Ex-UM coach Jackson finds renewed purpose at Ypsilanti High

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Former Michigan running backs coach Fred Jackson is entering his second season as Ypsilanti High head football coach.

Ypsilanti — Longtime Michigan running backs coach Fred Jackson sat around his house for six months after retiring from football following the 2014 season.

For the first time since he began his long coaching career in 1979 at Toledo, he was not involved in the sport that had been such a constant most of his life.

Jackson went from a daily coaching routine, that included working at Michigan from 1992 on the staffs of four different head coaches, to hours and days no longer accounted for.

“I realized I’m not ready to do it yet,” Jackson said of retirement.

Jackson is entering his second year as head football coach at Ypsilanti High, where he’s also assistant athletic director and dean of students. It has given his life a renewed purpose, as he helps young students by providing direction, discipline and, most importantly, tools to advance academically.

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“Now I feel like I’m a part of something that the kids need me to be here, and I want to be here, and I’m going to make a difference in everybody’s lives that I can,” Jackson said this week.

“So I feel great about that part. It’s more rewarding because you’re dealing with so many underprivileged kids and you’re dealing with people who want help and need help and are seeking help and seek discipline.

“That’s what I’m trying to provide.”

‘A joyful struggle’

Jackson, 67, went from top-notch facilities at Michigan to a school with a football field so damaged by huge holes that had he been an opposing coach, even he would have refused to play. He went from having the resources of a money-is-no-object program to one desperate for upgrades in every area, including meeting rooms, a weight room, and basic equipment like helmets and pads.

The program has benefited from the generosity of Bill Martin, an Ann Arbor businessman and former Michigan athletic director, and Tim Wadhams, president and CEO of Masco, who have provided funds to help with upgrades.

Last year, Jackson bought 30 new helmets — players frequently had to share helmets — 30 new shoulder pads and 30 new pairs of shoes. This year he bought 20 helmets, 10 shoulder pads and another 25 pairs of shoes, and the Grizzlies will have new uniforms this season.

Brandon Minor, left, was just one of the countless running backs Jackson coached over the years at Michigan.

“I’m often asked if I miss college football, and the answer is no, I don’t,” said Jackson, who is called “coach” or “grandpa” by the students. “I don’t miss the recruiting and the grind from seven in the morning to 11 at night. I don’t miss that part. I miss the kids. I miss the locker rooms after wins. You miss the crowds but not to a point it affects what you’re trying to do here. And I’m just happy to be the football coach here. The basketball program is outstanding, so we’ve just try to get the football program up to it, and we’re on the right track.

“It’s been a joyful struggle, and I think you’ve got to embrace the situation you’re in, and that’s what I’m doing. I love coming here. I love being a part of this community. We’ve got a great superintendent in Dr. Ben Edmondson. He’s done so much for this district. We’re working hard to make sure our students are going to achieve academically, as high as anybody in our area or in this state, and he’s spearheading that right now. This community is going in the right direction, and I’m just glad I’m a part of it. Sometimes you’ve got to enjoy your struggle, and that’s what I’m doing.”

Jackson’s team went 2-6 last season and because of eligibility issues and players not willing to put in the work, there were fewer than two dozen players left by the last game. So Jackson helped set up a tutoring program in partnership in with Eastern Michigan to help his players — and any students interested — with, primarily, math and science.

“When I started this program, we had a lot of kids ineligible to play football,” Jackson said. “Now, because of the tutorial programs we’ve put in place, we’re nearly 100 percent in terms of eligibility.”

Getting students on track academically is his priority.

“What I’ve done is try to let all these young people at this high school know, girls and guys, that their lives do matter and we are doing something to try and make sure we’re going to do the best we can to help them succeed to go on to post-secondary enrollment,” he said. “That’s my goal — healthy lifestyles, post-secondary enrollment, and 100-percent high school graduation. That’s our mission to have that here.”

‘Love what I’m doing’

Jackson promises an improved product on the football field this season and that starts now. Among his assistant coaches are his son, Jeremy, a former Michigan receiver, and John McColgan, a former Michigan fullback. Jackson is taking 50 players for a two-day football preseason camp at Grass Lake Camp, where the Grizzlies will not only work on football but also team-bonding.

They will return to Ypsilanti High to continue preseason preparations. They will gather in a team meeting room that was once a lecture hall but now has familiar slogans like Bo Schembechler’s, “Those who stay will be champions,” and another that Schembechler had once told Jackson, “Discipline gives you the ability to handle pressure.”

Jackson also has created a meeting room used alternately by the offense and defense, and another Schembechler phrase, “The Team, The Team, The Team,” graces the wall. He also converted a storage room that was stuffed for years with desks and other school items from the entire district, and has transformed it into a weight room.

As he sits at his desk, an almost-40-year-old can of Popeye’s spinach facing him — Popeye is Jackson’s favorite character and said the can “gives you strength” — and Michigan team photos and bowl plaques lining the wall, he is certain this is his calling.

“I love what I’m doing,” Jackson said. “Believe me, a lot of people look at what I’m doing as headaches. I wash clothes, I fold clothes, I pick up equipment, I transport equipment, I go get food, I bring back food, I clean up, I mop. All those things you never had to do at those (colleges), you’re doing now.

“And on top of that, you get to coach. That’s a great feeling when they call you coach. It means a lot to be called coach. That means something. You’ve got a certain responsibility when they call you coach. That’s why I’ve always connected to kids. That’s Fred.

“Feel good about it, too.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis