They met again this year at the Final Four with new stories to share. George Raveling, Jud Heathcote, Homer Drew, Dale Brown … and Brad Jackson, who “took bits and pieces from each of them” when he was an All-Pac-8 basketball guard at Washington State.
This year he brought something back: the national NCAA Division II championship he won last month as head coach at Western Washington.
Jackson has been the center of the biggest sports moment in Bellingham history, the Vikings’ first national title in a sport other than rowing.
The honors followed with fastbreak speed: a big campus celebration, a special resolution in Olympia, and last weekend, throwing out the first ball at a Seattle Mariners game. That honor fell to Jackson, 60, also a two-year letterman in the outfield for the Cougs. “I need to warm up,” he said.
“There’s been a lot of activity” since the Vikings beat Montevallo of Alabama 72-65 in the title game on March 24, Jackson said, none more precious than the “outpouring of people being excited and giving their sincere congratulations, not just here, but from all over.”
His cellphone threatened to explode from all the warm fuzzies, but the calls that meant the most came from the old coaches who sent him on this path from the Palouse almost four decades ago.
And while Pullman in the early 1970s wasn’t exactly the cradle of basketball coaches, it was an incubator of sorts for Jackson, who played for three different coaches in four years and finished as a team captain as well as the Pac-8 assists leader as a senior.
Jackson was born in Chewelah and later became a three-sport athlete at Hudson’s Bay High in Vancouver. Despite averaging 23 points per game and being a high school All-American for the Trappers, he was torn between basketball and football until he was recruited to Pullman by Marv Harshman.
A year later, Harshman left for Seattle, while his assistant, Heathcote, departed for Missoula.
One year of Bob Greenwood led to the hiring of Raveling, who fed coaching wisdom while Jackson fed his teammates with a conference-leading 5.7 assists per game during his senior season of 1973-74.
Jackson recalled two home games against UCLA when “we thought we had them, but they always had their way.
“I didn’t realize how significant those teams were.”
Jackson earned his bachelor’s degree while serving as a part-time assistant under Raveling, then picked up his Master’s in athletic administration while helping coach at Seattle Pacific.
There he met Debbie, a four-time NCAA All-America gymnast at Seattle Pacific and a member of the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame. They have a daughter, Lynsey, and a son, Kyle, and two grandchildren.
Five years as a high school coach at Olympia and Eastside Catholic led him to Bellingham, where in 28 years he has a 518-279 record along with 19 national postseason appearances.
Along with the national title this year, Jackson was named national coach of the year by his fellow coaches and by the DII Bulletin.
And while this season is a crowning achievement, Jackson wasn’t sure about this team until it showed its mettle in tough road trips to Montana and Alaska in the far-flung Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
“At the beginning of the season we felt that we had the physical tools to compete,” said Jackson. “But I’m sure every coach says that. Our guys got tougher as the season went on, and mentally they were all business.”
That attitude helped the Vikings overcome an early 16-2 deficit in the NCAA quarterfinals against Midwestern State. They fought back and pulled out a 64-63 win.
In the final, Montevallo led by five early in the second half before Western came back. In six tournament games, the Vikings, seeded 12th, never won by more than nine points.
At the Division I Final Four, Jackson accepted congratulations, then did what he likes most – renewing old bonds.
“I love sitting and talking with coaches of that era and really enjoy the technical part of the game and the wisdom,” says Jackson, who treasures those infrequent moments with Raveling, former WSU assistant and LSU head coach Brown and Valparaiso legend Drew.
Even the oldest ties still bind. His first college coach, Harshman, lives in an assisted-living facility in Tacoma, and “I still see him,” says Jackson.