The 2011 San Francisco 49ers had two members of their secondary selected to the Pro Bowl thanks to the collaborative coaching efforts of secondary coach Ed Donatell and his assistant Greg Jackson, a 12-year veteran NFL safety who once called himself a teammate of head coach Jim Harbaugh. Jackson’s playing experience helped him tremendously in his first year coaching in the NFL and will continue to give him great perspective in future years with the club. Click here to watch Jackson's interview.
AT FIRST it was baseball that captured the attention of a young Greg Jackson. Soon after, however, football took over as the young Miami native fell in love with the game watching the hometown Dolphins led by running back “Mercury” Morris, who helped Miami to a pair of Super Bowl titles in 1972 and ’73. Jackson was 7 years old when the Dolphins ruled the NFL world under Hall of Fame coach Don Shula.
Seeing so many memorable football moments at a young age, combined with his general interests in sports gave Jackson the courage to ask his father for permission to play. Once his dad obliged, Jackson began a promising football career at offensive guard of all places. “And I probably weighed about 85 pounds,” Jackson recalled. “The next year I got to play running back and it’s been a dream ever since.”
DEFENSE WINS championships as the saying goes. But for many youngsters looking to experience what it’s like to play football, they typically seek out carrying the football and avoiding physical contact. Jackson was no different. The same man who made a professional career in the National Football League as one of the most instinctive players at his position for more than a decade, actually wanted no part in playing defense.
As a high school player, Jackson lined up at running back and quarterback. He excelled at it, too. But in doing it, Jackson didn’t exactly enjoy feeling the brunt of defensive players imposing their will. “I was tired of getting hit by players, so that made me change my mind and made me wanted to become a defensive player,” Jackson said. “And I enjoyed it.”
Already receiving letters from several top-flight Division I programs looking at him as an offensive recruit, Jackson did the unthinkable. He told the college coaches the truth. He told them he wanted to become a defensive player, despite only having one year experience under his belt as a cornerback in the 10th grade.
“When I started being recruited I decided I wanted to make a change,” Jackson decided. “It was a great change for me.” Coincidentally, former 49ers wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan recruited Jackson to Louisiana State as a defensive player. Jackson made the choice because LSU gave him a chance to first play safety and switch back to offense if the move didn’t work out.
“It was a great fit for me,” Jackson recalled. “Lo and behold it worked for me.” From 1985-88, Jackson helped the Tigers win 36 games, two Southeastern Conference Championships and four bowl game appearances. Furthermore, Jackson was a first-team All-American in 1988, leading the nation with seven interceptions. To this day, Jackson maintains a modest, yet prideful, sentiment on his college days. “I had a great career and I loved it, still love it till this day,” he said. “I’m a Tiger in and out.”
IT CLICKED in his head right before his junior year. Jackson felt he had the potential to play in the NFL. So what did he do? He studied the game harder than ever before and re-dedicated himself to preparing his body for the demands of professional football. “When I became an All-American, the light went on,” Jackson said. “I thought I had a chance to go to the next level.”
So did the New York Giants, who selected Jackson in the third round (No. 78 overall) in the 1989 NFL Draft. Joining a defense led by Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor, Jackson stepped into a challenging circumstance to say the least. Not only was he playing next to respected pros, he was being coached by defensive coordinator Bill Belichick (currently the New England Patriots head coach) and head coach Bill Parcells (a 2012 Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist).
Jackson figured he’s soak up information from talented teammates and wise coaches. But the best lessons came from his playing experience, mainly the time he was inserted into the starting lineup on “Monday Night Football,” no less.
“I didn’t know I was going to start – someone got hurt,” Jackson recalled. “It was a scary moment for me, I was nervous – first start in the National Football League and I had been watching all these guys.” Once the nerves settled down, Jackson stuck to his calling cards: instinctive play and timely hits.
Jackson even gave himself a small pep talk before the game. “I remember I was going to play hard, I was going to hit hard, whatever I missed, I was going to miss full speed.” It didn’t all go as planned, but considering it was his first of many NFL starts, Jackson was content. “I missed a couple that night but it was a good game for me,” he said. “I enjoyed it, but the biggest experience for me, the awakening on that Monday night, I realized in the NFL everything moves so fast with O-line and the D-line.
“That was a big transition but after my first year and I pretty much settled in after that.”
SETTLED IN is an understatement. With the average NFL career span lasting three years at most, Jackson played four-times as many years in the toughest proving ground in professional sports.
He also was a member of New York’s 1991 Super Bowl championship team, before moving on to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1994 for two seasons, and the New Orleans Saints (1996) and the San Diego Chargers from 1997-2001.
In San Diego, Jackson met his future employer in Jim Harbaugh. The headband-wearing, fiery competitor, who now roams the 49ers sideline in a black long-sleeved micro fleece sweater tucked into dark khaki pants, was once San Diego’s signal caller for two seasons. Harbaugh crossed paths with Jackson first in 1999. “I enjoyed playing with Jim,” Jackson shared. “He was great in practice, great during the season, in games, everything.”
Like Harbaugh, the tenured safety was getting to the final stages of his own impressive career. And just like the NFL’s reigning Coach of the Year, Jackson envisioned himself stepping into the coaching profession as the next phase of his football life. He pictured himself stepping into coaching after his seventh year in the league. “The older I got, the more I studied in the classroom,” Jackson pointed out. “I wasn’t always the fastest guy, but I was good with my instincts. I knew where the ball was going and I know the angles of football… Being prepared as a professional, I think that’s why I played so long.”
PROFESSIONALISM CARRIED over into Jackson’s coaching career, which first began at the University of Idaho in 2003 as a defensive backs coach under head coach Tom Cable (currently the offensive line coach and assistant head coach of the Seattle Seahawks). The decision to coach was a natural one for Jackson. “I knew time was running out for me as a player and there’s no better way to step into something you love to do,” he said.
Jackson’s vagabond years were just getting started following a one-year stint in Idaho. The following season, Jackson spent three years as the defensive backs coach the University of Louisiana at Monroe which was followed by three more years working at nearby Tulane University.
Jackson’s next career move took the most fortitude to make. Having spent six years coaching in the south and being engaged to a New Orleans native made it tougher to leave the region. But when Jackson was given the opportunity to interview with the University of Wisconsin, Jackson jumped all over the chance to coach in a power conference. “I put two and two together,” Jackson shared. “Big Ten and Conference USA, I had to go to Wisconsin. It was a great opportunity, a great experience there.”
Jackson spent his eighth year of collegiate coaching as the nickleback/linebackers coach for a Badgers team that finished the year 11-2, ranked seventh in the nation. The former NFL safety marveled over the unique college experience found in Madison, Wisc. “I think that’s the best I’ve ever been around college… except LSU of course.”
It turned out to be a brief experience. Jackson always wanted to coach in the NFL and once Harbaugh accepted the 49ers head coaching job in early 2011, his Chargers teammate wasn’t far behind. “I always believe things happen for a reason, with Jim getting this job, I’ve always wanted to get back in the NFL to start coaching,” Jackson explained. “Jim gave me a call and asked me if I’d be interested in an interview and I said I’d love it. The rest is history.”
DISCO DANCING wasn’t Jackson’s forte. For his 32 career interceptions, Jackson can’t recall going overboard with exuberant celebrations. He was old-school, even when returning an interception for a touchdown, which he did four times. “I was never a disco guy. Once I scored I handed the ball back to the ref or pointed to the stands,” Jackson said. “I was never a dancer. I did in a professional way: went back to the sideline, enjoyed it, and got ready for the next defensive play.”
Jackson’s straight-forward approach to the game extends to his current teachings to 49ers players. He may not be the most vocal coach on the field, but players certainly respect Jackson’s even-keeled approach to the game. Under his guidance, the secondary totaled 22 interceptions which ranked second in the NFL among secondaries. Cornerback