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Dungy Helps New Mexico's Locksley Through Tumultuous First Season

Aug 15, 2010 – 1:20 PM
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Graham Watson

Graham Watson %BloggerTitle%

Mike LocksleyNo matter how many times New Mexico coach Mike Locksley apologizes or replays the events of Sept. 20, 2009, there's no amount of revisionist history that can make the scars of that night go away.

It was around 5 p.m. that fateful Sunday when Locksley lost his temper and assaulted wide receivers coach J.B. Gerald during a coaches meeting.

According to a lawsuit filed July 30, Gerald said Locksley choked him, punched him in the face and used profanity toward him in front of the other coaches. Gerald filed a police report later that evening that documented injuries, which included a cut to the inside of his lip.

Gerald took a leave of absence and never came back.

Locksley served a 10-day suspension. This was his second off-field incident -- he was accused of sexual harassment, age discrimination and retaliation by a former administrative assistant -- since taking the position in December 2008 and it didn't help that the team struggled to a 1-11 record, the worst since going winless in 1987. But he kept his job, weathered the storm of criticism and negative publicity and now is eager to show that he's not only a better coach but a better person than the one who tarnished the New Mexico football program a year ago.

"For so many years, I think my name was synonymous with being a good guy," said Locksley, who finished his first season as a head coach after 18 years as an assistant. "A guy that treated people the way they should be treated and I moved up the food chain in this coaching business, and I've got a lot of coaching friends that I've known for years. So, I had tons of support. Never once did I question who I was because I know who I am and I'm confident and comfortable with who I am. Did I make a grave error in judgment in the J.B. Gerald incident? Of course I did. I acknowledge that. But I also know that that decision or that choice of how I handled it wasn't necessarily indicative of who I am as a person."

And Locksley found at least one ally in former NFL coach Tony Dungy, who, coincidentally, was working with the NCAA on an initiative to help minority assistant coaches make a seamless transition to being head coaches.

"Mike's been through some things and I guess my on-the-field experience has been somewhat similar to that," Dungy said during a teleconference after speaking with Locksley a couple times. "We didn't win as many games as we had hoped to. They have had off-the-field issues and things that happened and those things tend to get highlighted more if you're not winning."

Dungy provided Locksley a sounding board, especially when Locksley couldn't confide in anyone else, and helped the rookie head coach come to terms with the improprieties of his first nine months at New Mexico and how to turn things around. Dungy said former NFL coach Dennis Green played a similar role in his maturation as a coach. Green helped Dungy have a successful 13-year head coaching career despite the fact that Dungy acknowledges that he had his doubts after year one. Now, Dungy hopes his work with Locksley will pay off as Green's did with him.

"No matter how long you're an assistant or how much you prepare or how ready you think you are, there's no way to anticipate everything that's going to happen to you or every responsibility that you're going to have as a head coach," Dungy said. "I was 15 years as an assistant in the NFL and people would say, 'Hey, this guy should get a head job.' You think you're very ready."

Since last September, Locksley and Dungy have exchanged texts or phone calls at least twice a month. While Locksley said Dungy doesn't give advice, per se, he's become a confidant and a much-needed friend.

"He's definitely played a major role for me," Locksley said. "If you look at his history as a head coach, he's one of the few African-American coaches that was fired and rehired in the NFL and he went on to win a Super Bowl. He's obviously faced adversity in his life, whether it be with his family or whether it be his struggle climbing the food chain becoming a head coach. Just his experiences and having known his background are things that I think have helped me see who I want to be as a coach, who I'd like to be as a coach."

Mike LocksleyOne of the things Locksley has learned is how to be a better coach to his assistant coaches. Locksley said Gerald was insubordinate twice in the month before the September incident. At the beginning of August, Gerald missed a mandatory staff retreat. During fall camp, Locksley commented during practice about the wide receivers, who were struggling to line up correctly, and Gerald took issue with Locksley's comments. Gerald used profanity in front of the team to refute Locksley's assessment, which prompted Locksley to speak to him after the practice. It was a warning sign that something larger was brewing.

During Locksley's suspension, he asked each of his coaches to fill out a personality test so that he could learn the best way to interact with them. Other than Gerald, Locksley lost just one other coach from his staff -- quarterbacks coach Tee Martin, who took a similar position at Kentucky.

Locksley even continued to reach out to Gerald early on, asking his receivers to call their position coach and ask him to come back to the program. But Gerald rebuffed any advances from Locksley and the university and the efforts stopped after a couple months.

"There is no relationship with J.B.," Locksley said. "I've reached out a couple times, I tried to put it behind me, and I've put forth the effort to reach out to no avail. He has the right to handle it the way he feels like he needs to handle it.

"I should have handled it all differently."

Gerard's reaction can be found here.

It's been a long summer for Locksley, who hasn't had a chance to win back his fans and silence his critics with wins. He's spent a lot of time serving the community of Albuquerque and making himself accessible to the fans. It's his effort to reconnect with a community that spent most of last season carrying pitchforks and torches.

Locksley's made no excuses for his behavior nor does he expect that a new season will make the ghosts of last year disappear. He knows that he won't win anyone back until he can starting making positive headlines on the field and that won't be easy with games against Oregon, Texas Tech and Utah to begin the season.

But all Locksley wants is a chance to heal the wounds he caused a year ago.

"People can say what they want," Locksley said of his critics. "As I said down here, this is my first time in the state of New Mexico. I don't have a lot of money in the bank here when you look at the fact that I had another incident that I had no control over and then this incident that I kind of overdrew myself here. I honestly have a lot of investment to make back in this state to win them over and let them know who I really am as a person and not what they read from the media."
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