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Jackson earns milestone win as Red Bay rolls past Tharptown

With a record of 3-19 barely two years into his first head coaching job at Buckhorn High School back in 2004, Michael Jackson couldn’t envision himself some day reaching 100 career wins.

He just couldn’t see it—not that he took the time to try.

“I never looked that far ahead,” Jackson said. “When I was coaching back then, I never looked that far ahead. I had to go one week at a time, and I’ve tried to keep doing that the whole time. Just be as consistent as I can be and take each and every team throughout the last sixteen years and maximize what they do best.”

After that inauspicious beginning at Buckhorn (a 1-9 record in 2002, followed by a 2-8 mark in 2003 and then two losses to open the 2004 season), Jackson got the Bucks headed in the right direction. That 0-2 start in ’04 gave way to nine wins in the next ten games, including the first two playoff victories (over Wenonah and Oxford) in program history. The season ended with a 28-21 loss to Russellville, Jackson’s alma mater, in the Class 5A quarterfinals, but the die had been cast.

Buckhorn, the same program that had opened the 2000’s with 36 losses in 40 games, was a winner now.

The Bucks went 13-2 in a historic 2005 season, knocking off Russellville 17-13 in the state semifinals before falling to Homewood in the Super Six. Jackson would take Buckhorn back to the playoffs twice more and finish with a school-record 53 wins in nine years before leaving after the 2010 season to become the new head coach at Russellville.

Jackson’s tenure at his alma mater peaked with a 9-3 record in 2012, but it was neither as long nor as successful as he would have liked. After winning 18 games in three seasons, he stepped down from his post and ultimately landed at Red Bay, where he promptly put up a 28-6 record in his first three years.

The Tigers dropped their 2017 opener 14-6 at Colbert Heights, but Friday’s 53-7 road rout of Tharptown did more than just even their record at 1-1 and give them some positive momentum heading into next week’s Class 2A, Region 8 opener at Mars Hill. It pushed Jackson into the ranks of a fairly exclusive fraternity among high school football coaches in the state of Alabama.

He’s now a member of the 100 Win Club.

Burning the midnight oil at the Red Bay football facility on Friday night, Jackson (reluctantly) took a brief moment to reflect on his head coaching career, now in its 16th season.

“For me, it’s been about being consistent and going to work every day,” said Jackson, a 1987 graduate of RHS who went on to play defensive back at the University of North Alabama. “When I got into coaching, I tried to approach things the same way I did when I was playing the game of football in high school and college—getting ahead by being consistent and doing what’s right and working as hard as I could.”

With an overall record of 100-69, Jackson joins Muscle Shoals coach Scott Basden (152-59 with the Trojans, Cordova and Parrish) as the only two active head coaches among 28 schools in the TimesDaily coverage area to have reached the century mark in their careers. [Hamilton’s Rodney Stidham, with a record of 99-52, is next in line.] Even more impressively, only around 15 percent of active head coaches in the entire state have won 100 games, and less than 10 percent of all the head coaches in state history have reached the mark (according to AHSFHS.org).

“A lot of the old-school coaches are gone now,” said Jackson, who cut his teeth as a Russellville assistant before taking the Buckhorn job in 2002. “Traditional schools are hiring people with less experience than they used to. That’s just a proven fact.”

Does Jackson include himself in that ‘old-school coaches’ category?

“Yeah, kinda sorta,” he said. “That’s the group of guys that I came up with and worked for—Don Cox, Perry Swindall, John Mothershed, those kind of guys that were always around. It seemed like, twenty years ago, there were very few coaching changes at those schools.”

Naturally, Jackson credits all the players he’s coached in his 16-year career with helping him reach the 100-win milestone.

“We’ve had good players over the years at all those schools,” he said. “The main thing is getting the kids to buy into what you’re coaching and what you’re preaching, getting them to understand about the offseason and how important it is. I’ve always been a big offseason person my whole career. That’s the only way I got to play college football, was the way I worked in the weight room.

“The main thing I’ve tried to do is bring enthusiasm to the average kid to help him achieve more than what he can. Every team has different talent every year. Some teams will achieve more just because of the team chemistry and the intangibles they have that maybe a team with a lot of talent doesn’t have.”

The paint is far from dry on Jackson’s current team, but these Tigers already own the distinction of being the youngest team he’s coached in 16 years. They looked the part in the season-opening loss at Colbert Heights, but Friday’s rout of Tharptown was a step in the right direction. Red Bay (1-1) rushed for 320 yards and held the Wildcats (0-2) to 125 total yards and five first downs.

“The most important thing tonight was for us to play better,” Jackson said. “That’s how we approached this week—it was all about us and getting better, just taking care of the things that hurt us last week like penalties, missed assignments and things of that nature. We preached all week, ‘Let’s take care of us and get ready for a region game next week.’

“I thought the guys did a good job of that and executed that well. We didn’t turn the ball over, we had no bad snaps, we didn’t have the costly penalties we had in the first game. We had four penalties in that first game that killed four drives. The kids took that to heart and corrected those mistakes.”

Red Bay got things rolling on the opening kickoff, which senior Aaron Lewey returned 85 yards for a touchdown. Junior quarterback Kolby Bragwell ran in the two-point conversion to give the Tigers a quick 8-0 lead.

Sophomore Colbie King added a seven-yard touchdown run to make it 15-0, and then Lewey scored on a 14-yard run to stretch the lead to 21-0 with 2:08 left in the first quarter.

Bragwell’s 25-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter made it 27-0, and then Lewey’s third touchdown of the night (a seven-yard run) pushed the lead to 33-0 at the half.

King scored from 16 yards out to make it 40-0 early in the third quarter before Tharptown junior K.J. Hamilton got the Wildcats on the board with a three-yard touchdown run at the 2:40 mark of the third quarter. The Tigers tacked on two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter, the first on a 26-yard toss from Bragwell to senior receiver Luke Rooker and the second on a 46-yard run by freshman Jalen Vinson that made it 53-7 with 2:20 remaining.

“We had a lot of guys who played their first varsity game last week,” Jackson said, “and some of those guys took big steps this week. Some of them still have a ways to go. Our main focus this week was to take care of us and try to get some of the pieces of this puzzle in the right place.”

Lewey led Red Bay on Friday with 146 yards rushing and two touchdowns on just 10 carries. King ran for 69 yards and two scores on five attempts, and Bragwell ran three times for 26 yards and a score. He also threw for 59 yards and a touchdown on 4-for-13 passing. Rooker caught three passes for 54 yards and a touchdown, his second of the season.

With his thoughts already turning toward another road game—Red Bay’s sixth in a row dating back to last season—and the region opener at Mars Hill, Jackson was asked on Friday night if he feels like he’s got another 100 wins in him. More to the point, perhaps, does he have another 16 years in him?

“Here’s the thing—it wouldn’t take me that long,” he said with a smile. “I don’t plan on starting out 3-19 again. But I’ll tell you this—I’m looking for number 101 next Friday night. That’s all I’m looking for.”

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