When Maryland football travels to Champaign, Illinois to take on the Fighting Illini this Friday night, the game will have plenty of importance. It will be the opening of Big Ten play for the Terps, the first road game of the season and another chance for Maryland to prove to the country on a national stage that this is a different Maryland football team.
But for two men on the Maryland staff, going back to Champaign has extra significance. Head coach Mike Locksley and associate head coach Ron Zook spent significant time at the Illinois football program, gaining insight and experience that has allowed them to build a program from the ground up hundreds of miles east.
While Zook now serves under Locksley as the number two guy and a special teams coordinator, those roles were flipped years ago. Zook was the head coach of the Fighting Illini from 2005-11. Locksley was the offensive coordinator on that staff from 2005-08.
Both have fond memories of their time in Champaign, many of which are sure to be rehashed when the team flies out to Illinois for Maryland’s first road matchup of the season and the first time the Terps have ever played in Champaign since joining the Big Ten.
“Obviously a place, probably other than Maryland, that for me and my family is a special place,” Locksley said of his return to Illinois.
That place is near and dear to his heart as he and his wife, Kia Locksley, raised their kids there. Locksley’s two older sons graduated from high school in the Illinois area. Now, two of his kids call it home.
In 2007, the duo of Zook and Locksley led Illinois to a 9-4 record and the program's first Rose Bowl appearance since 1983.
Locksley’s success in Illinois propelled him to his first head coaching job at New Mexico. He was there for two years before he was fired and went to Maryland as a coordinator. From there, Locksley was the offensive coordinator at Alabama, eventually leading him to become the man in charge in College Park.
Zook and Locksley’s relationship didn’t start in Illinois, as Locksley served on Zook’s coaching staff in Florida from 2003-04, but the companionship certainly was fostered in Champaign when Zook gave Locksley the most responsibility he had in the coaching ranks at that point as the man in charge of the offense.
“When I look back at our time that we spent at Illinois, as I said, it was a special opportunity,” Locksley said. “The first time I had the chance to be a coordinator and not surprising that a guy like Ron Zook would give me that opportunity, you know, at 36 years-old to run the offense.”
When Locksley was hired as the Maryland coach, he made sure to bring along Zook, the man who gave Locksley an opportunity in Champaign and has over four decades of coaching experience in college and the NFL. Zook was originally a senior analyst on Locksley’s staff but was promoted earlier this year.
“He’s about people, he’s about program, he’s about family, a very loyal person, a very good football coach, a great work ethic,” Zook said of his longtime friend Mike Locksley. “Being here the last couple of years, I saw where it was going.”
Zook saw a ton of similarities from when Locksley took over the Maryland program to when Zook was handed the keys to Illinois’. Both were looking to turn around struggling programs and in year three, both might have switched that flip.
“There were instances, particularly the first year [at Maryland], that reminded me of Illinois,” Zook said before the 2021 season. “I kept trying to tell him [Locksley], you're on the right track, you're doing the right thing, it doesn't happen overnight as you would like to have it. But there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to get the program where it’s supposed to be.”
Zook’s third year at Illinois was the year his team went to the Rose Bowl and in year three at Maryland, Locksley has his team off to a hot start with more buzz surrounding the program than there has been in years.
When the plane touches down and Locksley roams the sidelines in Champaign yet again, emotions and memories are sure to be flying in. But for now, Locksley and Zook haven't had much time to reminisce on their return as they are locked in on the task ahead: taking down Illinois to begin Big Ten play with a win and starting the season 3-0 for the first time since 2016.
“We haven’t really even discussed it,” Locksley said. “When you have a short week like this one, the turnaround is pretty quick. ... So really haven't had a lot of time to necessarily reflect.”
Things feel different in College Park, with optimism around the football program that hasn't been present in years. With a star quarterback in Taulia Tagovailoa leading a prolific offense and a defense that looks more than formidable, the rebuild in College Park may finally be in the rearview with the now as the focus.
That was evident in Maryland’s first two wins over West Virginia and Howard, however, this program has had this 2-0 start before.
In fact, other than last year’s COVID anomaly where Maryland did not play a non-conference opponent, the Terps have started 2-0 the last three seasons. From there, they faltered in Big Ten play, finishing with a losing, and sometimes abysmal, record in each of those seasons.
Locksley’s group will look to buck that trend, and they are confident they will.
Tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo was a part of a couple of those 2-0 starts and believes this year is different.
“I’m very confident this team is not going to have any issue with that because the culture from the last time I was playing [in 2019] to this team is completely different,” Okonkwo said.
In order for the Terps to capture their best start in the Locksley era, the coaches and players won't have much time to harp on how the past got us to today. Everyone’s focus will simply be on winning another football game.
“Those things are in the past. It’s the ‘21 Terps vs. the ‘21 Illini,” Locksley said. “Other than the fact that Champaign, to me, is next to Maryland a place my kids call home, we’re excited about the opportunity.”