Watching the reaction to the announcement of Mike Locksley as Maryland's new head football coach, I was struck by one thing.
Just how did the Maryland football program get to be such a total mess that hiring a man with a 3-31 lifetime record as a head coach feels like a stroke of genius and good fortune?
Maryland football's issues have been well documented, including the June death of 19-year-old offensive lineman Jordan McNair and questions about the program's culture under former head coach DJ Durkin.
But looking back further, through the last half century, one thing comes through loud and clear -- namely that very few men have what it takes to be a winning head football coach in College Park, Md. A job that was nearly impossible to succeed at got all that much harder during Randy Edsall's tenure, when the school was lured by the mighty dollars of the Big Ten to wave bye-bye to the ACC.
There is no question that athletic director Damon Evans inherited a football program whose chances for success were made more difficult by some of former athletic director Debbie Yow's decisions, most notably the expansion of what was then called Byrd Stadium. It was a decision that placed the Maryland athletic department in a very tough spot financially, so tough that her successor, Kevin Anderson, saw only two ways out: dropping several sports and eventually taking the big money that came along with joining the Big Ten.
Essentially, in football, Anderson did what small schools do all the time to balance the books and even turn a profit -- you take the cash to get slaughtered. He also decided to fire head coach Ralph Friedgen and bring in Edsall.
Edsall had a chance to compete in the ACC from 2011-2013. When Anderson went for what was behind Door No. 1, he knew he was dooming Edsall and setting up the program to go backward. Edsall's record while in the ACC was 13-24. Despite the fact that he was 9-10 during his year and a half in the Big Ten, Edsall was dismissed.
Anderson installed Locksley, then the Terps' offensive coordinator, to be the interim head coach for the final six games in 2015. Locksley went just 1-5 and was passed over for the full-time job. Anderson opted to go big-time. He hired Durkin, a top-level assistant under Jim Harbaugh (at Stanford and Michigan) and Urban Meyer (Bowling Green and Florida).
Durkin came to Maryland with a reputation as a heavyweight recruiter, but with the caveat of always having done it for a big-time head coach. During his few years as the head man at College Park, Durkin made some inroads in recruiting. His 2017 class was rated No. 18 nationally and No. 4 in the Big Ten, according to 247Sports' composite rankings.
But what Anderson may have failed to calculate was what was in Durkin's heart. Was Durkin driven to make the Terrapins a major success, or was Durkin more concerned with his own success with an eye toward bigger and better programs?
An ESPN report Aug. 10 detailed a “toxic coaching culture” under Durkin and former strength and conditioning coach Rick Court. Without characterizing Durkin as a truly bad guy, one can interpret what his game might have been at Maryland: a pattern of over-recruiting and then, in cahoots with Court, challenging kids who they wanted to leave in order to free up more scholarships so Durkin could pad his recruiting resume.
But McNair's death changed everything for Durkin, who was fired Oct. 31.
That is the mess that finally allowed for Locksley to be handed the keys to the little engine that could.
Locksley's hiring signals a sea change in how Maryland will balance high-level recruiting with the results on the field. While Durkin reportedly built a divisive and belittling culture, everyone I talk to points to the amazing father figure Lockley is to his players.
I've heard PressBox's Glenn Clark speak about his amazement regarding the sheer reverence those Locksley has touched have for him. Then I turn on ESPN's Scott Van Pelt, and he is using the exact same word -- “reverence” -- as the emotion Locksley instills in his followers.
But what about the 8,000-pound elephant in the room? Despite Locksley's bona fide successes in the recruiting realm, Locksley has a 3-31 record as a head coach between his stint as the interim coach at Maryland and a 2-26 tenure at New Mexico from 2009-2011. His record is what it is … but one thing is for sure: His recruiting landscape probably never really included New Mexico. The DMV is his bread and butter. Remember, Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins had committed to play for Maryland when Edsall was head coach with Locksley on staff. Haskins would likely have still come if Locksley had gotten the job rather than Durkin.
Two coaches whom I have admired -- Towson football coach Rob Ambrose and former UMBC men's basketball coach Tom Sullivan -- had starts to their head coaching careers that were as ugly as Locksley's. Ambrose, who now has a 62-66 career coaching record, was 6-26 after his first three years as a head coach (2001 at Catholic University; 2009 and 2010 at Towson). Since that stumble at the beginning, Ambrose is 56-40.
Sullivan's story is a bit different. He coached at Division II New Hampshire College from 1976-1985 and compiled a record of 152-99. Sullivan left after the 1984-85 season to take his shot at the brass ring of Division I with Manhattan. Sullivan flopped miserably. He went 2-26 in 1985-86 and was let go after just one season.
Sullivan waited nine years before getting another Division I chance, this time at UMBC. Sullivan went a combined 10-44 during his first two seasons with the Retrievers from 1995-1997. After three seasons of coaching Division I ball, Sullivan's combined record was 12-70. Talk about digging a hole for yourself. But Sullivan recovered to compile an 82-61 record from 1997-2002, though his tenure ended on a down note.
Chances are Locksley won't ever hold an immaculate head coaching record after starting off his career 28 games below .500. However, Maryland may finally have the right man to rid the program of the stench from the mess it got itself into.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics
Issue 250: December 2018 / January 2019
Originally published Dec. 19, 2018