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Opinion: Away from the NFL machine, Hue Jackson finds and prefers new purpose at Grambling

·9 min read

Hue Jackson no longer craves the madness.

After 20 years in the machine that is the NFL, the coach has found peace and a new sense of purpose away from the bright lights and high-stakes adrenaline rushes.

As the newly installed head coach at Louisiana’s Grambling State University, Jackson embraces the challenge of restoring the storied program to its former glory despite operating with limited resources and modest accommodations – common hurdles in the world of Historically Black College and University athletics.

It’s the point of the NFL calendar – the ramping up of the head coaching hiring cycle – where Black coaches traditionally hope for advancement but also brace for the pain of rejection as teams often disregard their credentials, largely because of the color of their skin, while instead selecting lesser-qualified white counterparts.

A long-time position coach, well-respected offensive coordinator, and a two-time head coach in the NFL, Jackson could have waited to see if his phone would ring for an interview request or a high-ranking assistant position offer. He'd already received an inquiry from the XFL about a potential head-coaching position.

Hue Jackson spent four seasons as an NFL head coach, three with the Cleveland Browns.
Hue Jackson spent four seasons as an NFL head coach, three with the Cleveland Browns.

But Jackson, who last coached at the pro level in 2018 as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, felt a pull in a different direction. A return to the NFL is the furthest thing from his mind, he insists.

As he speaks of resurrecting a program coming off back-to-back losing seasons and no postseason appearances since 2017, there's a calm to Jackson. A rejuvenation.

He sounds like a man on a mission – but not to prove anything about his abilities as a coach or leader and not to plot a redemption course back to the NFL, where second and third chances are often hard to come by for coaches of color.

“I never thought of it that way,” Jackson told USA TODAY Sports in a recent phone interview.

This mission, he explains, isn't about him.

“I think of it as taking young men and giving them a chance to showcase their abilities while teaching them life lessons on how to go to class and how to do all of the things that it takes to be successful in life, and potentially, on the next level.

"I have no aspirations beyond that and trying to make Grambling one of the best football programs in the country.”

There’s not the slightest hint of bitterness nor twinge of regret in the 56-year-old Los Angeles native’s voice. There is, however, a very clear and deep respect for the opportunity to contribute to the rich tradition that saw Grambling rule as one of the nation’s top HBCU and Division I-AA programs for the better part of six decades under legendary coach Eddie Robinson – an inspirational figure for all coaches of color.

“I’ll never be Eddie Robinson,” Jackson said of the late Hall of Fame coach, who won nine HBCU national championships, 17 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles and saw his teams make 15 bowl game appearances from 1941 to 1997.

“I’m not going to be there 56 years and have 408 victories. But I know one thing: The excellence he stood for and what he did for that institution says it all, and if I can become a piece of that, I’ll feel like I've done my job.”

Seeing 'the HBCU pride'

The college game isn't new to Jackson, who spent three seasons in the late 1980s as a graduate assistant at his alma mater (Pacific University) before climbing the ranks over the next decade with stints at Cal State-Fullerton, Arizona State, Cal and USC before making the jump to the NFL as running backs coach for Washington in 2001.

But he’s still relatively new to the HBCU game.

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He knew of Grambling’s rich history because of Robinson. But he didn’t get his true introduction to this level of college ball until this year while serving as offensive coordinator on former NFL running back Eddie George’s staff at Tennessee State.

Of all the experiences from the last seven months, Jackson says the team’s road trips throughout the Ohio Valley Conference proved the most eye-opening.

A small school with a student enrollment of fewer than 8,000 students, Tennessee State – like most HBCUs – is strapped with a limited travel budget. For road games, the Tigers would cram onto buses the day before, ride a state or two away to the general area of their upcoming opponent and spend the night at a modest hotel. The next morning, the team would ride another hour or two to their actual destination, shake off the grogginess and stiffness and prepare to compete.

Throughout Tennessee State’s 2021 season, when the team finished 5-6, Jackson couldn’t help but wonder how much more effective his players could have performed had they been afforded better accommodations and less taxing travel requirements.

But just as striking to him was the level of commitment the players exhibited and the support offered by the student body.

“Being there, seeing the HBCU pride and the culture in these places,” Jackson explained, “and these players doing any and everything they could to go play football at the highest levels and compete gave me a thirst to understand the HBCU environment much more. And I said man, this could be great.”

The television audiences are scarce, and the paychecks even smaller. But in this world, Jackson feels resurrected and free to focus on aspects of his job that inspired him to get into coaching in the first place.

“One of the best things, I think, was the fact that these players wanted to be coached,” he said. “They were willing to give themselves to me to be coached so I could in turn, give myself to them and help them take their games to a high level and to show them how to win football games.

"That was refreshing because, as you know, sometimes in the National Football League, those guys are not worried about that. But these guys want to learn and are willing to do what you ask.”

Grambling calls

When Grambling came calling late in the fall, it took Jackson little time to accept. The whole courtship process between Grambling president Richard Gallot, athletic director Trayvean Scott and Jackson took only three weeks.

School administrators viewed someone of Jackson’s caliber as the ideal person to return the school to prominence and beyond, and Jackson felt an immense honor to help continue what Robinson established.

Jackson hopes to use his contacts and resources in the football world to help solve the many hardships the program endured in the past. And because he worked his way toward a 20-year career at football's highest level, he believes he can now help these once-overlooked athletes exceed expectations and take steps toward achieving their own NFL dreams.

Meanwhile, legends of the Grambling program, like Doug Williams and Shack Harris – both former quarterbackswho guided the school to multiple conference titles under Robinson – believe their alma mater couldn’t have landed a better coach.

“Me and Shack talked about it, and you’re talking about a two-time NFL head coach – and you know how hard it is for a Black man to be a head coach in the National Football League, and he was there twice,” Williams told USA TODAY Sports.

“So, from an organizational standpoint, it ain’t going to be a better guy to organize what’s going on. And the fact that he has coached on the college ranks as a coordinator, can’t beat that. And the fact that he was at Tennessee State last year, a historically Black college, he knows the landscape of what he’s dealing with.

"We know he can coach, we know he’s smart and has worked with a lot of guys, so I think he can handle it.”

Williams, along with Harris, founded the Black College Football Hall of Fame in 2009 and this winter will host the inaugural Legacy Bowl – an All-Star game designed to give HBCU football players a chance to showcase their skills to NFL talent evaluators in advance of the scouting combine and draft. Williams believes Jackson’s potential impact on Grambling, coupled with the visibility Deion Sanders is creating with his success at Jackson State, can pave the way for greater NFL exposure for HBCU prospects.

Right place at the right time

Some members of the NFL’s Black coaching and executive community feel conflicted over Jackson’s new job, however.

Although confident his experience will lead to strong recruitment classes, quality instruction and development that will benefit the school, multiple NFL insiders have expressed frustration that, despite his credentials, Jackson remained unemployed at the NFL level on a full-time basis since getting fired by the Browns in 2018. Others expressed concern that Jackson had settled by going the HBCU route to secure another head-coaching opportunity.

He has heard all of these concerns and understands those points of view. But because he sees his mission through a different lens, he disagrees.

Sure, he could land a job as an NFL offensive coordinator or position coach grooming a highly touted prospect while hoping to climb back to a head coaching job.

But those paths don’t appeal to him at this stage of his life.

In this new world, Jackson has found another – and, in some ways, more rewarding – purpose.

“This is an opportunity to give back to some of these young men," he stresses. "I hear people say, ‘Hue, you should be here or there.’

"But I think I’m at the right place, at the right time, for me. It’s a tremendous honor to be the head coach at Grambling, and I’m fired up about the work that needs to be done.”


Follow USA TODAY Sports NFL columnist Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Grambling coach Hue Jackson finds new purpose at HBCU, away from NFL