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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. Bo kept coming back and kept selling his passion for Michigan to Jackson and his recruits. Players like Gary Lee and Brian Carpenter spurned the best recruiting efforts of then-Illinois defensive coordinator Lloyd Carr to sign with the Wolverines. Then-Michigan defensive coordinator Gary Moeller took a liking to Jackson and began teaching him. Any time Jackson had a question, he would call Moeller. Gary always answered it.

Barely into his coaching career, Jackson already found his objective.

“I knew this: I always wanted to coach in college football,” Jackson said. “I wanted to coach at Michigan.”

Separated from his first wife, the journey began in 1979 when he became the offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach and wide receivers coach at Toledo. Three-year-old Fred Jr. and his older sister Tonya stayed in Flint with their mother.

Thirteen years after Bo Schembechler got that Leach guarantee, Jackson was well on his way to achieving his goal. He was the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin when Bo called him again.

Michigan’s wide receivers coach had just left. Did Jackson want the position?

This was Jackson’s chance. He could bring everything full circle, go to place that was sold so well to him and his players. He could work with the people who taught him, be closer to his family. But he was the already an offensive coordinator — one step away from the top of the coaching ladder. You don’t voluntary step down a rung.

Jackson turned it down.

Six years later, Bo was long retired as head coach, but he never stopped recruiting. After leaving Madison, Jackson bounced from Navy to South Carolina to Purdue to Vanderbilt. He was the quarterbacks coach with the Commodores when Bo called again.

Longtime running backs coach Tirrell Burton has just retired. Head coach Gary Moeller wanted Jackson to have the job. This time Bo had leverage.

“If you don’t take this job,” he told Jackson, “we’re never going to offer you another job.”

***

Fred Jackson Jr. was fed up.

As his dad chased his dream, Fred Jr. was stuck in Flint. Spending summers throwing the football around wasn’t enough time together. He was going to stay with his dad.

Mom was having none of that.

“She wanted me to be with her," Fred Jr. said. "I’m her only son. I understand now. I didn’t understand then.”

Those backyard throws and catches would have to suffice for a few more years. In those days, Fred Jr. was always the receiver. His dad was the former college quarterback, after all. Jackson had played at Jackson State, handing the ball off to Walter Payton during his senior season. The Philadelphia Eagles gave Jackson a shot, but cut him not long after.

Jackson still had enough pop in his arm to throw the ball repeatedly to his son as they tried to scrunch their bonding time into the short summer months before fall camp started in August.

“I didn’t talk to him as much, it was either late night when he got home, or if he could shoot me a quick call during the day or something,” Fred Jr. said.

During those fleeting moments in June and July, it wasn’t any different from a typical father-son relationship. As far as football, Jackson had some advice.

“Always be a receiver,” he would say. “If you want a scholarship or if you want play at the next level in the pros, they take more receivers than they do quarterbacks.”

But as Fred Jr. entered high school, he had no choice. His coach had heard of his dad’s successes. Jackson was a quarterback. Jackson’s son was going to be a quarterback. It didn't matter that Fred was 6-foot and barely 155 pounds.

Jackson, well into his coaching career at this point, knew how to make up for some of the lack in size. He started feeding his son quarterback playbooks. He provided him with inspirational quotes and related everything to football.

Knowledge makes you better.

With the help of future Michigan cornerback Andre Weathers, Fred Jr. took the 1994 Flint Central Indians to two playoff victories. They were the best team in Flint history.

Jackson's lack of size scared off Division-I teams schools. After a brief stint as a walk-on wide receiver at Western Michigan, he transferred to Jackson State. His playing career over, questions still lingering.

What if Dad had been around? How would Fred Jr.’s football career be different if he wasn’t miles away?

“When I was playing I did feel like if I had Pops around it might be a little bit different,” Fred Jr. said. “I did feel that. But I think my whole thing and why I had success playing quarterback in high school is because I wanted to impress him.

“I guess you can pin it both ways.”

Jackson returned in the middle of his son’s high-school career, taking the job at Michigan. But by then Fred Jr. didn’t have much time left to develop and Jackson was concerned with figuring out a way to make this the last stop on his journey.

He had finally achieved his dream of coaching at Michigan, but there was an added incentive to stay.

“I think part of it was because myself and my sister was here,” Fred Jr. said.

***

Coach J stood in between stretching lines on a Tuesday practice. It was a sunny day and he was wearing a baseball cap and his trademark sunglasses. He hovered over junior Vincent Smith, cracking jokes.

It’s here where he finds the special ones. After 20 years he knows what he’s looking for: toughness, smarts, and “an inner will that wouldn’t allow them to think anything you did physically would stop them.”

It usually takes a year to figure out, but the way Jackson sees it, there’s no mistaking it. Tyrone Wheatley, Tim Biakabutuka, Anthony Thomas, Chris Perry, Mike Hart — they all had it.

Once he finds it, he can get started.

“You’ve got to coach the special guys — who you think may be special — in a different way,” Jackson said. “You’ve got to treat them all fair, but you don’t necessarily have to treat them the same.”

Before arriving at Michigan, Jackson had coached quarterbacks all his life. If he always wanted to come to the school he always wanted to coach at and try to figure out a way to stay close to his kids, he had to take over a position he knew little about.

He worked with Burton on learning the finer points of the position, like blocking. After two weeks, he understood the technique. Everything else, he already knew.

“I realized after coaching quarterbacks all these years, coaching running backs, to me, was the easiest thing I could do,” Jackson said. “I said I’m going to coach them just like I coach the quarterbacks in terms of knowledge.”

The special ones already knew how to run. Teaching them the technique wasn’t too hard. Blocking was more about mentality anyway. They just had to know who to block. Reading a defense and knowing which players are likely to be blitzing isn’t much different from what a quarterback had to see.

With Wheatley, Jackson’s first test case, it worked.

“I never liked getting in the huddle because I knew all the signals,” Wheatley said. “I knew what the audibles were so I just never liked getting in the huddle. I kind of stood back there. I would see the same thing the quarterback saw.”

Wheatley was an All-Big Ten first team running back three times. Tim Biakabutuka became All-Big Ten the following year. Three others followed suit, ending with Mike Hart.

The time away from Fred Jr. and Tonya coaching quarterbacks at Toledo and Navy and Vanderbilt wasn’t wasted. All that time spent studying blitz schemes and quarterback check downs turned Fred Jackson into one of the premiere running backs coaches in the country.

“He sees everything,” Hart said. “He knows exactly what happens on every play. … I think as much success as he’s had, you have to respect him. He’s not one of those guys where you say, ‘Oh, well this guy’s only had one running back.’ ”

The time away got Jackson to Michigan, back to his children. Now, through Moeller, Carr, Rich Rodriguez and Hoke, it’s one of the reasons for his longevity.

“He’s a good coach,” Biakabutuka said. “Any new coach that comes in, the head coach, can realize that.”

***
Coaches can’t create talent. They develop it. But if an assistant coach wants to stay employed, he better find it.

Coach J knows that better than anybody. More so than his coaching, it’s the reason Rodriguez enabled years 17, 18 and 19, despite Jackson not knowing anybody on the coaching staff.

Back in 2009, Jackson needed another running back for the 2010 class, so he traveled down to Texas, the place where he’d spent years convincing some of the state’s best players to spurn burnt orange or crimson and cream to don maize and blue.

Stephen Hopkins was a downhill runner for Marcus High School. When he rushed for over 1,500 yards his sophomore year, colleges started calling. When he did it again his junior year, so did Michigan.

Hopkins’s parents fell in love with Jackson. Jackson convinced Hopkins to take a visit. Jackson talked to Hopkins’s high school coach, Bryan Erwin.

Is he tough? Does he work hard? Does he show up to practice on time? How are his grades?

When the formal part was over, Erwin shut the doors. In the five years Erwin has known Jackson, Coach J always has to get on the grease board. Marcus runs the I-formation. Jackson knows all about it. He got on the board and talked through plays for hours. Wherever he goes, he still teaches like a quarterback.

“We’ve gone through a lot of grease cans,” Erwin said.

This is building relationships. This is recruiting. No one does it better than Coach J.

Darryl Stonum, Troy Woolfolk, Brandon Herron, Carvin Johnson and Terrance Robinson, among others, are all his guys. Royce Jenkins-Stone, a linebacker in Rivals.com’s Top 100 prospects, has committed to play for Michigan next year. He’s a Jackson guy. Super-recruit Shane Morris, one of the best — if not the best quarterback — in the 2013 class, has already verbally committed to the Wolverines. He’s a Jackson guy.

“Recruiting is the name of the game,” said Wheatley, now the running backs coach at Syracuse. “Michigan wouldn’t be Michigan if you don’t get the players in there to continue the Michigan man tradition, to put the butts in the seats, fill that thing up, 111, 112,(000) whatever it is.

“Add up the number of backs and the yards that he’s coached over the years and then the players that he’s brought in over the years, I would say that’s pretty much, you’ve got to keep that guy.”

Starting with Rick Leach, Jackson learned from Bo. He sells the same tradition to the kids and coaches that Bo sold to him. He builds relationships on the trail the same way Moeller built a relationship with him. He recruits the way he was recruited.

The method isn’t a secret. If you step into his office on a Thursday morning and ask, Jackson will give you a preview.

“I know I can sell this place as well as anybody,” Jackson said. “I’ve known about this place since the '70s.”

The rest is right out of Bo's textbook.

“This is Michigan. Whatever you put in this article you’ve got to know that that’s what I sell kids. This is Michigan. This is not any other school.

“Like Bo said, ‘Those who stay will be champions.’ You feel like you’re a champion here.”

He continues on. The academics, the life in Ann Arbor, the stadium, the tradition, Fielding Yost, Gary Moeller, Lloyd Carr.

It's nothing new. But hearing it this time was different. Jackson looks you in the eye when he says it. His pace was steady, his words forceful but ringing of truth. You have no choice but to believe him.

“My dad has got a way of talking to young men,” Fred Jr. says.

As a young man Fred Jr. was on the receiving end of those talks. Now 35, he coaches football at Flint Northern High School. Last year his running back, Thomas Rawls, broke 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram’s Flint-area single-game rushing record.

Jackson paid a visit to his old stomping grounds. He made his pitch. Word got out.

“When (Iowa) found out my dad was seeing him, they were like, ‘Man, I might as well lay off. Coach Jack got a hand on him, that’s it,’ ” Fred Jr. said.

But there was one recruit Jackson handled differently. That one provides a window into the other side of Fred Jackson’s tenure at Michigan. He’s not the reason Jackson survived or became indispensible. But more so than Jackson’s love for Michigan, the recruit is the reason he’s stayed.

***

Jeremy Jackson got to play the position Fred Jr. didn’t. He got a lot of things Fred Jr. didn’t.

While Pops still worked long hours during the fall and missed football games, he came home at night. To see his son, Jackson had to drive a few miles, not across state lines.

When Jeremy was growing up, Jackson began his success at Michigan. Lloyd Carr took over as head coach in the summer of 1995 and named Jackson the offensive coordinator in addition to running backs coach. Carr trusted him.

After two seasons, Jackson lost the offensive coordinator job. He was named assistant head coach. During that time, more opportunities arose — Sunday football was calling.

“I had opportunities to coach in the NFL numerous amounts of time,” Jackson said. “I mean like eight, nine times and I didn’t go because I wanted to coach here.”

In the most unstable of professions, the Jacksons found stability. They had bought a house in Ann Arbor. Jeremy, the oldest son of Jackson and his second wife, Teresa, was growing up. Josh came along. The wife was happy. The kids were happy. Jackson was at the only college he had every wanted to coach at.

But the allure remained. This was the highest level, the top of the coaching ladder. Could Jackson start all over, leaving his house and family all over again to chase another objective?

No. He was going to be there for Jeremy and Josh.

“I think he wants to coach in the NFL,” Fred Jr. said. “I think he really does, but I think he’s staying because of his kids.”

Jackson still works long hours and misses events. That’s the nature of the job. He told AnnArbor.com he saw about “a fifth of what Jeremy did as an athlete in high school.” But he lived under the same roof, and that was more than he could say for Fred Jr.

Jeremy took Pops' advice. He became a receiver. With the help of Jackson and former Michigan coach and current Iowa wide receivers coach Erik Campbell, who had coached Jeremy since he was young, Jeremy developed into a Division-I prospect. Offers started rolling in.

LSU coach Les Miles, who coached with Jackson when the two were at Michigan, wanted him down in Baton Rouge. Campbell wanted him at Iowa.

“That bothered me when they offered him,” Jackson said. “I mean, I thought there was a chance.”

But this was Coach J’s son. Might as well lay off.

There was no pitch, no question about becoming the next great Michigan receiver. For all of his life, Jeremy had seen his dad live the moments of the Michigan program: Biakabutuka’s 313 yards, Charles Woodson and the 1997 national championship, Braylon Edwards in triple overtime against Michigan State. Having a sit-down in the living room wasn’t changing anything.

“I never told him a thing,” Jackson says.

“There wasn’t much for him to really tell me,” Jeremy added. “I pretty much knew.”

***

Jackson’s shot at the NFL is fading fast, if it's not gone entirely. He’s in his fourth decade as a college coach. Now coaching with his old buddies, Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, he’ll remain as the running backs coach at Michigan, probably for at least the next four or eight years.

Josh, now 13, is in eighth grade. Already over 6-feet tall, he may be best athlete of them all. Jackson may have the chance to see another son through Michigan.

“It’s funny now that I’m older, I see my little brothers and how they are and I’m like, ‘oh they’re getting all that hands on,’ ” Fred Jr. said. “If I would’ve got it, I would have been sweet. Real sweet.”

Ann Arbor and the Michigan football program have brought the Jackson family together. Jeremy’s a sophomore now. Josh will be at Huron High School next year, about four miles away from Michigan Stadium.

Fred Jr., with a baby of his own, is about an hour up the road. With him, tucked away in some closet or in some box in the garage, are those quarterback playbooks Dad gave him all those years ago.

In a way those books represent the old Fred Jackson: the man who loved football, wanted to be at Michigan and was willing to sacrifice his family time to get there.

There’s a different Fred Jackson now. There’s a different relationship with Fred Jr. now. Fred Jr. comes to visit and it’s an event. Jeremy and Josh have to be home. Family is here. That lost time between Fred Jr. and Dad in those early years has been found.

“When I was younger, I wasn’t with him every day like my mom,” Fred Jr. says. “Now, it’s like I’ve got unlimited access to him and maybe I’m living a childhood a little bit with him. But I don’t mind that.”


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