ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Tee Martin barges into his boss' office without so much an apology for interrupting a conversation.
"This is an eee-mergency," New Mexico's quarterbacks coach says breathlessly. "You need to see this."
Martin hands over a DVD to the boss, who quickly slips it into a player. On an opposite wall, the images spring to life on a 60-inch flat screen. Incredible images, coming from the mountains of Tennessee, of a player who was not attached to a scholarship offer this close to signing day.
|Mike Locksley (left) demands much from his 30-year-old protege, Tee Martin, New Mexico's quarterbacks coach. (AP)|
Martin springs to life. This is what good assistants do, especially first-time, big-time assistants who are trying to impress the boss. They have an answer. A friend, another former Tennessee quarterback Jerry Colquitt, had tipped him off. Martin had done the rest on why this kid is still available.
"He just got eligible," Martin says of the tailback scampering his way across the screen and into the coaches' hearts. "Twenty-five ACT. He got to his senior year, and it just hit him."
The name might seem familiar. Yes, this is the same Tee Martin who led Tennessee to the 1998 national championship. If you haven't heard from him lately, neither have a lot of people. Martin has spent the last decade or so remaking himself into a quarterback guru.
The guy who replaced Peyton Manning at Tennessee has quietly burnished his reputation working elite quarterback camps and combines. That's where he met his boss, who is demanding much from his 30-year-old protégé.
Unless you were around those camps, you wouldn't know Martin was becoming a shrewd evaluator of talent. The coaching underground was singing his praises. Oregon recently tried to hire him.
But like the rest of the New Mexico coaching staff, Martin started off fresh and new here in the high desert. So new that when the school announced its signing day class of 19 Wednesday, the list might not be complete.
For a few moments this week, there's silence as the coaches admire the hidden jewel they had discovered on the DVD. He's 5-feet-11, 180 pounds; a tailback, maybe a slotback or a defensive back from Tennessee. He looks Reggie Bush-like, and he's New Mexico's -- for the moment. For now, the prospect will remain unnamed because the boss has done you a favor by letting you witness this scene.
"What does that say about his character?" the boss wonders as Martin recounts how the kid suddenly became eligible.
Martin reassures his boss, telling him the kid's character is good, and he's dedicated.
"How is his transcript?" the boss asks.
Ready to go.
The boss is a 39-year-old African-American from Washington, D.C. He has recruited and nurtured future NFL All-Pros at Maryland, Florida and Illinois and helped lead teams to two BCS bowls. In short, Mike Locksley is one of the best recruiters in the country. His accomplishments on the road have produced some of the most significant buzz of this decade. Way out of his element, way out here, Locksley is taking his first head coaching job at New Mexico.
This adventure is less about his race or age and more about attitude. Locksley is so confident of success that he allowed CBSSports.com behind-the-scenes access to the program as he wrapped up his first recruiting class as head coach.
"I know I'm only going to have one opportunity to be a head coach," Locksley says this week in a still-unpacked office. "There are no miracle workers. It takes recruiting. It takes a little bit of luck."
A few minutes later, Martin hands his boss a cell phone. The prospect's brother is on the other end. Words are exchanged. Appointments are made. From the time Martin bursts into the office, to the time a recruiting visit can be arranged, maybe 10 minutes elapses.
They have to get this kid on an official visit before the world finds out.
"Get him up here this weekend," Locksley says.
8 a.m., Tuesday
Twenty-four hours to go before signing day, and New Mexico athletic director Paul Krebs drops a bomb.
"I want everyone to understand," Krebs says looking around at the table at a football staff meeting, "we are on probation."
That's no secret. It just hurts these guys to hear it out loud. New Mexico is in the second year of the three-year probation that is causing it to lose 15 scholarships (five each for three years). It was nasty stuff, academic fraud, and the NCAA came down hard. Locksley's isn't the first staff to inherit sins of the past. They go into their new jobs knowing the downside.
Oklahoma was slapped with similar penalties in late 1980s at the end of the Barry Switzer regime. The Sooners didn't recover until Bob Stoops showed up in Norman a decade later.
New Mexico, as you might imagine, is not Oklahoma. Since 1941, only two coaches have had a winning record here. That list does not include Rocky Long (65-69), who resigned after last season. He basically fired himself shortly after signing an extension.
"He even said this," said Scott Creagan, president of the Lobo Club. "'This is as far as I can get this program.'"
|Rocky Long, a New Mexico alum, went 65-69 in 11 seasons before basically firing himself last year. (US Presswire)|
There are plenty of examples of black coaches having to take bad I-A jobs just to become a head coach. This isn't one of them. In the past 10 years, the program has averaged more than one NFL draftee per season. Included in that group is a certain six-time Pro Bowl player named Brian Urlacher.
"There was a grain of truth to what Charles was saying, but he threw a lot of us in there," Krebs said. "This is a program that has not been destitute. Mike has inherited not a championship program but a very solid, very competitive team."
You want to talk bad? The man largely hailed as a Lobo savior, Dennis Franchione, signed 27 players in his first class in 1992. That gave him 58 scholarship athletes. It took Fran six years to win more than six games in a season.
Long is an alum who stayed 11 years, winning at least seven games in three of his last seven seasons. Locksley will top that if he sticks around. He is young enough, and smart enough. We should all understand that this is his starter job. He might stay 10 years, he might stay three, but you get the feeling there are bigger things in store.
It's almost as if New Mexico didn't choose him, he chose it.
"I wanted to go somewhere that had won," Locksley said. "Two years ago they won nine games. I didn't think it was a rebuilding job. I thought it was a renovation.
"When I talked to people in the league, New Mexico is probably the toughest team in this league. I've been places where you had to recruit toughness, develop toughness. Usually with a head-coaching change there are 20 guys ineligible, guys get arrested. Rocky left it pretty solid."
Sitting around Locksley at the conference table is one of the more diverse staffs in the country. Not necessarily in race, but in experience. Five coaches have more than 15 years' experience. Four are younger than 32.
Special teams coach Toby Neinas, 37, is an up-and-comer. His dad, Chuck, a former Big Eight commissioner and NCAA official, is enjoying life as the nation's foremost headhunter for schools looking for coaches. Toby has chosen this often un-glamorous life.
Last season, he was the outside linebackers coach on a dreadful San Diego State team. Introducing his staff to the media last month, Locksley saw fit to tease Neinas for a 70-7 New Mexico "butt whipping" of the Aztecs last season. On this day, Neinas has to explain how he sewed up a recruit.
Sometimes all it takes is a remote. A recruit's dad wanted to know how he could see his son on TV. The Mountain West has its own network (The mtn.), which is only slightly easier to find on TV than life on Mars.
"I explained to the dad how to get it," Toby says.
Head down, Neinas jots down notes. He knows he has scored with his boss. Hey, you try to find The mtn. on your cable.
Offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey, 49, is the son of a head coach who was one himself (North Texas, 1998-2006). Playing for his dad Jim, quarterback Darrell Dickey led Kansas State to a bowl (1982 Independence) before anyone had heard of Bill Snyder.
Defensive line coach Rubin Carter, 56, has played in two Super Bowls. Martin and centers/guards coach Mike Degory, 26, have won national championships as players in the past decade.
They are all reminded by the boss that it's ABC: always be closing. Keep going, hard. Illinois defensive back Vontae Davis committed, the staff is told by the man who landed him, the day after Illini lost to Penn State 63-10 in 2005.
"It's OK to make a mistake -- secondary violations," Locksley tells the staff. "We want to lead the conference in them."
It's a joke, of course, but there aren't many laughs around the table. Locksley is frank about the rep sometimes attached to him. Two years ago almost to the day, Illinois beat out the likes of Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan to land a top 15 recruiting class. That was too good for a benchwarmer like Illinois, some concluded. Former Michigan State coach John L. Smith broke the coaches code by outing Ron Zook's staff. Locksley was its superstar recruiter.
"If they had a winning program and all of that, it would be a different deal," Smith told the New York Times. "If they had the greatest facilities in the world, then maybe they could sell them. But what are they selling? ... Where there's smoke, there's probably fire."
"As coaches it's almost a compliment," Locksley said. "It's almost like having a beautiful girlfriend or wife and people are staring at her. If you're a good recruiter, people are going to accuse you of cheating."
Maybe it's jealousy. Locksley has shot up the charts, going from Maryland to Florida to Illinois to his first head coaching job in 12 years. Or maybe Locksley is the best recruiter in the country.
But now an entire program is his. He has to wear the sports jacket, shake hands, do much more than call plays and make promises. Around the table, the subject becomes offseason workouts. Long's players are about to mix with Locksley's first recruiting class. A message must be sent during lifting and running sessions.
"I want to make it rough early," the coach said. "It's a lot easier to let up later. I want to bust that (expletive). I don't want to run anybody off, but we will."
Each coach is asked about their recruit(s) shortly before they sign Wednesday. This is going to be the backbone, the foundation of a program having to deal with probation and three top 25 teams in 2009 -- TCU, Utah and BYU.
Roll call: Punter Ben Skaer?
On board, someone says
Doesn't matter, Dickey boasts.
"We ain't punting," he says.
Running back Demond Dennis from Atlanta? A huge "get." New Mexico not only got into the South but beat Kentucky for him.
It's mentioned that one current player isn't taking to instruction in the weight room. His brother died in a fire the night before the Lobos' last bowl game in 2007, so the staff doesn't want to completely break the kid down.
"Make 'em know it isn't personal," the boss says, "it's a football thing."
The haters aside, Locksley actually seems to have an excellent grasp of the rules. Compliance director Dawn Martinez was brought in to remind the staff the department will be extra vigilant because the school already is on probation. Krebs reminds them that president David Schmidly, the man who hired Bob Knight at Texas Tech, is a supportive fanboy but won't tolerate any funny stuff.
"It's like having a good tax accountant," the coach said. "You to play on the line. As long as it's legal, you have to try to do it."
Krebs says his goodbyes and reminds his new staff there is hope. The school is appealing the penalties and might get a few scholarships back.
The D.C. Kids
What's the first thing you think of when you hear New Mexico?
Jason Lane didn't even think United States. The Washington (D.C.) Coolidge coach caused a minor stir during recruiting season when he talked to the Washington Post about two of his players who had committed to Locksley.
|First-time visitors to the Lobos' stadium might be in for a new experience. (Dennis Dodd)|
First of all, it's New Mexico and ... never mind. Locksley did call and chew Lane out, which he could. The two old friends attended the same high school in D.C.
"I'm not that far from Earth," Lane said. "I do look at a map."
You knew they, the D.C. kids, were coming. Locksley made his bones recruiting the nation's capital and surrounding regions. Vernon Davis at Maryland and his brother Vontae at Illinois. LaMont Jordan and Shawne Merriman with the Terps. Receiver Arellious Benn with the Illini.
"It wasn't a hard sell for kids to go down there," Lane said. "Pretty much the kids have seen what he's done for kids from this area starting all the way back to LaMont Jordan and Shawne Merriman. They knew what type of guy they were dealing with."
Benn became the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2007. Vontae Davis, a talented defensive back, made 13 tackles in the 2008 Rose Bowl before departing after his junior season.
The jewel of the desert, er, class might be Emmanuel Yeager. The 6-2 quarterback attended three high schools but found his way here, along with three other D.C. players, because of Locksley's rep.
Jewel might be too strong a term. Technically, Yeager isn't part of the recruiting class. He is enrolled part time after graduating early from Coolidge. The NCAA Clearinghouse has questions about his transcript. New Mexico is his third commitment. Yeager also promised his services to Central Michigan and Louisville before coming out here. Teammate Derrell Person, a receiver, made it a package deal when he committed sight unseen. He did later take an official visit.
"Emmanuel is a very fiery quarterback," Lane said. "He is like a Donovan McNabb. He's also like Tee Martin. Hey, guess who's the quarterback coach? He's a chip off the old Tee Martin block. A freak of nature.
"Derrell is 6-3, ran a 4.4 40, has a 38-inch vertical leap. He's only been playing football for two years."
Hey, it's recruiting. Hyperbole is welcome.
Another D.C.-area receiver, Emmanuel McPhearson, came from famed DeMatha High School in Maryland. Locksley had recruited McPhearson's brothers to Maryland and Illinois.
"Kids from major cities will go anywhere," Locksley said. "They all want to play first and foremost. I don't think they're afraid to leave the city.
"Testimony is huge in recruiting. When a kid can call Shawne Merriman and say, 'How's Locks?' and he says, 'Coach Locks was there for me when our house caught on fire ...'"
The boss can be quirky too. Locks needed a deep snapper in his first class. It's not exactly a position you recruit. That's why God made walk-ons. Think of the guy who squeegees your windows at a stop light suddenly getting hired full time at Turtle Wax.
That's the equivalent of giving a scholarship to a deep snapper.
In 2007, there were 32 New Mexicans on the roster. The overwhelming majority of those were walk-ons. Free talent is a built-in advantage for this program. The state typically produces fewer than 10 recruitable Division I-A athletes per year. But the state lottery funds something called the lottery scholarship. Any kid with a 2.5 GPA can get his tuition paid thanks to all those scratch-offs.
Given that, it would seem a coach could practically start a fraternity house of deep snappers. But last season, the poor New Mexico player's snaps were known for their hang time.
"He had an arc on it," Locksley said.
So the coach saw nothing wrong with using a scholarship Wednesday on a guy who would only play a few snaps a game. He didn't expect Evan Jacobsen. The kid has been deep snapping since he was 9. Recruiting services called him the best in the country at what he does.
"According to my (high school) coach it's the most important position," Jacobsen said. "You get the ball back there as fast and as accurate as you can. Then you run down and try to make a tackle."
There's a number for everything. Even Jacobsen can claim to have set the high school record in the Rubio snapping index.
But the kid seems more enthused by his hobby. That is, to be the youngest person to scale the world's seven tallest peaks. Four down for 240-pounder from Laguna Niguel, Calif., three to go.
"I was supposed to do No. 5, Mount McKinley, but football and climbing are contradictory," Jacobsen said.
As he traveled the world, Jacobsen was so struck by the poverty he saw in places like Russia, Nepal and Tanzania, it inspired him to start Summit7, a non-profit that helps raise funds for housing. His goal is to raise $1 million for each country he visits.
"My father kind of picked up mountain climbing and went on all these trips," Jacobsen said. "He kept telling me these fascinating stories. There's plenty of good climbing around New Mexico.
"I practice for an hour every day at most," he said.
Just one question. Is Jacobsen talking about football or mountain climbing?
Could he be that leader?
Krebs doesn't want you to think of aliens when you think of New Mexico. He wants you to know it for the skiing. He wants you to know it for the golf.
|Early in Brian Urlacher's Lobos career, the coaching staff knew it had something special. (Getty Images)|
More than 300 days of sun per year doesn't suck, either.
"I always text Steve Alford," Krebs said of the Lobos hoops coach who came from Iowa. "What do you think it is in Iowa City today?"
Most of all Krebs doesn't want the Brian Urlachers of the world to be a fluke. Urlacher, an in-state kid, had no scholarship offers when an assistant approached Franchione. The 6-3, 210-pound tight end/linebacker seemed like a decent enough player. Three days into two-a-days, the coaches knew that had something special.
But they also knew it was luck. Krebs wants the program to be more cosmopolitan, more visible, more sure of itself. Hey, if Utah can do it ...
In less than two months, Locksley was able to assemble a class collected from eight states and Washington, D.C.
"You have not seen anything yet in how we will recruit," the coach said. "This was the condensed, fast version."
Now you see what Krebs saw in his hire. The AD is the guy who gave Urban Meyer his first head coaching job at Bowling Green in 2001.
"At a young age, he was not afraid to ask people for advice," Krebs said of Meyer. "He had a circle of guys -- Bob Davie, Lou Holtz, Earle Bruce that he kept circling back to. Young guys don't tend to want to do that."
That's why Krebs used Meyer, among others, to vet Locksley. The two coaches' paths crossed briefly when Meyer replaced Zook at Florida. Meyer, Krebs said, wanted to keep Locksley, then Zook's running backs coach.
Locksley eventually followed Zook to Illinois.
"Urban wouldn't have anyone around his program who he thought was dirty," Krebs said. "I always got the impression that Mike was going to operate above board. All coaches live on the gray a little bit but ... people wanted to be around him. People gravitated toward him. My question with Mike was could he be tough enough? All I'd seen is the recruiting, the kind of nice guy. I was wondering could this guy drop the hammer when he needed to, could he be that leader?"
For the answer go back to that eee-mergency. It's the last item on the agenda at that pre-signing day staff meeting: Everything the staff said would happen on signing day does. But there is icing. Now everyone knows that an official visit by the Mystery Late Qualifier from Tennessee is on.
The boss adjourns.
"Better days are coming," Locksley says.