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What Villanova AD Mark Jackson Learned From Working for Bill Belichick's Patriots

Mark Jackson saw the foundation being laid for the Patriots dynasty as a Belichick assistant before leaving for a job at USC, so he knows what Belichick and Carrol have in common with the championship-winning ’Nova coach Jay Wright.

As Bill Belichick prepares to try and win his sixth Super Bowl this weekend, one of the assistants on his first coaching staff with the Patriots in 2000 is watching over the nation’s No. 1 men’s basketball team. Villanova athletic director Mark Jackson was a football coach before he was an administrator, starting with the Patriots as an intern under Bill Parcells, then serving as an assistant for Pete Carroll before Belichick took over in Foxboro. After one year with the new staff, Jackson rejoined Carroll as USC’s director of football administration, but not before getting an inside look at how the system works in New England. I caught up with Jackson to discuss Belichick’s debut season in New England and the parallels among Belichick, Carroll and Wildcats coach Jay Wright.

Bruce Feldman: What was that first meeting with Belichick like in New England as a staff?

Mark Jackson: I remember it like it was yesterday, with all of the anniversary stuff that keeps reminding you about it. I didn’t really have a job. He pretty much laid it on the table that anybody that’s here [from the previous staff] is going to get the chance to interview. My head was spinning. I was so young. I didn’t really know what that meant. I befriended Eric Mangini during the process because Eric played at Wesleyan and I played at Colby. We just connected. Eric was one of Bill’s first hires. He was the secondary coach. 

I vividly remember the interview process and how thorough it was. Eric had forewarned me, “Hey, when he gives you this assignment, you’d better be buttoned-up.” It was essentially a breakdown of four games of opponent scouting. His expectations around there kind of startled me with the level of detail he wanted. It was a matter of actually drawing all 22 guys, hand-written, exact blocking schemes, defensive schemes, coverage, everything. It was meticulous—down and distance, hash—a lot of that stuff is typically computer-generated, but no, you had to do it all by hand, and it was hours upon hours. And that was essentially the interview. He gave you a couple of days to do it, and fortunately it worked out. I guess I did a good enough job to stay on after Pete was let go.

BF: How many hours do you think it took you to get ready for that meeting?

MJ: It was literally all I think I could do for two or three days. When I look back, Brian Daboll was also in quality control, and another guy, Ned Burke, who is no longer in football. Brian and I were carpool partners, and driving in, he and I would talk a lot about what we went through in the interview process. He was sort of used to it because he had worked for [Nick] Saban. Brian had come from Michigan State, so he was used to the way they broke down film and their statistical analysis. I wasn’t, but my eyes were open just to the level of detail that Bill expected. 

BF: It seems like he and Pete are almost opposite in persona. At what point do you realize, “This is going to be way different than what I’m used to”?

MJ: Their personalities are so different. Pete is gonna engage with everybody and ask for a lot of inclusiveness when it comes to decisions or input and Bill’s not. Bill relies on a really close circle. Bill made a lot of decisions on his own and knew exactly what he wanted to do. At the same time, the competitiveness and the overall football acumen, that was certainly comparable. 

BF: What was the vibe around the staff like that year?

MJ: For me, I hadn’t been around big-time college football at that point. I had interned with Parcells two summers and then I was full-time with Pete. And with Parcells, I was a media intern, so I wasn’t really around it. With [Belichick], it was all business. It was about winning football games. We didn’t have a lot of conversations about family and friends and that kind of stuff like you could with Pete. It was about “Do your job.” Worry about your job and focus on your job. 

BF: Could you have imagined back then the run that the organization under Belichick was about to go on?

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MJ: I really didn’t know enough about the NFL to have envisioned anything like that, and I think anybody would’ve been hard-pressed to have imagined that because it’s been such a historic run. But I will say this: Bill’s attention to detail, his overall organization skills and his understanding of the game, from every aspect—special teams, defense, offense—we used to meet as an entire staff to watch film. The special teams staff was in there watching offense. Defense had to watch offense, offense watch defense. There was something there that struck me. This guy is so passionate about details.

There were other things that stuck out. He had people around him that he really trusted. Eric Mangini, Charlie Weis, Dick Rehbein, Scott Pioli. Bill built relationships with those key members of his inner circle. They helped established the culture, and you know you were around really smart people who believed in Bill. I definitely saw the foundation of success. 

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BF:Is there anything specific about your work as an AD that you’ve taken from your experiences around Belichick?

MJ: A couple of things really stood out. I saw Bill come in with a new regime and have a very thoughtful, meticulous nature. He didn’t come in and make wide sweeping changes. I noticed this from afar. The value of promotion from within has stuck with me. It’s the people that understand your culture and have grown up in your culture, and that’s Eric Mangini and Brian Daboll and Josh McDaniels. They paid their dues early on as quality control and went through that meticulous nature of all the film breakdowns. I definitely try to apply that here. I’m trying to invest in the younger people in our athletic department so that they understand our culture and can get brought up in that. 

I stayed in touch with Bill over the years. I lean on him for coaching decisions, whether it’s lacrosse, which I know he has a passion for and it’s a big deal here at Villanova, or football. He’s a guy who I value in how he built his organization. 

The other thing that really stood out to me as a young coach with him: that season my dad was diagnosed with cancer in August. It was pretty terminal. It was our first training camp. We were grinding. I was scared to go in and tell him, “Coach I need some time to go get this straight with my dad.” It was a six-month process. I lost my dad on Christmas Day. It was a long six months for me and my family. But Bill really went out of his way to check in on me and to make sure my dad was doing O.K. My dad came out to practice, and Bill would go out of his way to talk to him and put his arm around him, and I’ll never forget that. I know we have this image of him being hard and cold, but I certainly saw a different side of him. It was warm and compassionate and engaging, and it meant a lot to my entire family.

BF: Your basketball program is No. 1 in the nation and you have one of the great coaches in the nation there in Jay Wright. His style seems obviously quite different from what we see with Belichick, but both are extremely successful. What have you learned from being on the inside with both and where there might be some connections?

MJ: I don’t know where I can compare and contrast Jay to Bill, but what I can say is whether it’s Pete or Jay or Bill—and I’ve been around a lot of really good coaches—they know their philosophy. They know who they are. They know what they’re about. These are programs. These aren’t just teams. These are systems. They know every element of it, and they know what works, and they don’t deviate from it. Although they’re very different in styles, they’ve figured themselves out and they’re very, very confident in who they are. That’s the one commonality in the great coaches I’ve been around. 

The image piece is part of who they are. They are authentic. They don’t try and fake it. As flashy [a dresser] as Jay might be, he’s as gritty and hard-nosed and tough of a guy as I’ve been around. He has a real blue-collar element, and that’s evident in the way he coaches. They all know who they are and what they’re about.

When [Carroll and former USC assistant Yogi Roth] wrote the book [Win Forever], that’s the key. If you’re gonna lead people, you have to figure out yourself first. You have to go through that self-discovery process. I figured it out. It wasn’t ’til I was around 35 and back at USC for a second time. Pete mandated it. ‘Hey, you gotta get serious about what you wanna do. Do you wanna be in the NFL? Do you wanna be an athletic director? Do you wanna pursue something entrepreneurially?’ It was that self-discovery process where I took a summer and just figured myself out that is really helping me out now as an athletic director.