Kerrick Jackson knew what he was getting into when he applied for and accepted the job as Southern University’s baseball coach.
He was not only taking over a program shackled by NCAA restrictions stemming from APR compliance issues, he was also stepping into the long shadow cast by former coach Roger Cador, who won 917 games and 14 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles and made 11 NCAA tournament appearances in 33 seasons.
Even while his team stumbled through his first season last spring with a 9-33 record, there was no panic and there were no second thoughts. Jackson, in his first stint as a head coach, had a firm understanding of what Southern was and what it could be again.
Midway through this season, the Jaguars appear to be on the road back to their accustomed status.
Their 10-2 Western Division record is best in the league going into this weekend’s nonconference series at Memphis. Their overall 16-13 mark nearly doubles last year’s victory output, and they lead the conference in several offensive categories.
“We battled and fought all year long,” Jackson said of last season. “It was fun to watch despite knowing we couldn’t go to the conference tournament because of NCAA penalties. It was good to see them grow.
“I knew we were going to be better, but to say we’d go from worst to first in the first half of the season, I’m not the kind to say I knew that would happen. My goal was for us to play better baseball.”
The signs were there. Southern lost six games in the last at-bat and 15 games by one or two runs, but there was a solid core of juniors that form the heart of the current team as seniors. Now that group is winning those games and is competitive against nonconference schools its own size.
“I’m very happy with what is going on and I’m sure the fans and alumni are, too, seeing him win at the rate he’s winning,” Southern athletic director Roman Banks said. “Professionally, I’m surprised. I was sure it would be three or four years before we could get to this point. He’s done an excellent job.
“He’s getting the best out of the players. He’s been able to recreate the culture of the old Southern University baseball.”
Jackson’s name didn’t ring any bells locally because his roots are in the Midwest. He was born in St. Louis, and after a year of pitching at Bethune-Cookman, he transferred to Meramec Community College in his hometown for two seasons, then finally a year at University of Nebraska.
In nine years, he made assistant coaching stops at six schools, including a two-year stint at Nicholls State where he crossed paths with Cador as the teams played each other. After two seasons as a scout for the Washington Nationals, he spent five years as an assistant at Missouri.
With two young sons, Zion and Lazarus, Jackson wanted to step away from the grind of coaching and spend more time with his family. He joined super-agent Scott Boras’ group as a certified Major League Baseball player agent for two seasons. He scouted the Midwest for players to sign, but the lure of coaching pulled him back.
“My wife (Talia) could see I wasn’t happy, that I had a passion for coaching,” Jackson said. “The boys were becoming more self-sufficient. As a black coach, I was always intrigued by the idea of coaching at Southern. With all the stuff going on about lack black kids playing the game, seeing opportunities out there created for black youths to be able to play, I wanted to be involved in that.
“Southern was attractive because I’m one of those people who can see things for what they are. Looking at where they were didn’t deter me, because I knew what it could be. I knew it could get back to being the powerhouse it was and go a step further.”
It didn’t take long for Banks and the search committee to realize they had the right guy. What they saw was a high character person first, and a coach who “knew the ABCs of baseball.”
With the APR problems the school was facing, Banks wanted a long-term solution, not someone who saw Southern as a steppingstone. Banks said the school had “every restriction you could name,” including practice time, scholarship limits, recruiting cutbacks and no postseason play.
What the next coach did off the field was as important as what he did on it.
“What people said about him was he was a quality person,” Banks said. “He’s not a guy who would come to Southern, win and leave. He’s about establishing a program. That’s what I was looking for. His intention was to come, build a program, move his family in and make this his home.”
The Jaguars are rolling through SWAC play. In conference games only, Southern leads the league in average (.368), runs (136), hits (154) extra-base hits (45), on-base percentage (.482) and steals (30). Among negative stats the Jaguars have the fewest strikeouts (62) and errors (14).
Hitting has carried Southern, but the pitching, Jackson’s specialty, has been good enough. Southern is fourth in ERA (5.56) and has the league’s best closer in Connor Whalen (eight saves).
What Jackson has instilled that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet is a sense of confidence.
“We trust him, trust in his process, and believe in him,” senior center fielder Javeyan Williams said. “We have a lot of confidence in him. Everyone is on board, and we haven’t even played our ‘A’ game yet.
“He’s opened my eyes and makes me feel like way more than just a baseball player. We knew last year we were going in the right direction. This year, it’s clicking and we’re getting victories.”
Shortstop Malik Blaise said his first two seasons at Southern were “tough,” but Jackson immediately began building team unity with bonding exercises that brought a familiarity between players that hadn’t existed before.
“He had team dinners, community service and even team yoga which we have on days off,” Blaise said. “We all feel closer than before.
“He’s helped me realize the game could be fun again, and to work and play hard, always give my best. Don’t settle for anything less than the best I can be. We knew last year we had a good team but we needed to find the chemistry and keep building on it. We trusted him, and now we’re in a good position.”
Jackson appears to have an ease at connecting with players, treating them as students. With a degree in sociology, he confesses he probably would have ended up a kindergarten teacher had he not gone into coaching.
“I prefer the tag ‘baseball teacher’ rather than baseball coach,” Jackson said. “You have to teach the game before you can coach the game. When they learn that it puts them in position to be successful.”
Jackson and Banks are careful to point out the season is only half over. Southern has yet to face Alabama State, which leads the East Division with an 8-3 record and has the league’s best pitching staff (4.03 ERA). The teams wouldn’t meet until the conference tournament, which determines the conference’s NCAA representative.
The Jaguars have also benefitted from having three of their first four SWAC series at home. In the second half, three of four will be on the road.
“One thing I like is that finishing the first half like this, we’re getting everybody’s best shot,” Jackson said. “It’s going to be an intense atmosphere in the second half. That’s the challenge for our guys to see if we can withstand that and prove we are one of the top teams, if not the top team, in the conference.”