Inside Pitch Magazine, July/August 2019

Cover Interview: Kerrick Jackson, Southern University

Inside Pitch Magazine CoverA year after winning just nine games, Kerrick Jackson led his Southern University Jaguars to 32 victories and the program’s first conference title in a decade. Picked to finish last in the SWAC West, Southern enjoyed a historic season that was highlighted by a win over LSU and an appearance in the Starkville NCAA Regional.

Prior to Southern, Jackson served as an agent for the Boras Corporation, was an assistant at the University of Missouri, where he helped the Tigers to their first-ever Big 12 Championship in 2012. He also had stints as a Scouting Supervisor for the Washington Nationals and assisted at Nicholls State, Jefferson College, Fairfield University, Emporia State and Coffeyville Community College. Jackson played at St. Louis Community College, Bethune-Cookman and Nebraska.

Inside Pitch: You have served a multitude of roles – pitching coach, recruiting coordinator, scout, agent, head coach- at several different levels. Talk a little bit about your ‘journey’ up the ranks.

Kerrick Jackson: Talk about being a journeyman! It all started as a player at St. Louis Community College. From there I transferred to Bethune-Cookman, where we won a Conference Championship for the first time in school history and got to play in a Regional. After that year, our head coach left for a bigger job, so I went and transferred to Nebraska to finish playing and graduate. Then I started the coaching journey, right away. Mike Anderson took me out to the ABCA convention in 1999 and it was like, “man, I could see myself doing this for a long time.” I just remember being in a room with a bunch of different coaches, hearing them talk, keeping a notebook and writing everything down with my head on a swivel and just trying to catch everybody’s information.

I made a bunch of different coaching stops along the way before spending some time as the Midwest Area Scout Supervisor with the Washington Nationals. From there I ended up at Missouri, where I coached for five years. And then my wife wanted to make a change. The coaching life was kind of wearing her out a little bit and our boys were infants at the time. Being a recruiting coordinator in the SEC, time at home is very minimal. So we left, and I was offered a job at the Boras Corporation. I did that for a couple years and my wife knew that I wasn’t happy doing that, and so then she gave me her blessing to get back into coaching, and that landed me here at Southern University.

IP: What was it like transitioning from scout, to coach, to agent, and back into coaching?

KJ: When I moved back to Saint Louis, there weren’t necessarily a lot of coaching opportunities there that intrigued me or that were available, so that’s when I reached out to the scouting community. I wanted to stay around home, obviously, but my first three offers were in other areas, Southern California, the Carolinas and Florida, and I just couldn’t do that.

Luckily, the Nationals ended up having an opening in the Midwest and…baseball is baseball right? Sure, you miss the coaching piecewhen you’re out scouting, but you’re still out evaluating.

IP: What are the parallels between scouting for professional talent and recruiting at the collegiate level?

KJ: I love players. I’m a player advocate. My scouting mentality was always that everybody is a player until they do something that tells me that they’re not. So when I walk into a yard- and I still do this today- I may be going to lock in on one guy, but somebody else in there may have something that we’re looking for, and a lot of other players will eliminate themselves. I’m not going anywhere and saying “I’m only coming to see this guy.” I’m coming in to see everybody that’s on the field, and then as I go through, okay, this guy’s bat is slow, this guy doesn’t have arm strength, this guy’s feet don’t work. Players will slowly, slowly eliminate themselves from the equation. That strategy keeps me from missing out on something. I really enjoy it because you have the potential to give kids an opportunity to do something they’ve wanted to do their entire life.

IP: What would you say is one thing that crosses guys off immediately for you? What’s one that when you see it, you’ve got to have it?

KJ: The one that will cross you off immediately is lack of athleticism, and we’ll see that a lot with high school players. Not so much with college players, but when you go and watch high school games, if there’s not athleticism there, that’s boom, they’re done. 

Besides athleticism, when you’re looking at position players, you’re going to talk about the idea of speed. If it’s not speed, it’s power. With pitchers, you’re looking for some baseline arm strength at the pro level, and command on the college side – can you throw strikes? If players have one or two of those abilities, they’re going to intrigue you and keep your attention for a little bit.

IP: I think every coach, part of them, has the dream of coaching like you did in the Big 12 or in the SEC. Did you feel like it was all it was cracked up to be, or was it always the ‘same job’ type of thing for you?

KJ: You know what, I do believe it’s all that it’s cracked up to be to an extent. At the end of the day, the reason why I coach is because I love the relationships, I love the coaching development piece, and I think you can do that no matter what level you’re coaching at. When you get into the Big 12 and the SEC, there’s just that extra that’s there. But, that extra can also work against you because you want to develop there, you want to have those relationships, but at those places if you have good relationships and you develop players who don’t win, none of that matters. No matter what goes down, you’ve got to win. And in this environment and day and age of college baseball and college athletics in general, we speak so much to academic performance and these types of things, but I don’t think there’s any AD in the country that’s allowing their coach to walk in and say “all my guys have graduated, they’re all model citizens, I know we haven’t won in the past couple years, but I’m turning out good people.” Those dudes aren’t keeping their jobs.

That’s the biggest difference when you look at that, is because there’s that constant pressure on you to win. Guys who are comfortable with themselves don’t feel that pressure, because it’s just, “hey, we’re going to go out and do our thing and the wins and losses are going to take care of themselves.”

IP: Is there a point where you felt like you were ready to become a head coach, or you have the thought that you’re never really ready until you jump in and just start doing the job?

KJ: The funny thing is – and I tell people this all the time, and it’s true for us as assistant coaches – but as an assistant coach, I was the best head coach in the country! Hands down! I had all the answers. Now that I am a head coach, I do believe it’s one of those things you’re not ready for until you get in it. It’s just like going back to the difference of being here or Nichols and being in the Big 12 or the SEC, when you’re at that mid major level you’re saying “man, if I was at the SEC, I would be killing it!” No you wouldn’t, because you’re not in the SEC recruiting against people in the Southland. You’re in the SEC, recruiting against people in the SEC

It’s the same as an assistant coach. “Well, when I get a head job, I’m going to do x-y-z.” Okay, it’s easy to say until you sit in that position, you have to make those decisions and you have to answer those questions. When you get there you realize man, coaching is the least amount of what I get to do here. I’ve got to delegate. I’ve got to hire the right people. I’ve got create the right environment. I’ve got to tend to this guy who’s got this issue. You know when you walk into that gate for practice or game time, that’s the one time where it’s really about baseball. But outside that gate, it’s everything else.

IP: Tell us about that journey that the 2019 Southern University Jaguars went on.

KJ: It’s been an interesting one obviously. Last year we were 9-33. We got walked off six times, and 15 of our 33 losses were by two runs or less. I told people over and over last year that we might have been the best seven-inning team in the country. The problem was we played nine innings!

My main message to this year’s group was “be great.” I don’t want people that want to be good. The difference for me between being good and being great can be answered with a question: is your internal motivation greater than your need for external approval? If you rely on stats or Twitter likes or those types of things to define who you are, you have no chance to be great, because you’re always putting your value in someone else’s hands.

If your internal motivation and your drive inside of you pushes you to a point where it doesn’t matter what anybody says, you measure yourself and you know what you’re capable of and you push your own limits, that’s what’s going to allow you to be great. We had it up all over our locker room. Be great.

Another big one for us was our focus on process-oriented goals, control the things that you can control. Put yourself in the position that every day we come out to practice you’re ultimate goal is to be better today than you were yesterday, and it doesn’t matter how much. It could be a half percent, it could be 50%, but we have to get better every day, and you have to be focused and concentrated on improving yourself in some form or fashion.

That day may not be on the baseball field. Did you get better in the classroom? Did you wake up a little bit earlier? Did you figure out a way to get better at doing something and create that mentality for yourself? Because it will overflow into everything and all the other aspects of your life.

IP: How about practice? Anything that you lean on in particular with drills or how organize that that you get excited about?

KJ: We try to make practice harder than games. We put a lot of pressure on our players in practice, we hold them accountable and have a lot of paybacks for different things to get a little bit of extra intensity. With how we recruit, our teams are going to start as athletes playing baseball that haven’t yet graduated into baseball players. We’re constantly working on that.

Your players might not understand it right away if you amp things up at practice. “What do you mean? Why do we have to do pushups if throw a ball away? Why do we have to do up downs?” Because I want the pressure to be on you. When you get in the game, it’s not up downs, it’s a loss for the team. They’ll slowly start to morph into understanding that.

IP: When you talk about the minorities in baseball in general and in college baseball coaching specifically, do you feel like you’ve seen a shift since you got into it that you like?

KJ: It’s gotten a little bit better, but at the same time, nine years ago when I got to Missouri, I was the only black assistant coach in the Big 12. When we moved to the SEC, I was the only black assistant coach, the only black recruiting coordinator in a Power 5, at that time. So I think it’s progressing, but we have a long way to go.

If the third assistant had passed, would that have created more opportunities for minorities? I don’t know, I can’t tell you that it would. College baseball is one of those deals where there’s more people that want the job than there are jobs. It is very ‘who you know,’ and so if you’re not in the right circle, it eliminates you from opportunities. If you are in the right circle, it’s a phone call away.

It all goes back to the number of kids that are playing the game. It’s kind of one of those chicken or the egg things, because if you don’t have guys that are playing the game, then it’s tough to get them into coaching the game. I definitely think we still have a long way to go with that, but we have to just start getting more kids playing the game, learning it the right way.

If we can get ourselves in a position where we’re playing at a high level year in, year out at Southern, then it opens people’s eyes to the idea of, “okay, here’s a black head coach at an HBCU, and they compete with anybody they’re on the field with.” I even talk to our players about it. We had some push back on some things early on and I said, “the problem is that probably 80% of you guys in this room have never had a black coach in baseball before.” So just from a subconscious mindset, there’s that, “how much does this guy really know, because all my other coaches have been white” mentality.

IP: Is there a number or percentage minority assistant head coaches that you’d like to see, or would you just like to see more?

KJ: I don’t know if we can put a percentage on it, because it’s one of those deals where it’s the Rooney rule. One thing we are trying to do with the ABCA Diversity Committee is creating a pool of resumes that we can approach ADs with and say, “here are some viable candidates that we believe fit the criteria of what you’re looking for.”

When I was at Missouri, my intent was to stay and hopefully put myself in a position to be the next head coach there after Coach Jameson left. I shared my thoughts with him on that. By no means was I trying to push him out, but I would ask him, our AD, our Associate AD, “what needs to happen in order for me to have that opportunity?” They told me their main concern when they hire head coaches is not necessarily knowledge of sport, it’s can you handle yourself in front of the media, how are you going to be when we put you in front of boosters? Can you delegate? Can you motivate? Can you manage people? Those types of things. Anybody that gets interviewed obviously has some baseball knowledge and expertise just to be in that interview, but now it’s those other things that are difference makers.

IP: Is it a lot harder to recruit at an HBCU?

KJ: The number of kids that we’ve gone after that have told me, “I want to go to a predominantly white institution” blows me away. Obviously it’s a hint of disrespect to our program – if I’d made the same phone call with my Missouri hat on, it’s a completely different conversation.

I do understand that there are some differences with regards to finances and those types of things, I get that. But they’re not talking about Southern versus LSU. They’re talking about Southern versus another mid major in our area, and many of them are successful, but we’re all kind of at that same level, so I’m giving benefit of the doubt that it was a winning thing.

IP: So you’ve talked to a lot of recruits throughout the years, and you know, as an assistant, and even a head guy, you’ve got to find out a lot about these kids in a short amount of time. What are some of the ways you’ve done this? What’s the thing that you’re looking for there?

KJ: I think that is a two-fold answer. You have to ask some straight up questions. Matt Hobbs and I always used to joke about coming up our own version of a personality test to find out toughness and some of those things with kids. We asked kids questions like, “did you ever ride the school bus?” Because there’s a lot of things that go on at the bus stop- if you were part of that, then you know what that is. “Have you ever had a job? Did you cut grass when you were growing up?” Just to see where the accountabilities and responsibilities may lie, and again, that’s going to necessarily be constant across the board. But, those are things that you want to know.

When we deliver our message about what our program is about, the first thing I make sure that they understand is that this is an educational opportunity that involves baseball, and not a baseball opportunity that involves education. I want our recruits to understand that our job is to coach people first, not to coach players. If we coach people and recruit players with ability, the player will manifest themselves. And so through the course of talking about that, probably the first 30 to 40 minutes of our discussion has nothing to do with baseball.

IP: When can you tell that the player you’re recruiting is a good fit?

After that initial conversation, I can gauge right away if they’re interest is there or not. I preface everything by telling them, “if you’re not excited about what I just told you, this is the wrong place.” There’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding when you get here thinking, “Oh, well I thought this.” I’m telling you exactly what this is and exactly what we’re about. So if you want accountability, if you want to grow as a man, if you want to be challenged to stay focused and be disciplined, then this is the place for you. If you don’t want that, you need to go someplace else.

IP: Have you missed on toughness before? How do you evaluate toughness?

That’s a very tricky one. I became a really firm believer of toughness on the pro side of things, because you talk about make up, you talk about character, and we never know what’s going to happen when the human element is involved. You can talk to all the people that you want, “Hey this is a great kid, and he’s done this, and he’s done that.” But he’s never been away from home on his own with no constraints before or limiting constraints before. So now he gets in that environment, then what? He’s been in the situation where he’s always been the best player on his team since he was in little league, and now he gets into an environment where there’s some competition, and yeah, he’s a hard worker, but now he’s really, really facing adversity of the first time. So now how does he respond to those things?

You’re going to miss, and it will frustrate you as a coach, but again, we’re dealing with people, and this is a people business, not a baseball business. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen. Some guys just get in that environment and they put so much pressure on themselves that they get out of it, and there’s nothing you can do.

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