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Tennessee State benefits from Hue Jackson’s NFL and college wisdom as offensive coordinator

He’s adjusting and knows his experience is helping head coach Eddie George, players and coaches

When Hue Jackson was fired as the Cleveland Browns head coach halfway through the 2018 season after compiling a 3-36-1 record during his tenure with the team, he spent the remainder of that year with the Cincinnati Bengals as a special assistant. With a stint as the then-Oakland Raiders interim head coach, where he had an 8-8 record in 2011, and a successful run as the USC offensive coordinator before moving to the NFL in 2000, the Los Angeles native was confident that his abrupt departure from the Browns would not be the end of his coaching career. Yet for almost three years he was mostly out of the game, filling most of his time building a new tequila company.

“I couldn’t get a job,” the 55-year-old Jackson told The Undefeated. “I’m sure if you checked around, a lot of minority coaches would tell you the same thing. To stay into the game a little bit, I continued to study game footage, but at the same time I wanted to be out on the grass doing what I love, which is coaching football.”

In April, Jackson got another opportunity to coach when he was hired as the offensive coordinator at Tennessee State under first-year head coach Eddie George. “I just wanted the opportunity to go back and coach some ball,” Jackson said. “I didn’t care what it was. At Tennessee State, we have a great coaching staff. And to me it’s all about who you are doing it with, where you are doing it and what are you trying to accomplish. Eddie was very clear about what he was looking for, so I thought it was a good fit for me.”

On Saturday, the 2-3 Tigers will face Tennessee Tech in a home game in Nashville. A former University of the Pacific quarterback and a well-regarded groomer of quarterbacks throughout his coaching career, Jackson has a solid group of quarterbacks at Tennessee State, including Geremy Hickbottom, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound senior transfer from Grambling who has solidified his place as the starter with 1,051 yards passing and seven touchdown passes through five games.

After coaching in the NFL for nearly 20 years, Jackson has gone through an adjustment period during his transition back into the college ranks. At every level the game gets faster and more complex, and no one has to deal with that maturation process as a player more than the quarterback, who may not always fit perfectly into a coach’s scheme.

“As a coach you have to really sit down and think through what’s going to be the best for these kids to learn at a football intelligence level,” Jackson said, “and then what can they truly execute. You give them as much as they can handle and then pull back to see where they are. Then from that you have a better understanding of who they are and what kind of offense you can craft.”

Jackson’s offenses are known for a vertical passing game and power running. When he was the Bengals offensive coordinator under coach Marvin Lewis, he was adept at creating trick plays and exotic formations that made his offense one of the most potent in the NFL. He was less successful as head coach of the Browns, but he still believes that he has a knack for putting players into a position to make big plays. At Tennessee State, Jackson’s offense has a little bit of everything.

“We want to showcase all of the abilities of our players the best we can,” he said. “So if you do one thing, you’re probably only playing to 20% of what you have. We have guys that can catch the ball. We have guys that can run and throw the ball. You have to really dig into your bag of tricks to make sure that you have enough, not just for your players but also to defeat the teams that you’re going to play.”

Jackson says that his players struggled with some of the jargon that he brought with him from the NFL because most college teams hold signs or use hand signals to relay plays. George wanted Jackson for his NFL experience, an asset that could be attractive to recruits who have aspirations of playing in the NFL. The sophisticated terminology came with the deal. “Eddie and I talked about giving these guys the best chance to understand that if they want to go beyond this and have those kinds of aspirations, they need to have an idea of what it’s like to matriculate to the next level,” Jackson said.

The players aren’t the only ones benefiting from Jackson’s wisdom. While George is a Heisman Trophy winner and a nine-year NFL veteran, he had never coached before taking the Tennessee State job in April. He needed an experienced coach like Jackson to take him through the rigors of situational football, when a coach has to make crucial decisions during games that can be the difference between winning and losing.

“It’s been awesome to watch Eddie’s growth from where we started to where we are today,” Jackson said. “He’s involved in every area of the offense. I think that’s the role as the head coach you have to take because it’s going to be your imprint. For some coaches, I don’t think it hits them until they lose and your name is tied to it, especially if you have never lost before. Eddie has handled that aspect of coaching with grace. He’s a natural-born leader who knows how to lead men and work with his coaching staff.”

George is equally complimentary of his offensive coordinator. “I knew that with Hue I was getting an experienced coach that would be not only a great motivator and teacher for our student-athletes, but also a mentor to me,” George told The Undefeated. “He’s been a great influence on our whole coaching staff and the professionalism we try to bring to everything we do here to prepare every week to play.”

Jackson relishes his role as a teacher and a link to the NFL, a place where he has felt both the highs and lows of the game. He also knows that the performance of his quarterbacks may be the measure of his success and failures as a coach. “I love these guys, but they would probably tell you that I’m a little hard on them because they have to do the most and be willing to spend more time because they have to be so great at their craft in order for us to succeed as a team,” Jackson said. “They are getting a taste of what it’s like if they ever want to go beyond this.”

Jackson would like to be a head coach again, but for now his future is firmly focused on his next opponent, Tennessee Tech, a 2-4 team that is a member of the Ohio Valley Conference with Tennessee State. Jackson has been on the sideline of many full football stadiums on weekend afternoons from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to rowdy ones in the AFC Central Division, but he’s learning to embrace the uniqueness of the Black college football experience.

“The pageantry of the game is still what it is,” Jackson said. “But the last time I was coaching college football at USC I was recruiting future Heisman Trophy winners. Now I’m on a campus where the music that’s played is the best R&B and there is the smell of steak and fried chicken and pork chops and collard greens.”

Every day he looks forward to working with players and coaches. “I don’t know who is going to be the next assistant coach on our staff to get a head-coaching job, but I know that we have quite a few with that capability,” Jackson said. “And I don’t know who is going to be the next Tennessee State player to play in the NFL, but it feels good to be a part of something where I can help someone attain their goals.”

As offensive coordinator, Jackson knows that ultimately he will be judged on how well his offenses perform. “I think I have proven everything in this profession that I need to prove,” he said. “I’ve been a two-time head coach in a league where there have only been 19 minorities that have ever been a head coach in the history of the league. I’m a little too old for proving anything to anybody. I think my resume would speak for itself, regardless of how people look at it. I’ve done more in a shorter period of time in my coaching career than most have done in a lifetime in the profession, and it’s been worth it.”

Farrell Evans has written about the intersection of race and sports for many publications including Sports Illustrated, Golf Magazine, GQ, The Oxford American, Bleacher Report, ESPN.com and Andscape, where he writes regularly about golf.