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October 29, 2010

Q-and-A: New Mexico coach Mike Locksley

Mike Locksley was one of the hottest assistants in the country in 2008. Now in his second season as coach at New Mexico, Locksley sits on one of the hottest seats in the nation.

Locksley, 40, understands there's a sense of urgency to win. He arrived at New Mexico amid much anticipation came after a successful stint as offensive coordinator at Illinois under Ron Zook. Locksley's recruiting prowess also was enticing.

But his New Mexico tenure has been extremely rocky. He debuted last season with a 1-11 record, going 1-7 in the Mountain West. This season, the Lobos are 0-7 and one of just two winless teams (Akron is the other) in the nation.

Locksley's tenure has been marked by an age/sexual discrimination lawsuit, a confrontation with an assistant and lots of losing. He also has had to navigate through probation brought on by the previous regime.

The probation has featured scholarship limitations. New Mexico hasn't been able to sign more than 20 players in either of the past two classes, and 20 is the limit in this cycle, as well. While the NCAA allows for FBS teams to have 85 players on scholarships, New Mexico can't exceed 80 because of the probation.

The probation also has led to just six coaches on the road recruiting instead of seven and 48 official visits per cycle as opposed to 56.

The Lobos' struggles this season have been exacerbated by injuries. End Johnathan Rainey, who had 9.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season, has been lost for the season with a broken neck. Projected starting quarterback B.R. Holbrook has played in just three games because of a knee injury.

For now, Locksley has the support of New Mexico athletic director Paul Krebs. Rivals.com recently spoke to Locksley about his tenure at New Mexico, which plays at Colorado State -- the only team the Lobos beat last season -- on Saturday.

How difficult has this season been?

"This has been a difficult process but you have to stay focused. It's almost like déjà vu of 2006 at Illinois. It was our second year at Illinois. We lost to Ohio University at home. We won two games that year [2-10]. We were a young team that still was growing. The next year, we went to the Rose Bowl."

How do you deal with the losing? It has to wear on you.

"If it weren't for my experiences at Illinois (2005-08) and Maryland (1997-2002), those programs I played a role in turning around as an assistant, I would say 'yes,' the losing is difficult. But I have insulated myself from the negativity. I don't read the paper, I don't go online, I don't look at the news. I definitely lean on the experience of those rough Maryland years and Illinois years."

What has been the biggest hurdle for you at New Mexico?

"Lack of depth. If you look at the 2006 signing class, which is my senior class now, they signed 26 players and only six are still here. In 2007, they signed 26 and there are only 10 left. So, there aren't that many juniors and seniors on the roster.

"Part of the issue was they recruited multiple junior college players during the last couple of years. When you get into the JC business, you have to recruit them every year or you are going to have some gaps in your recruiting classes. We decided not to go heavy on JCs my first two years here. For any program to be successful, you have to have solid recruiting classes every year and a foundation of players. We have tried to fill the gaps as best we could with the high school recruits and break the junior college cycle."

Will you get heavily into recruiting the junior-college ranks for this upcoming class?

"We didn't go the JC route my first couple of years because we wanted to build the program the right way. We can now go JC to fill some of our needs because I have a foundation of young players that we have redshirted and are coming along. Now, I can kind of fill some gaps with some JCs. We will take five to six junior college players in this class."

Were you ready to be a head coach?

"Oh, sure. There's no doubt about it. The football part of it, no doubt I was ready. My two biggest issues have been HR [human resource] related. [An EEOC claim by an administrative assistant and the altercation with an assistant.] The adversity helped me develop as a head coach and as a person.

"I will tell you this: I could have controlled the J.B. Gerald situation and maybe won a few more games. [Gerald was the Lobos' assistant who alleged that Locksley punched him during a meeting in September 2009. While an investigation didn't corroborate Gerald's story, Locksley was reprimanded by the university and suspended for 10 days.]"

What would you have done differently in the handling of the situation?

"As the head coach, I have to make decisions that are right for my program and that includes personnel. I could have handled the Gerald situation earlier, when there were signs of insubordination. When you take a chance and hire a friend, it's difficult to cut ties. There is a thin line when you hire friends and you have to make sure you keep things professional."

Have used anyone as a sounding board during your development as a head coach?

"I talk to [Houston coach Kevin] Sumlin, [Southern Miss coach Larry] Fedora and [Oklahoma State coach Mike] Gundy. Tony Dungy and I have talked about changing cultures and exchanged text messages. I have read all his books. We've talked about management of people, handling of situations, just everything.

"I do a lot of reading, too. I recently read Bill Belichick's book, 'The Education of a Coach.' His situation as head coach of the Cleveland Browns was similar to mine here at New Mexico. It has benefited me to read that."

What was appealing about the New Mexico job?

"I was pursuing multiple jobs throughout the country when I decided to take the New Mexico job. The enticement was it would give me a chance to learn how to be a head coach at place that has had success. I knew I could come in here and recruit because of the location. Southwest Airlines has a major hub here [in Albuquerque]; you can get direct flights from almost anywhere in the country. And we have been able to do that.

"We have been able to attract talent. On our roster, we have [wide receiver] Deon Long, a transfer from West Virginia. [Linebacker] Javarie Johnson was a Miami commitment who transferred from Maryland. Both have four years of eligibility and were big-time recruits. [Wide receiver] Lamaar Thomas was a four-star player who played his first two years at Ohio State. We went and got [four-star defensive tackle] Calvin Smith out of Florida. We have been able to sell New Mexico in two years even with limited scholarships."

Amid the losing and the human resources issues, what have been some of the biggest positives for you?

"I love coaching and having an influence on the lives of young men. It's about mentoring them and preparing them for life after UNM. Successes can be judged in a variety of ways. Although we are disappointed in our lack of wins, we still have a lot to be grateful for. The football will continue to get better. We are on track to have one of the highest APR's we've ever had. We have had consecutive semesters of 2.72 GPA, which is the second-highest team GPA they ever have had. The team GPA was over 3.0 over this summer. And since June of 2009, we have had little to no off-field incidents with our players. We have also spent countless hours in the Albuquerque community."

Will you be back for a third year?

"I expect to be. I have four years remaining on my current contract after this season. The administration has been very supportive of what we are trying to do and get accomplished. We have set goals that we plan on obtaining, but it takes time.

"I have tried to maintain my focus on my vision of where I see us going, grind through it ,and we continue to recruit, recruit, recruit. We have to continue to develop players and get better. We are improving, and our future looks bright."

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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