Nov. 10, 2011
By Craig Chval Sr.
Even before the Internet and recruiting services and seemingly non-stop AAU tournaments, college basketball recruiting was not for the faint of heart. As a senior at Paint Branch High School in Silver Spring, Md. in 1977, Tracy Jackson was the object of intense recruiting efforts from the best college coaches in the country.
One head coach even went so far as to show up each Sunday at the church Jackson and his family attended - and he brought the school's athletic director with him. In fairness, Maryland head coach Lefty Driesell and Terrapin athletic director Jim Kehoe were also members of the Colesville United Methodist Church - although at least one reporter claimed that Driesell's membership and his desire to see Jackson in a Terrapins' uniform were not entirely coincidental.
Jackson, who ranks among the top 25 scorers in Notre Dame history, still gets a kick out of the whole thing.
"There was a lot of `Amens' when I saw those guys at church on Sunday," he chuckles. Driesell certainly wasn't rejoicing when Jackson decided to follow a remarkable line of Washington-area basketball stars to Notre Dame.
Although Jackson was a huge Atlantic Coast Conference basketball fan, he also grew up watching Notre Dame's football team. When he made his official visit to Notre Dame, he was mesmerized by the campus and those famous gold helmets. During the visit, Jackson called his father, who would lose his battle with cancer later that year.
"When I told him how much I loved the campus, he said, `I would love for you to go to Notre Dame,'" Jackson relates. "And so after a lot of prayer, that's what I decided to do."
Driesell and the eighth-ranked Terrapins were scheduled to pay a visit to Digger Phelps' fifth-ranked Irish on Sunday, January 29, 1978. Trouble is, South Bend had been blitzed by 26 inches of snow just a few days earlier. Thursday and Friday classes were canceled. Roads were impassible; the airport was closed.
Legend has it that a single runway was cleared, along with a path from the airport to campus, allowing the Maryland team to get to the Athletic and Convocation Center. Fans were told that anybody who could get to the game on foot would be admitted free.
Jackson remembers walking through the shoulder-high drifts of snow to get to the arena, just in time to see the Maryland players stepping off their bus.
"You could just see the looks on their faces, it was like, `Where are we?,'" recalls Jackson.
A rookie on a deep, talented team that would end up making the only Final Four appearance in Notre Dame men's basketball history, Jackson had been brought along slowly by Phelps. But on this day, Phelps took the wraps off his star freshman, and Jackson was up to the task, scoring nine of his 11 points in a 4:51 stretch of the second half, as the Irish broke open a taut battle to demolish Maryland 69-54 in the nationally-televised game.
"That game was really special for me," says Jackson. "I didn't get much sleep the night before the game."
But the excitement - and Driesell's torment - was only beginning. After the Terrapins upset the number-one Irish by a single point in Cole Field House in 1979, Notre Dame turned the tables with a one-point win in 1980, setting the stage for Jackson's grand finale - a last-second shot to lift Notre Dame over Maryland in 1981, the third win in four games against his hometown team.
Maryland wasn't the only team victimized by Jackson. The 6-5 swingman and his classmates - Kelly Tripucka, Orlando Woolridge, Stanley Wilcox and Gilbert Salinas - posted a four-year record of 92-28 and earned four straight trips to the NCAA tournament, including an Elite Eight appearance in 1979 to go along with their 1978 Final Four run. Among those victories were a remarkable four victories against number-one teams - Marquette in '78, DePaul in '80, and Kentucky and Virginia during the '80-'81 season.
As proud as Jackson is of his basketball accomplishments at Notre Dame, he's equally proud of his degrees in Economics and Education and his growth away from the basketball arena.
"We did our talking on the basketball court, but off the court, we were treated like regular students," he says. "It wasn't always a bed of roses, but we were able to develop as students."
Jackson also developed into a second-round NBA draft pick, playing with the Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers. Upon retirement from professional basketball, Jackson was elected to a position on Notre Dame's board of trustees, one of the youngest members ever to serve in that capacity.
Back in his native Maryland, Jackson is an independent agent with the MPS Insurance Group, specializing in life insurance and annuities. He also keeps close tabs on the Irish basketball squad, coached by a former high school basketball opponent - Mike Brey of DeMatha High School.
"Mike was a really good player, and you could tell he was going to be a great coach in the future," insists Jackson. "He was a coach on the floor when he played, and he's doing a great job at Notre Dame."
Although he keeps busy with his business and leading a men's Bible study at Celebration Church in Columbia, Md., Jackson still finds a little time to lace up his sneakers.
"My wife and kids hear people talk about my career and they say, `You did that?'" laughs Jackson. "But I keep my shoes in my trunk - I don't leave home without them."
Occasionally those travels take Jackson and his wife Tracy back to the Notre Dame campus. Meanwhile, Jackson's mother Roxanna, whom he calls, "the foundation of my life," still sings in the choir at Colesville United Methodist Church. But there is no confirmation as to whether Lefty Driesell can still be found in the congregation on Sunday mornings.