Noie: Former Notre Dame PG Tory Jackson deals with disappointment of termination

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

His heart hurts, but he’ll handle that.

He always does.

Former Notre Dame point guard Tory Jackson has experienced his share of sadness over the years. His mother, Sarah, died of a heart attack in 2010. Couple years later, cancer took his oldest sister, Paulette. His oldest brother, Jon, died in 2015. His father, James, died in 2017.

Through that pain, Jackson always could count on the basketball court as sanctuary. Even there, he lost crushing games as a player at Notre Dame. He lost as a high school coach in Michigan. He almost lost his pickup game career a couple years ago to a ruptured Achilles tendon.

At each obstacle, Jackson vowed to persevere. To keep loving the game. To keep fighting. To remain strong and positive and believe that a higher power has him on a path to prove something to himself, to prove something to others.

He moves forward with hope — and not hate — in his heart.

Everything about Jackson’s latest round of adversity screams for him to be angry. Upset. Ticked off. Still, he strains to see a bigger picture, to see some good that might come from a sad situation.

In June, Jackson was hired as boys’ basketball coach at Heritage High School in Saginaw, Mich. It was a feel-good story when everyone needed something to feel good about — the hometown kid, a local basketball legend, a member of the county’s sports Hall of Fame, returned home. The way Jackson connected with his players, the way he coached them up not only to make shots and compete but to succeed off the court as men, that was something everyone in the Sag could rally around and point to with a sense of civic pride.

The 32-year-old Jackson lasted less than two months at Heritage. In early August, Jackson was terminated as head coach after an allegation that he was recruiting a player from his former school – Bay City John Glenn.

Jackson attempted to explain his side of the story, but nobody listened. His former college coach, Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, penned a letter in support of Jackson to Heritage athletic director Justin Thorington. It didn’t help.

Jackson said that the Michigan High School Athletic Association threatened a four-year sanction if he was found to have recruited players to and remained at Heritage.

Any further investigation effectively ended when Heritage fired Jackson.

“I definitely was done wrong, but I’m all right,” Jackson said earlier this month by cell phone. “I can’t stress over it. I’m hurt, but at the end of the day, I’ve got to keep pushing forward.”

MHSAA media and content coordinator Geoff Kimmerly referred all questions about Jackson to Heritage Schools. He said that there is no current MHSAA penalty against him.

The alleged recruiting violation (you can’t recruit players in high school) occurred after a five-word text from Jackson to Glenn senior Quincy Almond. Having coached many of the kids in that program, Jackson maintained relationships with them when he left for Heritage. A text of encouragement here or a phone call to boost a kid’s spirits there.

That’s Jackson to his core, someone who values relationships beyond the basketball court.

When Thorington hired Jackson in June, he was blown away at the way the former Irish point guard connected with players. The same players couldn’t wait to work with Jackson. He couldn’t wait to work with them. Thorington couldn’t wait to see where all of this might lead.

“This is a guy we’ve gotta get,” Thorington told the Tribune after hiring Jackson. “He was everything we hoped he’d be and more. The first word I think of is exciting. Tory brings so much passion and energy. That’s what coaching is today.”

It all ends

Coaching’s also cultivating relationships and maintaining them to the point where they matter beyond basketball. Just because Jackson wasn’t at Glenn didn’t mean he’d stop caring about those kids. They weren’t his players, but in some ways, they were. Jackson could relate to them because he once was in their shoes. He played in the same gyms. He dreamed the same basketball dreams.

Keeping open those communications and connections was Jackson’s downfall.

Almond texted Jackson his thoughts about how Glenn had left the ultra-competitive, high-level Saginaw Valley League for the Tri-Valley Conference. It wasn’t as high level. It wasn’t as competitive. Almond didn’t want to go to a lesser league and play against pushovers. He wanted a challenge; he wanted to be challenged.

Heritage is a member of the Saginaw Valley League.

Jackson tapped out that text to Almond.

Come get buckets for me.

If there was a text emoji included, it would’ve been a smiley face. Or a laughing/crying face.

“It’s just the way we talked,” Jackson said. “It was nothing crazy. I didn’t take it seriously; he didn’t take it seriously.”

Somebody took it seriously.

Jackson’s text made the rounds around Bay City. Several Glenn players saw it. An assistant coach saw it. Glenn’s new coach, Dale Clyde saw it. When he did, Jackson said that Clyde contacted the MHSAA about a potential recruiting violation. Basically, one coach blew the whistle on the coach he’d replaced.

The Tribune contacted Clyde for comment via his Glenn email address. That interview request was forwarded to Dr. Craig Aimar, district athletic director for Bangor Township Schools/Glenn High School. Aimar declined comment on the situation outside of Jackson’s three years as Glenn coach.

“I enjoyed working with Tory during his time here,” Aimar told the Tribune. “He is very down to earn and extremely approachable and relatable guy. From what I observed, the kids responded and worked with him very well.”

Days after Clyde contacted the MHSAA, Jackson was fired.

“They tell you to build relationships and do whatever you need to do to connect with your kids, but when you connect with them, you get punished for it,” Jackson said. “Those kids know my heart. Everybody around this city knows my heart.

“There was never any ill intention. It’s unfair. It’s frustrating. (Heritage) never gave me due process.”

Jackson said that nobody from Heritage or the MHSAA contacted any of his former players at Glenn to ask about being recruited to Heritage. They never reached out to any players’ parents to ask if Jackson had discussed with them about playing for Heritage. Jackson said that Thorington never asked him about the alleged recruitment of Almond.

“In relation to due process, I can say that the school district did comply with all applicable laws and regulations related to his employment,” Thorington told the Tribune in a phone interview. “Because it’s a personnel matter, there’s not much I can say. These situations are never fun. It’s a tough situation.”

Jackson continues to serve as a Diversity Inclusion/Social Equity Coordinator for the Saginaw Intermediate School District. He won’t coach high school basketball this season, but also won’t close the door on that future. He can’t.

“That’s what I do,” he said. “I just hate how this was taken away from me.”

For someone who earned the benefit of any doubt, Jackson deserved better.

Former Notre Dame guard Tory Jackson still plans to coach basketball, even though he won’t do it this season back in his hometown of Saginaw, Mich.