Jackson not in it for the milestone victories

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Milestone victories mean little to Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson, whose had a few of them during an adult lifetime spent around hockey rinks.

So it’s not surprising that when his Irish won their second consecutive Big Ten Tournament championship Saturday night with a 3-2 victory over Penn State — his 500th victory in 20 years of college coaching — Jackson was more at ease talking about the others who helped him.

“It’s a pure indication that I’m getting older,” the 63-year-young Jackson joked after becoming just the 13th coach ever with 500 or more NCAA Division I victories. All-time leader Jerry York, 73, is still going strong at his alma mater Boston College in a coaching career that began in 1972 at Clarkson, Notre Dame’s first-round opponent Friday night at 6:30 in the second NCAA Northeast Regional semifinal at the SNHU Arena in Manchester, N.H.

“For me, the greatest part of the whole thing is watching the kids celebrate,” Jackson said. “In these 500 wins, I have been supported by some great coaches and great players. It’s kind of an insignificant number for me.”

York, 73, has 1,067 victories and recently signed a new contract at Chestnut Hill. Nos. 2-12 ahead of Jackson are all retired or in hockey heaven — Michigan’s Red Berenson and Michigan State’s Ron Mason among them. Also there is Minnesota’s Don Lucia, who once patrolled the blueline for the late Lefty Smith, the modern architect of the Notre Dame program which Jackson inherited from a Smith disciple, Dave Poulin, before the 2005-06 season.

Smith, whose name is attached to Notre Dame’s home rink in the Compton Family Ice Arena, was the school’s all-time leader in coaching victories until Jackson’s current squad beat York’s Eagles 4-0 last New Year’s Eve for Jackson’s 308th triumph in his 14th season in South Bend.

“He’s a humble guy,” junior defenseman and team captain Andrew Peeke said after that game’s presentation of a pink sweater — Smith’s usual bench attire. “To play and practice for him every day is a real honor.”

Since Jackson’s arrival with associate head coaches Paul Pooley and Andy Slaggert in the summer of 2005, the Irish have won eight conference (regular season and tournament) titles, earned 10 NCAA invitations, made the Frozen Four four times (2008, 2011, 2017 and 2018) and finished runner-up twice (’08 and ’18).

“Consistently, he finds a way to bring a team together,” said Pooley, an Ohio State All-America forward who first worked with Jackson during Lake Superior’s 1992 and 1994 title runs. “He pushes the right buttons, knows how to motivate the kids and has them focus playing as a group. That’s been his success since I’ve known him.”

Nineteen of his Irish players have taken their talents to the National Hockey League, and Ian Cole and Bryan Rust have won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“We wouldn’t be where we are today as a program and as a team without him,” junior All-America goaltender Cale Morris said. “I look at him as a big mentor and a friend. He’s someone I can rely on for any situation in hockey and life.”

It has been all about the players’ success, on and off the ice, for Jackson, who grew up with his widowed mother in suburban Detroit and was a backup goalie at Michigan State in the 1970s where he earned a pair of degrees. This season, Peeke and Morris are among 10 players named to the Big Ten’s All-Academic All-Conference team.

“At this stage in his career, he’s secure in what his legacy is,” said Slaggert, who played for Smith and Ric Schafer and has coached with Schafer, Poulin and Jackson, who now has Slaggert’s freshman son Graham on the roster. “It’s always been about the program, the pursuit of a national championship and the experience the kids have.’’

Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson calls out to his players during the Notre Dame-Penn State Big 10 hockey championship last Saturday at the Compton Family Ice Arena.

WHO: No. 12/12 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (22-13-3) vs. No. 7/6 Clarkson Golden Knights (26-10-2)

WHAT: Northeast Regional semifinal.

WHEN: Friday at 6:30 p.m.

WHERE: SNHU Arena (10,019), Manchester, N.H.

TV/RADIO: ESPNU, WatchESPN (streaming), WZOC-FM (94.3) and UND.com.