April 1, 2017
University of Notre Dame senior associate athletics director Tom Nevala remembers late October 1992 like it was yesterday.
The Irish had just joined the Central Collegiate Hockey Association and their opening conference series that season came against defending NCAA champion Lake Superior State, an opponent that had not faced Notre Dame in 10 years.
The head coach of the Lakers was Jeff Jackson.
Lake Superior State won both games at the Joyce Center that weekend. In fact, over a four-year stretch Jackson’s Lakers defeated the Irish in 11 of 13 meetings.
But that’s not the impression that stayed with Nevala.
“You could just tell he ran a very tight ship,” says Notre Dame’s longtime hockey administrator.
“His players–in terms of their appearance, how they handled themselves, how they played the game–it was all a recipe for success.
“If it was a recipe for success there it was a recipe for success here.
“You could see a Notre Dame team looking the same way they did.”
Nevala did not forget.
A dozen seasons after Jackson first came to South Bend, former Irish great Dave Poulin resigned on April 15, 2005, after 10 seasons as Notre Dame’s head coach.
Charged with putting together a short list of candidates for Notre Dame athletics director Kevin White, Nevala did not hesitate to suggest one name should be at the top of the list.
As White recalls it, “Tom would come into the office and say, `This is the guy.'”
“Jeff had moved from Lake State to the U.S. National Team Development Program, which has had a great influence on the sport at an international level,” says Nevala. “So you knew his coaching tactics and, after working with Dave Gilbert (Notre Dame’s longtime hockey equipment manager and a former Laker goaltender for Jackson), you knew the method behind all that.
“If you can succeed at Lake State, you can succeed at Notre Dame.
“It was the first time we had hired a coach in any sport who already had won a national championship.”
Jackson’s teams did that in both 1992 and 1994 at Lake Superior State and also advanced to the Frozen Four in 1993. Ironically, that ’93 Lake State team fell victim in the NCAA title game to three straight goals by Maine player Jim Montgomery. Now head coach of the Denver team that meets the Irish Thursday in the national semifinals, Montgomery was a member of Jackson’s staff in South Bend in Jackson’s first year with the Irish in 2005-06.
“For me,” says Nevala, “it was instant credibility in a sport that enabled us to take a step forward.”
If Nevala had not been struck by the initial impression of Jackson and his Lake Superior State team, he knew he was dealing with a seasoned veteran when Jackson provided Notre Dame with a 64-page single-spaced document that detailed his coaching philosophy.
Titled “Game Plan for Success,” it included meticulous sections on organization, on-ice and off-ice philosophy and professionalism.
“It only confirmed that there was a method behind it all, and there were reasons for his success,” says Nevala.
Mention the item and in five seconds Nevala will pull it out of a file drawer in his second-floor Joyce Center office.
Exactly three weeks after Poulin resigned, Jackson came on board at Notre Dame–and immediately began an upsizing of intensity of every aspect of the program.
The stern, intense countenance behind the bench translated quickly.
Irish players spent more time conditioning than they ever had before. Practices were more demanding. They watched video at levels they had not experienced.
“Most of them did not know what to make of it,” says Nevala.
“It was a different level of expectation in terms of everything.
“Attention to detail, how you look, how you prepare, how you played the game.”
Jackson didn’t smile much. He wasn’t interested in a buddy-buddy relationship with his players. He appeared to be all business all the time.
“He’s so private and that’s just the way he does things,” says Gilbert.
Irish players who wondered what to expect need only have flipped to the final page of Jackson’s coaching treatise. At the bottom of the page is a quotation from Colin Powell, former military general and U.S. Secretary of State:
“If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.”
Says Gilbert, “Expectations changed when Jeff got here and he immediately held everybody accountable for their intensity.”
Adds Nevala, “Jeff doesn’t have a lot of shtick. He sees himself as his own team psychologist. He likes to have a finger on the pulse of his team both individually and collectively. And he’s always taking bits and pieces from people.”
Tim Connor was the long-time media relations contact for the Irish hockey program.
“I always observed how much attention he paid to detail,” he says. “From the National Anthem to the end of the game. He sees and knows everything that is going on. I would see things happen in games that the team maybe didn’t react to or had trouble handling on a weekend. On Monday, he would have some drill designed to work on that exact thing.”
Jackson’s methods paid quick dividends.
His second Notre Dame team in 2007 won both the CCHA regular-season and tournament crowns–both firsts for the program.
He earned a contract extension after that second season for which he received the Spencer Penrose Award as the national coach of the year (he’s also a finalist for that honor in 2017).
His third team in South Bend in 2008 played in the NCAA title game.
Three years later the Irish returned to the Frozen Four.
This week in Chicago, Jackson’s Irish will make their third NCAA Frozen Four appearance in a 10-year span.
The only other teams in the country that have accomplished that are Boston College and North Dakota (five each).
Of the 16 head coaches whose teams made the 2017 NCAA bracket, Jackson ranked second with 14 career NCAA appearances.
The only coach with more was Minnesota coach (and former Notre Dame player) Don Lucia, whose top-seeded Gophers fell to the Irish last month in the Northeast Regional semifinal.
Former Irish All-America winger Erik Condra, now with the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League, offers another perspective:
“Coach Jackson and I came in the same year to Notre Dame. From the first day he came with a mission to build a culture of excellence and winning.
“The winning culture wasn’t about just playing a new system and working a little harder. It was about every little detail. Showing up on time and presentable (clean cut and shaven), getting to class and doing well, being in by curfew . . . he wanted every part of you to buy into this culture. The winning culture started with the details outside of hockey and carried over to the ice.
“He pushed us farther and harder than any of us thought we could work. It’s an amazing feeling when you realize you can push yourself way beyond what you thought your breaking point was.”
An only child whose father died when he was nine, Jackson and his mother moved to Roseville, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. Jackson’s mother arranged a big brother (through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program that Jackson remains partial to today) who introduced Jeff to the Red Wings.
He visited the Notre Dame campus as a youngster and loved it but ended up walking onto the hockey team at Michigan State (eventually earning two degrees in East Lansing). But a broken ankle, a broken leg and an eye injury from a hockey stick ended his days on the ice. Coaching became the next step.
Jackson gave pro hockey a brief shot–working as an assistant coach for the NHL New York Islanders in 2003-04 and 2004-05.
During that time one of Jackson’s Lake Superior State players, Tim Breslin, died at age 37. Jackson attended the funeral–as did every one of Breslin’s teammates–and Jackson was struck by how their collegiate hockey experiences remained with them.
Step beyond his resume, and juicy details on Jackson’s personal life remain almost non-existent.
Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook or Periscope? Forget it. Don’t expect his name to pop up on any of those social media accounts.
“He goes about his business very quietly,” says Irish men’s soccer coach Bobby Clark.
Jackson lives across the street from the Compton Family Ice Arena, so he can walk to work.
He’s a dog-lover currently devoted to a 12-year-old chocolate Labrador named Gipper–and he’ll even sneak her into the office on a quiet weekend afternoon.
He loves to fish, has traveled to Alaska, Mexico and Cuba to partake in that, owns a place on Lake Superior where he goes to fish and relax and also has river property near Berrien Springs, Michigan.
He’s a voracious reader, especially American history and leadership.
He’s been known to enjoy a stop at Wings Etc.
He can often be found sitting with Irish associate head coach Paul Pooley (and drinking iced tea) at a Starbucks near campus, solving the world’s hockey problems.
He does a bit of gardening, growing tomatoes and hot peppers.
Colleagues suggest he is meticulous with his Christmas gift selections for staff and their family members.
“He definitely does his own thing,” says hockey administrative assistant Sue Halacz.
He looks like a Marine drill sergeant behind the bench, though he has no military background. His strong sense of patriotism probably was driven by his time with the U.S. National Team program.
White once suggested, “He’s got a little Clint Eastwood in him, quiet but strong and determined, under the hood pretty tough. But he doesn’t wear you out with all that. He just does it, without a lot of bravado, without a lot of external noise.”
Outside of his staff (he’s known Pooley since the two coached together at Lake Superior State), his closest friends have included hockey names like Scott Monaghan (operations director of USA Hockey Inc.), late Maine hockey coach Shawn Walsh (once a Michigan State assistant) and Fred and Mary Beth Jasmund (Fred is a fishing buddy, an ex-firefighter and high school classmate) who are like a brother and sister to him.
And that’s about it.
“He’s a very low-key, to himself kind of guy,” says Nevala. “Loves his Detroit sports teams.
“But he’s a pretty private person in the end.”
Notre Dame has an old tradition of unmarried lay faculty who lived in residence halls on campus–they were called the bachelor dons.
“He’s the bachelor don professor of hockey,” says Nevala.
“The hockey team is his family.
“In his plan the head coach is the father, the number-one assistant is the mother and the number-two assistant is the big brother.”
Gilbert points to a Facebook posting that appeared after Notre Dame’s regional final victory Sunday over UMass-Lowell.
It came from Darrin Madeley, the goaltender on Lake Superior State’s 1992 NCAA title team, and included a team photo with the trophy.
Posted Madeley (a former NHL goaltender who now is athletic director and director of hockey at Lake Forest Academy in suburban Chicago), “25 years ago Coach Jackson was the reason we won the National Championship. Today his Notre Dame team beat UMass Lowell and he is on his way to the Frozen Four again. Said it a thousand times that he is the best coach I have ever had or will ever see.”
“The thing that motivates him every day is the relationships with the kids,” says Gilbert. “It was that way when I was a player and it’s that way now. He’s trying to develop players into young men.
“So it’s hard to tell you much more about what he’s about.
“Even in his personal life he handles himself the same way–he is always stoic. In this day and age it’s probably a great thing, given social media these days.”
Connor notes the hockey staff continuity.
“Jeff talks to everybody, listens to everyone for ideas and things they see–plus to make sure they feel like they have a part in the success of the program,” he says. “Just look how long everyone has been with him at Notre Dame since he came there. Jeff cares about everyone with the program. It’s a tight group and everyone gets along and it carries through to the team.”
Gilbert has been able to view Jackson through a variety of different lenses–and he says you don’t always get exactly what you see.
“I had the good fortune of being a player for him, a student manager and then on his staff and knowing how all those go. Every step was a different personal zone.
“This last year (when Gilbert became the operations manager at Compton) our relationship has been as good as it’s ever been. Now I don’t work for him and so we’re just friends and it’s more personal.”
Gilbert also suggests that as players get older they may view Jackson in a different light.
“He has a different relationship with some of our captains. As they get older and get into the leadership group they see a different side of him — he lets his guard down a little and rightfully so.
“The biggest thing, because of his introverted nature, is that people see him behind the bench and that’s what they know.
“And yet that’s the polar opposite of what his personality is.
“He’s actually a soft guy, very caring, but he just doesn’t show it.”
Adds Condra: “Don’t let the exterior fool you, he cares as much as anyone how his players and staff are doing. Sometimes you just need to crack the surface before he opens up.
“As you get older he opens up to you a little bit more. You start to see his caring and passionate personality, with a little bit of a sarcastic sense of humor.”
There was a 1952 movie titled “The Quiet Man.” It starred John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara and told the story of an American man who travels to Ireland to reclaim his family’s farm.
Jackson would be the last to compare himself to Wayne.
But call him the quiet man of Notre Dame hockey.
His Irish figure to be underdogs this week in Chicago.
But, if Jackson’s team prospers and even prevails, it’ll be yet another endorsement of what Nevala first saw a quarter-century ago.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Notre Dame athletics scene since 1978. Watch for his weekly Sunday Brunch offerings on UND.com.