Life Lessons from the Hardwood

Feb. 26, 2009

Tia Jackson did not always know she wanted to play basketball, and even after finding stardom in Iowa’s Carver Hawkeye Arena she never dreamed of becoming a coach. But the journey in life is seldom ever planned, and the path to greatness is rarely paved. For Jackson, it is how one responds to life’s challenges that truly defines their character. It was the first lesson she learned as an athlete and it has never steered her wrong.

Now, 14 years after turning in her black and yellow uniform for a clipboard, Jackson is entering her second season at the helm of the women’s basketball program at the University of Washington. But her story begins long before. Born and raised in Salisbury, Md., Jackson was a tom-boy from the start, tagging along on the heels of her three older brothers. She did not know it at the time, but Jackson was destined to be an athlete.

“I was like a little puppy always lingering around my brothers,” Jackson said. “I didn’t know any better and I definitely didn’t want to play with dolls. I found that my inquisitive nature kept me around athletics.”

Jackson did not begin playing organized basketball until the ninth grade when Mardela Springs High School head coach Barbara McCool recognized potential in the 5-11 standout and vowed to turn Jackson into an athlete. But Jackson did far more than compete. She excelled. The young star totaled 3,108 career points and was named honorable mention high school All-America her senior year.

A consummate athlete, Jackson also proved a prolific performer in the long, triple and high jumps, garnering state championships every year of her prep career. Equally gifted in both fields of competition, Jackson received scholarship offers for each sport. However, despite her passion for jumping, Jackson could not see herself stomaching another four years of running in college, and by default, chose a future on the hardwood.
But there was one last decision to make.

Sifting through the stack of letters, Jackson carefully narrowed her search down to five universities, including Kentucky, Maryland, Notre Dame, Virginia, and finally, Iowa. At first glance, the list appeared to suggest a clear choice for the East-coast native. For some, the decision would have been as simple as looking at a map. But sometimes all it takes is one person to make a difference. For Jackson, that person was Iowa head coach C. Vivian Stringer.

“I was really taken with her vision and her drive to develop young women in addition to the player,” Jackson said of her college mentor. “I knew I was going to be challenged and pushed on all accords. I was used to that kind of mentality in high school and I didn’t want to see it change. She was the best fit.”

An inner-city girl, Jackson suffered from an abrupt case of culture shock upon arriving in Iowa City. But with a dose of Midwest hospitality, she soon felt at home and quickly made the adjustment to student life. According to Jackson, it was the people of Iowa City that made her new home so special.

“They embraced college athletics probably more than any other institution in the country at the time,” she said of the community. “They were very welcoming to athletes and to all different types of people.”

Jackson affirms if given the chance to do it all over again, she would choose Iowa. Not because life in the Midwest was simple, but because basketball, like every other aspect of her collegiate career, was challenging. To Jackson, being a Hawkeye meant building a life towards the path of greatness.

“I wanted the challenges not only from a school like Iowa and a teacher like Coach Stringer, but from a conference like the Big Ten,” Jackson said. “You can’t want anything to be easy, especially if you have the determination to be great.”

As a junior at Iowa, Jackson led the Hawkeyes to a 27-4 record, a berth to the NCAA Final Four and was named to the NCAA Mideast Regional all-tournament team. She completed her college career ranked 10th on Iowa’s all-time list with 507 rebounds and seventh with 168 steals. For her career, she averaged 10.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game. Jackson was also honored as an All-Big Ten selection and twice named a Street and Smith’s Preseason All-American.

“My experience playing at Iowa was remarkable,” Jackson said. “Playing in the Big Ten kept me competitive, challenged and hungry. I felt I not only grew as a player, but as a young woman. I was constantly gaining in all areas of my life and Coach Stringer was at the helm of that.”

After graduating from Iowa in 1995 with a degree in media studies and film, Jackson enjoyed a brief one-year stint as an assistant coach at Virginia Commonwealth. Then, in 1997 she became an integral part of a new American phenomenon, joining the WNBA in its inaugural season. The No. 9 overall pick, Jackson ventured even further west to join the Phoenix Mercury where she helped lead her team to the Western Conference title under the direction of Olympian and Basketball Hall of Fame honoree Cheryl Miller.

Jackson had finally arrived. In just a few short years the young freshman from Mardela Springs had grown into an accomplished athlete, excelling at the highest level while breaking barriers for young women aspiring to play hoops across the nation. Still, she was far from finished.

Jackson never planned to play basketball professionally; then again, she never planned on becoming a coach either. During her senior campaign at Iowa, Jackson suffered from a severe knee injury and was forced to undergo anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction surgery. A zealot of challenging situations, Jackson saw her injury as an opportunity to grow. It was not long before she developed a new appreciation for the game from a different vantage point – the sidelines. And in the midst of her strife, a coach was born.

“My injury helped me develop a lot more wisdom in areas of perseverance,” Jackson said. “I do believe in God’s plan and His determined will, and I feel he put me in that situation on purpose. Now, I understand why.”

Plagued by a series of recurring injuries throughout her career, Jackson realized she was not ready to leave the sport and coaching became her number one priority. Reminiscent of her playing days, Jackson went coast to coast to Stanford where she served under Tara VanDerveer during the 1999-2000 season and assisted the Cardinal to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. She then spent five seasons at UCLA as assistant coach and recruiting coordinator. During her term with the Bruins, she was responsible for attracting two nationally-ranked top-10 recruiting classes that included four McDonald’s and WBCA All-America selections.

Continuing her talent on the recruiting trail, Jackson then ventured to Duke where she attracted consecutive recruiting classes that ranked among the top five in the nation. Having earned a reputation as one of the top recruiters in the country, Jackson assisted the Blue Devils to the NCAA championship game in 2006 and the NCAA Sweet Sixteen in 2007.

It was not long before the Washington recruited Jackson to join their team. In April, 2007, the Huskies welcomed a new top dog to the program as Jackson took over the reins of a young squad.

In her first season at the helm, Jackson led the Huskies to a 13-18 record, finishing sixth in the Pac-10 with an 8-10 slate against conference foes. The 2007-08 season was highlighted by a pair of notable triumphs as the Huskies posted a comeback win over eventual NCAA Tournament team Purdue and an upset over ninth-ranked California in the regular season finale, spoiling the Bears’ hope of sharing the conference title.

The progressive achievements of her inaugural season coupled with her keen understanding for recruiting helped Jackson sign three nationally-ranked prospects in 2008. Now, with one year of head coaching experience under her belt, Jackson enters the 2008-09 season looking ahead in anticipation of more challenges at Washington. Mined in the ores of industry and strife, her wisdom has led to an unwavering faith in the game, those she surrounds herself with, and in her own values as a leader.

“My coaching philosophy is making sure kids are improving every day,” Jackson said. “We train extremely hard to make sure our kids understand that you can get to the next level if you push yourself past the threshold. Anything is possible once we can individually get out of our own way.”
Although her players would describe her coaching style as energetic and intense, Jackson wishes to make an impression on her athletes that is sure to last long after their playing career is complete.

“My goal is to make sure they are prepared for anything life throws at them,” Jackson said. “I tell my kids all the time, 70 percent of the things in your life are not going to go your way. The important thing is how you respond to life’s challenges. This is what defines your character.”
For one who has given so much to the sport, Jackson is grateful for the ways basketball has enriched her life in return.

“Basketball has taught me to believe that what most people perceive as unattainable, I actually see as possible,” Jackson said.

Turning the impossible into reality is what some may call a miracle; for others, like Jackson, it is merely a lesson to live by.