James “J.J.” Jackson had made his decision when his boss gave him that certain incredulous look and double-checked for herself.
With two decades of prodigious success behind him, Jackson planned a seemingly odd move so that he could pursue a dream.
“Are you sure?” Jessica Jackson asked.
J.J., after gaining his wife’s permission, soon submitted his resignation as G.W. Carver’s (Montgomery, Alabama) boys basketball coach — though not as a Carver teacher.
J.J. wants to be a college coach, but the question is whether he can do it.
“He has the experience from a coaches’ standpoint and from a players’ standpoint,” said Craig Sword, who was the state’s Mr. Basketball in 2012 at Carver, who played four seasons at Mississippi State and is now playing professionally in Mexico.
“He played for Alabama, so he’s played on a high level, and knows what to expect,” Sword said. “He knows what to do be a winner in college, just like he did in high school.
Two coaches who have made a move like Jackson wishes listed the ways they did it. But neither resigned their high school coaching job before being offered a college position.
“It’s not that easy,” said Nate Oats, Alabama’s new head men’s basketball coach, six years removed from being a high school head coach himself.
“First of all, you have to be really lucky,” Oats said. “I’ve told plenty of high school coaches (you can) do everything right and you still have to get a couple of breaks.”
Oats, like Jackson at Carver, enjoyed immense success for the Romulus (Michigan) High School Eagles. Oats, like Jackson at Carver, produced a horde of college-quality talent, which helped Oats, like Jackson at Carver, get to know college coaches.
“I tell (aspiring high school) guys to pour everything you have into your program right now,” Oats said. “At the same time, you have to build a relationship with different guys you can get a break from.”
Michael Curry made the leap from being Robert E. Lee’s head coach. He was a college assistant for 16 seasons between Florida’s Okaloosa-Walton Community College, Troy and Alabama State before returning to high school.
“It’s still basketball, but it was different being on the road 24/7,” said Curry, who is soon to enter his second year as Catholic’s head coach.
“J.J. has played on that level. He’s been there. He knows what it’s all about.”
Curry said, while he was at Lee, he hoped to become a college coach and wondered if he could do it, but it never consumed his thinking.
“Some people want to be head coach of the Celtics, but sometimes you have to be realistic,” Curry said. “I was committed to Lee, but when the opportunity came along, I jumped at it.”
Jackson, 54, has spent 25 years as a high school head coach, going 531-129. In 18 years at Carver, his alma mater, he was 445-102 with three state championships.
The Wolverines, in those 18 years, reached the state semifinals 10 times, including nine times in the last 10 seasons.
“I knew he would do well. That’s why I handpicked him to be my successor when I left Carver,” said Dan Lewis, who was Jackson’s coach and predecessor at Carver, who has been a regular at Carver’s games and who remains close to Jackson.
“He knows I could write a book on him. I might do that.”
Sword said he’s confident that book, if the publication date is in a few years, will have a lengthy chapter — or chapters — about Jackson’s upcoming success.
Jackson has nurtured relationships with his players past their final game or graduation at Carver. Several, when in town, make a pilgrimage to see him. Including Sword.
“He has always kept in touch and made sure I was all right and in good hands,” Sword said. “A lot of college coaches don’t do that. Once you leave or go pro, they just move on to the next set of guys.”
Jackson has also developed relationships with several college coaches.
Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton was among those who gave Jackson advice about making the move to college. Oats was another.
“You hire people you know,” Oats said. “If it’s a high school guy getting into college, you better have a really good relationship with somebody in college because they hire people they know.”
Oats, when he was at Romulus, said he attended “hundreds” of Michigan State practices. “All the time, I was up there, to learn,” he said.
By doing so, he grew to know legendary Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.
“That wasn’t my intention for going there,” Oats said. “I went there to be a better basketball coach, but as you do that you build relationships and connections and get a reputation.”
Oats, because of the talent he had at Romulus, also grew to know then-Rhode Island coach Bobby Hurley. When Buffalo hired Hurley in 2013, Hurley hired Oats as an assistant.
Two years later, when Arizona State hired Hurley, Buffalo promoted Oats. In 2019, when Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne started pursuing a new coach, “he talked to Tom Izzo three times during this process,” Oats said.
The road, however trick, led Oats to Alabama — where Jackson played in the 1980s. The Crimson Tide hired Oats three months ago.
Can Jackson follow a similar path?
“It’s a lot, and you pray for a lucky break or two here or there,” Oats said. “I got a few lucky breaks.
“That’s why I’m standing here right now.”