Those inches may wind up costing him everything.
"If I had that moment back ... ," Locksley said to FanHouse in his office Tuesday night. "I was literally walking out the door because I knew I was getting heated and it kept going back and forth. I'm walking out the door and I look over and another word was said and it was set off."
In that moment, he grabbed Gerald, an assistant who had followed him halfway across the country from Illinois. An altercation ensued. When the dust cleared all that was certain was that Gerald had a split lip. And two coaching careers were beginning to unravel, the coda to an argument from earlier in the day, an argument with a decade of history.
Locksley is in jeopardy of losing his job in his first season as head coach and Gerald, in his first season as a full-time assistant, may be out of coaching permanently.
According to multiple sources who were present Sept. 20, the disagreement began during practice, over an argument about the wide receivers' performance during the 37-13 loss to Air Force the previous day. Locksley let his young assistant have it.
Instead of taking the pointed criticism from his boss and moving on, Gerald fired back.
Gerald told Locksley that not even his mother talks to him that way. Locksley, witnesses said, fired back that his mother wasn't paying Gerald $90,000 a year.
A back-and-forth exchange ensued and both coaches clung to the last word. According to a police report filed by Gerald, Locksley became angry and approached Gerald in an aggressive manner. Gerald told Locksley that not even his mother talks to him that way. Locksley, witnesses said, fired back that his mother wasn't paying Gerald $90,000 a year.
Then after all the harsh words, it was a simple "Whatever" from Gerald that brought Locksley back into the room after he had begun to leave.
Suddenly, Locksley grabbed Gerald by the collar before the other coaches could separate them. Gerald says he was punched in the mouth; the responding officer acknowledged a split lip.
Locksley doesn't dispute grabbing Gerald. He does, however, deny a punch was thrown. Whatever, both men's careers likely changed that day. Gerald has been on paid leave since the incident. Locksley, who is off to an 0-4 start, faces possible termination from his approximately $750,000 a year job after the university's human resources department opened up an investigation Tuesday.
"I wish I had made a different decision," Locksley said. "I got caught up in the moment, but that should never have happened."
As a coach, the 39-year-old Locksley seems far more interested in making sure his point is understood on the field than he is about the delivery. He grilled Gerald in front the players, fellow coaches, media and others. Having a head coach chastise assistants on the field, while awkward and potentially embarrassing, is not uncommon.
What happened next was.
Gerald, a 27-year-old, first-year, full-time assistant, shouted at his head coach with the same type of profanity-laced language he had just absorbed. The exchange eventually died down, but picked back up as practice wound down and Gerald was walking to meet an awaiting reporter.
Locksley declined to discuss the specifics of either exchange.
"In all of my years around here, I had never seen anything like that," said an athletic department source, who wished not to be identified. "It was quite an exchange."
That type of disrespect could have gotten Gerald dismissed, but it didn't because of the history the two share that goes back more than 10 years. Locksley has known the young coach since his days as an assistant coach at Maryland when Gerald was a high school student at DuVal High School in Lanham, Md. Locksley successfully recruited Gerald's best friend, Madieu Williams, to play for the Terps; Gerald went on to play at Colgate.
Years later, Locksley and Gerald became reacquainted as Gerald looked to break into the coaching profession as a graduate assistant at Penn State. At Williams' urging, Locksley became a friend and mentor to Gerald, listening to his desires to speed up his career and offering advice.
Locksley, who by then was the offensive coordinator at Illinois, eventually had an opening for an offensive quality control coach two years ago and offered the job to Gerald, who had spent five years working in various roles on the football staff at Penn State. Gerald worked at Illinois on the staff of Ron Zook for a season before Locksley got the opportunity to be the head coach at New Mexico.
Locksley says because he respected Gerald's skills as a coach and the trust was there, he offered Gerald the position of receivers coach/recruiting coordinator, a highly unusual opportunity for a coach with no full-time experience.
"It was definitely an established relationship. J.B. and I were close," Locksley said. "As I've said, I saw a lot of me in him as a young coach. When I look back, maybe I was too hard on him in that I was being demanding trying to teach him how to do it."
Certainly the risk Locksley took on with a young unproven coach doesn't seem worth it now.
"I saw a lot of me in him as a young coach. When I look back, maybe I was too hard on him.
-- Mike Locksley"
"I thought because of our relationship that we may be able to work through it," said Locksley, who is also dealing with an EEOC complaint of sexual harassment and age discrimination filed by former 54-year-old office worker, Sylvia Lopez. "Unfortunately it's happened, it should never have happened. But I also know in this business, I've been a part of where it has happened and guys understand it's like family sometimes.
"We work long hours, the frustration of losing, the long hours. I have to admit I had a lot on my plate, especially with the other incident. Things were going on and it was kind of a buildup. I lost it. You never make decisions out of frustration. That's what it boiled down to."
The end result is both coaches' futures are in doubt. The local media has grilled Locksley, saying this latest incident is further proof he isn't ready to be a head coach of an FBS program. The radio sports call-in shows and message boards have been even harsher with most arguments boiling down to this question: Where else could a boss punch his employee and still keep his job?
"Some people think he should have been suspended a game or two, some people think the reprimand was enough and then you have a couple people that are kind of out there, he should be fired," said Leeroy Lucero, who co-hosts a postgame radio show in Albuquerque as well as writes for the theredmenace.com. "I don't believe the majority want to see him fired, but there are a couple vocal people that do."
As much trouble as Locksley's career may be in, Gerald's could be in more. A few former and current head coaches have said privately that Gerald violated trust by going to police first without trying to have the dispute handled internally.
Gerald, however, is just a dissertation short of receiving a PhD. in educational leadership from Penn State so his future could be outside of coaching.
But in this world of high-pressure, high-stakes athletics, time is ticking on a possible return to the Lobos staff. Graduate assistant Aaron Moorehead has taken over coaching receivers in Gerald's absence.
"We'd like to have J.B. back as part of the staff," New Mexico athletic director Paul Krebs told FanHouse. "We're basically at a point where he is either going to have to come back or we are going to have to put him on reassignment to another area. We are at a point where we need to know which way is he going to go."
Krebs would certainly like to see Locksley be given more time, but admits that may be out of his hands. Depending on what the human resources department finds in its investigation of the ordeal, Locksley could be either suspended or fired. The school conduct code for employees certainly seems to support termination for work place violence. A firing with cause would likely mean Locksley's salary ends on the last day of his employment with the university.
So far Gerald hasn't talked to anyone beyond filing the police report and to this point has declined to press charges against Locksley.
Krebs placed a letter of reprimand in Locksley's file on Monday, but most believe that was a mere slap on the wrist. The final decision on punishment will likely come from the president's office.
"As we stand here today is his job in jeopardy? No," Krebs said. "Based on what I know, what I've seen and what I continue to see, his job is not in jeopardy. But I think it's important to say this is a mistake that can't happen again. It's a mistake he needs to learn from and if he has the kind of leadership skills that I think he has, he will use this as a springboard and he will look back on it one day and remember the struggle of year one.
"But he's got to learn from it and move forward and there can't be no repetition."
The word pressure had been thrown around quite a bit to perhaps explain the emotion that could have led to the blowup Sept. 20. Fans and alumni have already been down on Locksley and his staff after a lackluster showing in the first four games of the regime, which includes troubling losses to Tulsa, Air Force and in-state rival New Mexico State in addition to defeat against Texas A&M in the season opener. New Mexico travels to Lubbock, Texas, this weekend to take on Texas Tech.
Locksley inherited just three returning starters on defense from last year's 4-8 squad, and openly admits his best players are sophomores and redshirt freshmen. Four games in, it's obvious the quick fix Lobo fans hoped for isn't going to happen.
"We probably didn't prepare the community for the rebuilding job that awaited him," Krebs admits. "I think there was expectation that we had enough talent that he was going to come in and make this conversion to a new scheme on offense and defense and kind of get back to some of the better years (former coach Rocky Long) had.
"But the reality is we were a 4-8 team ... and our talent really has not fit this scheme. So we are really going through a growing process, probably more traumatic than our community realizes. I think they were a little bit prepared for what's happened."
At least one source with intimate knowledge of the New Mexico program, however, pinpoints the inexperience of Locksley's staff, especially on offense, for some of the struggles.
In addition to Gerald, centers and guards coach Mike Degory and quarterbacks coach Tee Martin, the former national championship quarterback at Tennessee, are in their first seasons as full-time assistant coaches at the FBS level. Offensive tackles and tight ends coach Cheston Blackshere spent the previous three years at Columbia University after spending 2005 working as Locksley's graduate assistant at Illinois.
The Lobos rank 118th out of 120 schools in total offense after producing just 262.0 yards of offense per game and only five offensive touchdowns in the first four games.
"There is one thing to bring in guys you trust, but at this level you have to have experienced coaches," said a coach with knowledge of the situation. "You can maybe get away with one inexperienced coach but not four at such critical positions."
Krebs defends his coach and the staff he put together.
"I believe in the guy," he said. "I think he has the makings of a great head coach, I think he is a good teacher, he's surrounded himself with good stuff, they are recruiting well. I like the accountability they are instilling in the program; I like the culture change they are instilling.
"But when you are 0-4 and you've had these marks, people are questioning his leadership and I understand that. I think we have to hold tight and look forward to better days."
The question is whether Locksley will be around to enjoy them. Krebs certainly seems to hope so.
Should Locksley fail so quickly and with so much controversy, it's unlikely he would get another head coaching shot anytime soon.
"He needs a champion. Nobody is taking his side in this," Krebs said. "The local press is beating him in this. I think the guy has a chance to be a great head coach. I think he's got a lot of skill. It needs some refinement but he's got a lot of ability. He knows this is his shot. I want to make sure he is given a fair shot, he's given a fair chance to succeed like I think he can.
"Our struggles have compounded some mistakes he's made, probably heightened the tension if you will."
All because of ... Whatever.