Before there was Bethune-Cookman, their dominance in the MEAC, and their ability to punch above their weight against the big boys of college baseball in postseason play, there was Southern University doing the same in the SWAC.
Before there was Mervyl Melendez, a wizard of a coach in not one, but two HBCU conferences as the head coach of Bethune-Cookman and Alabama State, there was Roger Cador as the head coach at Southern.
And before more recent HBCU players such as Hiram Burgos and Peter O’Brien (albeit with a stop at Miami along the way) made their debuts in the major leagues, there was Southern’s Rickie Weeks, who a hit a cool .500/.619/.987 as a junior for Southern and became the first player from an HBCU school to win the Golden Spikes Award. And prior to that, there was Southern’s Fred Lewis, who carved out a nice seven-year major league career, most of which was spent with the San Francisco Giants. And before him, there was Southern’s Trenidad Hubbard, a ten-year MLB veteran. Anyway, you get the idea.
“In that time frame, every black kid wanted to go to Southern,” Michael Coker, Contemporary Reporter for BlackCollegeNines.com, a leading site covering HBCU baseball, told College Baseball Central. “He was getting the cream of the crop…He had a bunch of 30-win seasons and a couple of 40-win seasons. That’s unheard of in HBCU baseball.”
Under Cador’s leadership alone, a period of time that stretched from 1985 to 2017, the Jaguars collected 14 SWAC championships and made 11 trips to the NCAA Tournament.
But those good times have long been missing from Southern’s Baton Rouge campus.
The last few seasons of Cador’s tenure were tough. For a team that won 43, 45, and 43 games between 2001 and 2003, seasons like a 10-26 campaign in 2014, 14-32 in 2016, and 17-27 in 2017 were tough to swallow. And although life is tough in a one-bid league where only the team that gets hot in the conference tournament gets a chance to play in the postseason, a postseason drought that dates back to 2009 is a long time for a program as proud as Southern.
Getting the Jaguars back to their perch at the top of the SWAC and replicating the success enjoyed under a legendary head coach is a tall order, but new head coach Kerrick Jackson isn’t shying away from the challenge. In that way, he’s very much like his predecessor.
“He overcame a lot of obstacles,” Coker said of Cador. “And he took those obstacles head on. He’s the type of guy that you cannot tell him what he cannot do, because when you tell him what he cannot do, he’ll do it and he’ll shock you. But at the same time, he’s not the type of guy that will rub it in your face. He’s not the ‘see, I told you so’ (type). He’ll come in and say ‘now that we’ve moved on from this, this is what we need to do to better the program.'”
When people talk about a coach for whom players would run through a wall, they’re talking about guys like Kerrick Jackson.
He’s polite and friendly. He speaks with energy. He speaks with authority and speaks directly to you, but at the same time is quick with a line to bring some levity to the conversation. Perhaps most of all, he doesn’t mince words about his goals and his vision, and those are admittedly lofty.
“As a young coach in the game, when I first started coaching, and I started to look around at some programs, one of my ultimate goals was always to put myself in position as a head coach to take a team to Omaha,” Jackson told College Baseball Central. “When I was younger, it was that I wanted to be the first black coach to a take a team to Omaha.”
To put himself in position to be where he is and to begin the process of achieving those long-held goals, Jackson has done just about everything there is to do around the game of baseball, and not just in the college ranks.
It started when he was a player at Bethune-Cookman, where he got his first experience in HBCU baseball and tasted the disappointment of falling one step short of getting into the NCAA Tournament with the Wildcats. He later transferred to Nebraska, giving him some playing experience in a major conference like the Big 12, even if the Huskers program wasn’t quite rolling yet like they would later under Dave Van Horn.
Since graduating college, his professional experience in the sport has been eclectic and varied, which seems to make him uniquely qualified for the job he has now.
He’s served on staffs at Fairfield University, Emporia State University, Coffeyville Community College, Jefferson College, Nicholls State, and most notably, Missouri, where he helped the Tigers to a regional in 2012, their last season in the Big 12, and helped usher them into the SEC.
Between his time at Nicholls and Mizzou, he served as the Midwest Area Scouting Supervisor for the Washington Nationals organization. And in 2015, he stepped down from his post at Missouri to spend some time being a stay-at-home dad and to serve as an agent.
When you often wonder if coaches are only paying lip service to that part of their lives when they say they are stepping away to spend more time with family, Jackson clearly meant it. He, his wife, and two sons moved to Kansas City after the 2015 season and he got to be the stay-at-home dad that he wanted to be.
“I can go back to being in high school, the one thing I knew I wanted to be able to do was have kids and be a father,” Jackson told Matt Nestor of the Columbia Tribune at the time of his departure. “When you have it and it’s there in front of you and it’s real — I keep going back to the premise that the decision wasn’t a difficult decision, it’s just executing it. Pulling away and those types of things will be difficult.”
With his experience, his charisma, and his obvious care for things like family time and balance in life, Jackson strikes you a coach who can quickly win the trust of the administration, win the hearts of those in the Southern University community, and win the loyalty of the players and coaches under him.
What might not come as easily, or as quickly, are victories.
The last four seasons have ended in 20 or fewer total wins, and they’ve finished under .500 in SWAC play in three of those four campaigns, so there is clearly some building to be done.
What Jackson will have at his disposal are some offensive weapons around which to build a lineup, as top hitters John Pope (.339/.424/.558, 12 2B, 8 HR), Bobby Johnson (.290/.382/.359, 10 2B), and Javeayan Williams (.269/.395/.365, 20 SB) return, but those are the only three returning hitters who hit better than .250 last season, and counting Ashanti Wheatley, who hit .250 in 104 at-bats, those are the only four returning hitters who hit better than .208 last season. Clearly, Jackson and his staff will need to develop or find some hitters who can fill out the depth in the lineup.
On the mound, the best news for the team is that they return last season’s most effective pitcher, Jacob Snyder. In 13 appearances, eight of which were starts, he had a 2.89 ERA across 56 innings of work. The team will also return the leading innings eater from a year ago in Daniel Franklin, who tossed 70.2 frames, but they’ll look to have him improve upon his 6.21 ERA. Wilhelm Allen had a 4.13 ERA in 24.1 innings last year, primarily in relief, but other than the aforementioned pitchers, no returning hurler had an ERA better than 7.31 last year, putting the pitching staff in a similar position to the once faced by the offense. There are some pieces in place, but betting on an overnight turnaround might be foolhardy.
Jackson is as aware as anyone of the job in front of him. He knows that wins aren’t guaranteed, and to that end, he’s worked to focus his team on the process rather than the result.
“I was honest,” Jackson said. “I said (to the team) ‘I can’t promise you that we’re going to win more games, but I can promise you that we’re going to play better. If the spectrum is A to Z, we may not get to Z this year. We may only get to F, but rest assured that A through F we’re going to do very, very, very well.'”
Getting the Southern program fully turned around would be a steep enough hill to climb if baseball were the only concern, but it’s far from it. Due to low Academic Progress Rates (APR), the baseball program has been hit with, among other things, a postseason ban that will run through the 2018 postseason.
APR is a calculation that takes into account athletes remaining academically eligible and those same athletes staying in school year after year until they graduate. Keeping APR up is a coaching responsibility at every university in the country, but it was a particularly important part of this head coaching search for Southern AD Roman Banks, given the recent sanctions against his athletic department, which weren’t just limited to the baseball program.
Banks made no bones about the fact that finding a coach who would emphasize compliance was of the utmost importance, and for his part, Jackson has made clear that he takes that edict seriously.
“They kept stressing APR, and I said ‘listen, that’s not going to be an issue for me.’ We never had that issue at Missouri, we never had that issue any other place I’ve been,” Jackson told College Baseball Central. “Making sure that kids handle their business academically, making sure that kids are coming back, I don’t foresee that ever being a problem for me while I’m here.”
Jackson admits that he’s gone for a back-to-basics approach with his team, given the rebuilding he’s going to have to do. On the field, that’s meant that the team did nothing but play catch for the first two weeks of practice, using it not as a warming up activity, but as a skill-building activity.
Off the field, that approach has expressed itself in his insistence that his players think of themselves as students first and athletes second. Many coaches would be quick to say that, and we hear that all the time, but sometimes we find out later that those were just words uttered without any real intent behind them. As we learned when he left a high-profile job at Missouri to be with his family, Jackson has a track record of following through on things when other coaches might just be paying lip service.
“One of the first things I told our guys when I got here was ‘you’re going to go to school, because the reality of it is that some of you guys may have a chance to play professional baseball, the guys who do have a chance to play professional baseball, the chances of you being a big leaguer are a lot more slim. I’m not going to tell you that you can’t do it, but the reality of it is that you all have an opportunity to go out and be fathers, husbands, productive members of society, so we know that’s real. You’re going to be an adult. In putting you in a position to be successful as an adult, getting your degree is paramount,'” Jackson told College Baseball Central.
Keeping the academic part of the job in line is not a one-time cleanup situation. It’s something that a staff has to stay on top of with every new semester, and the fact of the matter is that it’s been an issue at Southern beyond just the most recent years. In this last round of sanctions related to APR issues, 11 total programs, all but men’s basketball and tennis, were hit. That came less than a year after SU had come off the previous set of sanctions. All told, the athletic department has faced APR-related sanctions for various programs on three different occasions since 2011.
But perhaps Jackson is part of the tides changing in this way. Recently, Southern announced that the baseball team had a cumulative 3.0 GPA as a team and placed 26 players on the Dean’s List, and in the mind of Banks, without the team even so much as taking the field for the first time, that has to count as Jackson’s first victory as a head coach.
There is a certain feeling of inevitability in mid-major college athletics. If you’re a consistently successful mid-major program, you just kind of assume that it’s only a matter of time before some bigger, more well-heeled school comes along and makes your coach a more lucrative offer that he or she can’t refuse.
Certainly, there are enough programs in the southeast who are serious about their college baseball that you can easily foresee a scenario where Jackson, as a coach with high-level assistant coaching experience in the SEC and, in this scenario, a successful run at Southern in the face of on-field challenges and APR sanctions, would be an attractive candidate.
But while Jackson stops short of making guarantees, he wants to make something clear.
“I didn’t take this job as a stepping stone job,” Jackson told College Baseball Central. “The last coach was here for 33 years, and I told the AD ‘why can’t I be here for the next 30 years?’ I’ve been in the Big 12. I’ve been in the SEC. I know what those (conferences) are about, and if I can win at the level here that I believe we’re capable of, and from a financial standpoint, it’s comfortable for my family, I don’t expect to get paid what I was making before, I understand where we’re at, but why would I need to leave?”
But what of Jackson’s Omaha dreams, then? He’s clearly a coach with a very clear picture of what he wants to accomplish, and he doesn’t seem to be the type to compromise on something like that.
Oh, he still has those dreams, but he wants to do that with the Jags.
“That’s the one thing I told the administration,” Jackson told College Baseball Central. “‘You do not understand how special a day it will be when we go to Omaha. It will change the outlook on HBCUs. It will change the outlook for black kids that play this game when they see us on that national stage year in and year out. It will be a game changer.'”