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Greener pastures

Jackson leaving ECHS to take over Murphy program


News Staff Writer

Just a couple of weeks ago, Rico Jackson was talking about his plans to complete a rebuild of the Escambia County High School football program and a re-establishment of the winning tradition it once enjoyed. This week the ECHS coach is still talking about rebuilding a once-proud program, but it’s at a school about 50 miles south of Atmore.
Jackson, who in his second year at the ECHS helm guided the Blue Devils to their best won-lost record since 2010 after suffering through a 2-8 debut season, confirmed this week that he had accepted the athletic director-head football coach position at Class 7A Murphy High School in Mobile.
The departing coach, who guided Aliceville to the Class 2A title in 2016 before coming here to replace Royce Young in 2017, said he expected the team’s successful 2018 season to possibly prompt an inquiry or two. But the offer to take over the Panthers program caught him by surprise.
“Murphy wasn’t even on my radar,” he said. “I was getting ready for next year here. We’d started back in the weight room, and the kids were working hard. I got a call (from MHS Principal Joe Toomey) asking if I would like to meet, and it kind of took on a life of its own. I had a feeling some people were going to call because of the work we — the boys, the coaching staff, everybody — did this year, but I didn’t have any idea it would be Murphy.”
Jackson, who will take over at MHS in January, said he turned the offer over in his mind for quite a while before the lure of a chance to coach in the state’s top classification, as well as a chance to be near his parents, led him to take the job.
“Really and truly, it was a family move,” he explained. “Actually, I mulled it over for a while before deciding to take the job. But my mom and dad live in Mobile; I do a lot of business in Mobile; my kid’s doctor is in Mobile, and my family goes to church in Mobile. So it seemed like it would be a seamless transition.”
Lue Williams, a senior Blue Devils wide receiver and one of this year’s team leaders, said he hates to see his coach go, but understands that family comes first.
“He said it’s a family move, and we have to trust and believe him like we’ve been doing,” said Williams. “I think he’s making the right decision for himself and his family.”
The soon-to-be-former ECHS coach pointed out that his short time as head of the school’s program was a valuable learning experience.
“I enjoyed being here at Escambia County,” he said. “I think it was good for both of us (the school and himself). It taught me patience and it taught me how to persevere. I’m going to miss these kids; they are awesome, and I had a great administration. It wasn’t anything that Escambia County did or didn’t do; it had nothing to do with that.”
Jackson said he feels that he is leaving his successor in pretty good shape.
“The cupboard is not bare,” he said. “The (Blue Devils) program is stabilized, and I’m proud to say that we were part of stabilizing it. Atmore is going to have a good team next year. Mr. (ECHS Principal Dennis) Fuqua is going to do a good job of finding somebody who is the right fit for the job.”
He pointed out that his replacement will have most of the starters back from a defense that was Escambia County’s strongest in more than three decades.
“Whoever comes in will have eight returning starters on defense,” said Jackson. “Our defense set so many records this year. I could go down the list – shutouts in a year, best in 32 years; points-per-game defense, best in 32 years. We won six games, and the school has only done that four times in 25 years, and we’re probably going to have a couple of all-state kids, something Atmore hasn’t had in a long time.”
Fuqua agreed that he should be able to find a capable replacement, saying that the team’s sudden turnaround has made the ECHS job more attractive to experienced coaches. He added that he received tangible evidence of that shortly after Jackson’s decision became public.
“News spreads fast,” he said around 1:30 p.m. on Monday. “As of about 10 minutes ago, I have already had about seven people contact me about the job. It was crazy. I mentioned to Coach Jackson that the ink’s not even dry on his resignation letter and I’ve already got people contacting me. We’re thankful for the time Coach Jackson was here. He did us a really good job, got our program going in the right direction.”
The ECHS principal said he had already spoken with Superintendent of Education John Knott, who agreed that the process of finding a new football coach-athletic director for the local school should be a priority.
“What we did last time was put it on the Alabama High School Athletic Association website, and that basically gets you candidates from all 50 states,” said Fuqua. “They come from everywhere. I spoke with Mr. Knott, and we’ll get that process started pretty much immediately. Having been successful this year, we’re only going to have a better applicant pool than we did before.
“I’m really not worried about getting somebody in here that’s going to take us on to the next step. I really feel pretty good about it. To get a coach wanting to come in and make a mark, (the ECHS program) is not a hard sell anymore.”
Jackson added that he hoped to find a balance between the memories of his most recent job success and the excitement of his new career challenge.
“It’s bittersweet,” he said. “I’m happy for the opportunity — you’re talking about a big-time program that has kind of fallen on hard times. We’re going to go in there and restore it. We’re going to do a good job; we’re going to win.”
Jackson said he had a man-to-man talk with the football players, trying his best to make them see how hard was his decision.
“These kids, I love all of them, and I’ll always want the best for them,” he said. “We talked; some of them didn’t like it, some were happy for me. I answered their questions and told them I love them. I’m the type who shows more than I tell, but sometimes kids need to hear that.
“I appreciate everything they’ve done for me, for the program and for themselves. I’ve been blessed. It’s awesome, and I hope they understand that.”