the challenge that was going to be building the program after such a catastrophic event.”

By sharing his own experiences with grief and assisting his new team with their own grief, Locksley started his return to Maryland by showing his players that he was someone they could talk to.

For him, coaching a football team is not shouting at nameless players marked with numbers in a uniform running around on a field. Coaching is about building relationships in which the players feel comfortable speaking to Locksley about anything ranging from celebrating an academic accomplishment to problems one may be having with a significant other.

Although this open-door mentality is a quality the head coach now prides himself on, as a younger coach he shied away from it as he was met with negative feedback about being too focused on forming relationships with players.

However, now, these relationships are a key component of Locksley’s coaching style.

“Well, can you ever be too close to your own children, as a parent? When a kid walks in my office, because of the time that I invest in them, I should look at his face and know whether he had a good day or bad day based on his body language,” Locksley told Testudo Times.

“And to me, that’s something I’ve done as an assistant, as a coordinator and now as a coach, is invest the time in creating this environment because again you’re never going to get their best if they don’t think you care about them. That’s just, I know that for 30 years in this business.”

It’s that foundation of trust and the relationships the head coach built back in 2018 that have allowed him to slowly but surely, shift the culture of Maryland football.

Locksley's relationship skills have helped draw in some strong talent for Maryland such as former five-star wide receiver Rakim Jarrett and former four-star linebackers Demeioun Robinson and Branden Jennings.

“Just getting those right guys with the same mindset where you have to wake up every day and you want to go to work,” tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo said. “You want to be better, you want to want to run... getting those type of guys in here has really made the culture shift.”

However, even with some highly ranked recruits and the buy-in that has been discussed among players, Maryland now finds itself at a crossroads. Headed into its homecoming game against Indiana, the Terps are on a three-game losing streak. Locksley’s team stands at 4-3 and is still two wins away from qualifying for its first bowl game since 2016.

With five games remaining in the season, it is Maryland football’s opportunity to see the culture convert into wins and potentially finish the season with a 6-6 record, its first season with a winning percentage of .500 or higher since 2014.

Maryland is honoring its 2001 ACC championship team, a group that went 10-2 after going 5-6 and 3-5 in conference play just one year earlier.

“Having watched what happened in that transition from the 2000 team that Ron Vanderlinden created to Ralph Friedgen coming in and taking it over and teaching them how not to lose, and that’s where I kind of find myself with this team,” Locksley said.

Although the Terps’ finishing the season with just two losses is out of reach, Maryland has a more realistic jump it could make in the next five weeks: qualifying for a bowl game, a feat it has not achieved in nearly half a decade.

If Maryland hopes to achieve that goal, a homecoming win against Indiana puts it in the best position to do so. Maryland will then take on No. 7 Penn State on Nov. 6, No. 9 Michigan State on Nov. 13 and No. 6 Michigan on Nov. 20, a challenging slate ahead for the Terps. The Terps will then close out the season against Rutgers on the road.

The question is not whether the culture has shifted since Locksley returned to Maryland but rather whether that undeniable shift will translate into success on the field in the near future.

“That’s why I say the best is ahead because we’re building for the future. I mean it would be great to have it right now, no doubt, to take that momentum that we built, and, you know, sell the momentum that we had when we ran out of the locker room against Iowa,” Locksley told Testudo Times. “Would be great to capture it and hold on to it but most like me as a coach you learn so many valuable lessons as you fail and as you face adversity.”