Penn State may well be "Linebacker U," but if there's been any best stable of running backs over the last two decades in college football, it's almost certainly got to be Michigan's.
Tyrone Wheatley, Tim Biakabutuka, Anthony Thomas, Chris Perry and Mike Hart have all come through the program in the last 20 years, with the first four being drafted in the first 35 picks of their respective NFL drafts, and Hart rewriting Michigan's career rushing record books. Now, Michigan's got its next great backfield star in Fitz Toussaint, and the future of the Michigan rushing game looks as bright as it's ever been.
What's the common thread between these great workhorses, other than the uniform? They're all protégés of longtime Michigan running backs coach Fred Jackson, who's one of the most interesting assistant coaches in the Big Ten.
Jackson is something of an institution at this point, having joined Michigan in 1992 under Gary Moeller and stayed in Ann Arbor through three subsequent regime changes, something unheard of for assistant coaches in major college football these days. In fact, he was the only coaching staff member retained by Rich Rodriguez in 2007, then again the only one retained when Brady Hoke replaced Rodriguez after the 2010 season.
Jackson's overall track record is over 30 years long by now, starting with a job at Toledo in 1979 as the offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach and wide receivers coach. Yes, that was his first non-GA job as a coach (different times, different times). He bounced around I-A college football for the next decade or so, rarely spending more than a year or two at destinations like Wisconsin, Purdue and others, before landing as a running backs coach at Michigan.
As titles go, it was Jackson's least significant since his one-year stint at Navy in 1987 as the wide receivers coach (yes, we're wondering whether Navy even uses wide receivers too), but as prestige goes, nothing even came close to a job at Michigan.
So, Jackson stuck around a bit. He settled in with his wife, Teresa, in Ann Arbor, and they raised two sons (Fred has four children altogether). And when the NFL inevitably came calling for Jackson—over and over—he decided that what he had was good enough, and he said no. Over and over.
"'I had opportunities to coach in the NFL numerous amounts of time,'" Jackson told the Michigan Daily. "'I mean like eight, nine times and I didn’t go because I wanted to coach here.'"
His son, Fred Jr., put a finer point on it to the Michigan Daily: "'I think he wants to coach in the NFL,' Fred Jr. said. 'I think he really does, but I think he’s staying because of his kids.'"
Jackson's in his 60s now, and he's got one son left in school: Josh, a sophomore-to-be with his own bright athletic future. Maybe Fred Jackson will head to the NFL for a celebratory cup of coffee once he sees Josh off to college. Maybe Josh, like his older brother Jeremy (a junior WR), will be a Wolverine and Fred will have no choice but to stay around on the sidelines in Ann Arbor to see him through his career.
Oh, Fred could take another job with Josh out of the house and on the Michigan campus. But at the same time, no, he couldn't. Not this Fred Jackson. Not the man who has made Ann Arbor his home for over two decades. Not the man for whom Michigan and family are so intertwined that they might as well be the same thing.