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Coach J and Co.: Why Fred Jackson has stayed Michigan's running backs coach for the past two decades

By Michael Florek, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 15, 2011

“Do you want to be the next Michigan running back?”

It wasn’t so much a question as a recruiting pitch.

Fred Jackson was in Double Oak, Texas. Tall, with a mustache fading into his cheeks, at 61 the wrinkles are there, but only if you look for them. In his deep, booming voice he asked this question to 17-year old Stephen Hopkins.

Jackson knew how loaded it was. He created its meaning.

Entering his 20th year as Michigan’s running backs coach, Jackson has groomed five of the top-10 career rushing leaders in school history. His backs have been named All-Big Ten 10 times. He’s been responsible for over 35,000 yards rushing.

This is the other part of his job — recruiting.

The Wolverines offered Hopkins a scholarship in February of his junior year. Four months later, at Michigan’s spring game, Hopkins officially answered Jackson’s question and committed.

“Following the people that have been here already, people that have already played here, it wasn’t really that hard,” Hopkins said before this season.

At a school ripe with history, the mystique of the Michigan running back Jackson had spent his life’s work creating had just landed him another recruit. And unlike most of the countless other players Jackson has recruited, Hopkins is in his position group. He gets to mold Hopkins into the player his mind sees him to be.

It’s the perfect intersection of what Fred Jackson does: coach and recruit. For the past two decades, with four different head coaches, he’s done this donning a block ‘M’ on his chest, even if it was in his heart long before then. In profession known for its nomadic ways, Jackson has gone from Tyrone Wheatley to Mike Hart, finding and molding the next great Michigan running back.

“Coaching with Fred and watching him develop backs and how his kids play on a daily, weekly basis, there’s no better running backs coach in the country,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said.

If his coaching allows him to survive, his recruiting makes him indispensable.

Logic says with a résumé like that, Jackson shouldn’t be a running backs coach. The coaching ladder says the best position coaches become coordinators. The best coordinators become head coaches. The ladder used to matter to Jackson. He spent most of his career running across the country, trying to find a way to the next rung.

Now, it doesn’t mean much. Jackson’s set it aside for a peaceful house and a chance to catch a few more Pop Warner football games.

Why hasn’t he left? The answer begins with a quarterback from Baton Rouge becoming 'Coach J.' It ends with 'Pops.'

****

Twenty years later, Fred Jackson hasn’t fully moved into his office. Papers are scattered on an end table in the back corner behind his desk. An un-hung picture rests gently on a cardboard box.

Jackson and Bo are standing on the field of Michigan Stadium. The picture was taken in 1989, Bo’s last year, just before Jackson and Purdue took on Michigan.

Jackson reaches behind the box and pulls out another picture. It has a slight yellowish tint to it. It’s old but there’s no mistaking who it is. It’s Bo standing on the sideline, with slicked back chestnut hair.

“Look at how young he looked,” Jackson says. “You know what year that is? That’s '74.”

It was Bo who taught Jackson, a young kid from Louisiana, what Michigan stood for. It was Bo who brought him here.

After playing quarterback at Jackson State, Jackson came to Flint, Mich. because of a program that brought minority educators to the Midwest. Flint Southwestern Athletic director Dick Leach hired him as an assistant football coach and biology teacher. He would coach track and basketball, too.

A year later, Leach’s son Rick was in his junior year at Southwestern and was already one of the top recruits in the country. Michigan State was all over him. Arizona, Stanford, UCLA, Colorado and many other major colleges in the nation wanted him.

That included Bo Schembechler and Michigan. Leach was the perfect fit for any offense, but especially Schembechler’s. He had the speed to run the option and the arm to make the defense pay for defending it.

Leach hadn’t yet made a commitment when Bo turned to Southwestern's barely-out-of-college assistant coach.

“Are we going to get Leach?”

“Yeah, you’ll get him,” Jackson told him. “His family is Michigan. He’s Michigan.”

Leach signed. A relationship was born.


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