Notre Dame men's basketball: Jackson begins coaching career

South Bend Tribune

Everything was set late last month for former Notre Dame point guard Tory Jackson to resurrect his basketball career.

Following a year away from playing competitively so he could coach the varsity at his alma mater — Buena Vista High School in Saginaw, Mich., which closed this summer — Jackson was prepared to join a professional team in Heidelberg, Germany.

He had a plane ticket. His bags were packed. He spent days saying his good-byes to family and friends and promised to stay in touch with those close to him.

Jackson had worked for weeks convincing himself that he actually could get on a plane (he's long feared flying) and spend 10 months far from home.

“I was out of here; my mind was made up to go,” he said. “That was a big step for me. I was ready, but man, when it came time it was just something I couldn't do.”

Jackson couldn't do it because of a change in priorities. No longer could he be about doing something for himself. He had to think hard about others, and about the big-picture future.

Prior to his departure date, Jackson applied for a job as an assistant coach at Northwood (Mich.) University, a Division II school in Midland, a 30-minute drive from Saginaw. A job offer followed.

Jackson wondered if it might be time to stop chasing the playing dream (he last played in the NBA Development League for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants in 2011-12) and start chasing the next one — being a college coach at the highest level and maybe even one day working at Notre Dame.

Days after skipping his flight, Jackson was hired at Northwood.

Now finishing his second week on the job, it took Jackson about three days to realize the choice he made was the right one.

“It's the perfect position,” said Jackson, who still was living out of his suitcases earlier this week before finally unpacking. “I feel like I'm in a spot where I can grow and do a ton of stuff.”

Jackson will do exactly that for the Timberwolves, who finished 13-14 last season. One of two full-time assistants for head coach Jeff Rekeweg, Jackson will do a little of everything. He'll draft scouting reports. He'll cut and prepare video clips for scouting sessions. He'll help devise a practice plan, run the team's guards through individual workouts, assist in setting the team travel itineraries, even do laundry before practices and after game nights.

“He's going to learn everything that happens behind the scenes,” Rekeweg said. “I'm very impressed with him. He's humble, but confident. He's sincere. He cares about people.

“That carries over to your players.”

When Rekeweg was considering hiring Jackson, one of his first calls was to Irish coach Mike Brey. The last Brey had heard, Jackson still was headed for Europe. But when Jackson’s coaching opportunity arose, Brey counseled his former player to forget Germany and focus on being a college coach.

“I said to the coach, 'Grab him and get him involved in your program because there's such good energy there,'” Brey said. “He'll be fabulous for them. He's so well thought of in that state. It's a really smart move.”

During his first week of work, Jackson was mistaken by some around the Timberwolves' basketball offices as a new recruit. Once the players realized their new assistant coach played at Notre Dame, where he holds the school record for games played (126), is second in assists (694) and in steals (211), they wanted to hear about his college playing days.

They asked about playing in the Big East. They asked about playing ranked teams, particularly the 2008-09 North Carolina team that won the national championship. They asked and asked and asked, and Jackson was eager to answer.

“It was a way to bond with them,” he said. “It's good to give a little insight.”

As for what kind of college coach he will be, Jackson will take plenty of pages from Brey. He was the coach who sat in Jackson's living room so many years ago and promised to take care of him in college. He promised that he would play, but also would graduate with a degree from Notre Dame. He promised that Jackson would be prepared for life after basketball.

“Basketball will only be there for so long,” Jackson said. “I thought I would play until I was 40 years old. Now what? I'm only 25, but I have my education to fall back on. That's a promise that Coach Brey made to me.

“I want to be able to make that same promise to these players.”

Another promise also kept Jackson home. Going to Europe would have been easy had it not been for his 8-month old daughter, Milani. Jackson wanted to chase his dream, but knew he would do so at her expense.

Jackson decided to follow an example set by his father, James, who helped raise 14 children with his late wife, Sarah.

“When we didn't have anything, he didn't go and leave us to do what he wanted to do,” Jackson said. “It's not about me anymore. I'm not going to leave my daughter.

“It's a proud moment.”

Early start

Practice for college basketball teams historically starts Oct. 15, but that changes by nearly a month this season after the NCAA decided to accelerate the preseason calendar.

Teams can practice for an hour each day as early as late September. Notre Dame's first day of practice is Sept. 27, 31 days before the first of two exhibition games Oct. 28 against Indianapolis.

“I still feel that's too early,” said Brey, who discussed the subject of the early start last week during National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) board meetings. “We went down this road too soon and didn't let the summer play out long enough. We've been together practicing in the summer not that long ago.”

September practices will look nothing like the more-demanding October workouts, which will routinely run closer to two hours. Brey hopes to use September for more 5-on-0 and shooting and skills work. The Irish may also experiment with some zone defense.

“We're kind of brain-storming as a staff what to do in those 60-minute windows,” Brey said. “We'll take advantage of it to evaluate our guys.”

Three offseasons ago, the NCAA allowed college coaches to work with their teams for as many as two hours a week during the once-off-limits eight-week summer period. The Irish practiced a handful of times this summer, and will do so again in moderation from mid-September to mid-October.

“It's great you have flexibility (but) we want to use it in moderation because we have really become year-round,” Brey said. “This is a long, long haul.

“I've always been conscious about pacing our guys. With another veteran group, I'm even more conscious of it.”

Notre Dame returns all but one starter — Big East first team power forward Jack Cooley — off last season's team that finished 25-10. The Irish open the regular season Nov. 8 against Miami (Ohio).

Former Notre Dame basketball player Tory Jackson will begin his coaching career as an assistant at Northwood University. SBT file photo