New Gervais football head coach Tracy Jackson knows a thing or two about building a high school program in Oregon.
A lifelong resident of the Willamette Valley, Jackson was born and raised just a few miles down the road in Silverton.
"I used to work out in the fields out here, move pipe and did all that stuff," Jackson said. "It's 12 minutes getting here. That was great."
In his 40 years of coaching experience, much of it has come in the mid-valley area. Jackson has made stops at North Marion, Woodburn (twice), along with stints at Hood River Valley, Madison (twice) and Dallas.
Most of the programs he has taken over have been reclamation projects — teams with long histories of struggling, looking for the kind of stability and knowledge Jackson is more than willing to share.
"There's so much work that goes into this stuff," Jackson said. "You earn everything. In high school football, nothing is given, and everyone wants to make your way hard."
Jackson helped bring Woodburn to a state play-in game in 2010 and took a long-struggling Dallas program to the 5A semifinals in 2016. After his son Andy took over the Dragons in 2018, Jackson took a job at Madison, spent some time coaching at Salem Academy and found his way to Gervais, practically in his own backyard.
"This could be a gem," Jackson said. "If we play our cards right, this could be a really great situation. That's what we're going to try to make it and have some fun along the way."
Jackson is familiar with Gervais on the gridiron. The Cougars' best season in 50 years was a 2-7 season in 2013 in which the team won a three-way tie for fourth place in the West Valley standings to qualify for the state playoffs. In the five years since, Gervais has gone a combined 6-36, never winning more than two games in a season.
With just 26 players out for fall practice heading into this week's trip to the Willamina Jamboree, Jackson knows that interest in the program among potential players is low. But there's three things Jackson carries with him on the sideline each week that he's counting on paying off — time, patience and experience.
"I've been teaching and coaching for 40 years now," Jackson said. "At least I think I know at this point what's most important and what we have to do."
While teaching a new play, Jackson takes time to show each individual step to his players. He shows where the offensive tackle will pull. He shows where the quarterback will fake. He tells how the defense will react to each movement of the offense, breaking it down so the student-athletes understand why they're doing what they're doing.
Along the way, he wants to hammer down on the basic fundamentals — tackling and blocking. He knows Gervais has capable athletes, but without the skills needed to let them succeed and get the ball back from opponents, it won't matter much."It doesn't matter if we're running Mach-speed offense," Jackson said. "None of that matters if we can't block and tackle. Those are the things we need to do to be successful in high school football, at least from my experience."
Jackson's voice booms loud across the field at practice, but comes across as more assertive and commanding than aggressive. He wants to build a family on the football field, where each player buys into the program not because they have to, but because they want to.
"I love the kids here. They're coachable, they're respectful, they come and give you a hug when you're done with practice," Jackson said. "I know it sounds kind of corny, but it's good. They're willing to become a group that cares about each other."
At its heart, football is a game. It may have more meaning at the high school level, but Jackson knows that the kids come out to the field to play and to have fun. It's what has kept him coming out for more than 40 years.
"We're trying to develop everybody," Jackson said. "Everybody's going to get a chance to play. They didn't come out here to stand on the sideline."
As for the wins and losses? Well, Jackson isn't much concerned with that. To him, winning is more a function of the structure that is built than the end-all, be-all goal to strive for. Build a program, make it attractive to student-athletes, teach them to be good young men and to respect and enjoy the game. Whatever comes after is all gravy.
"Honestly, the winning takes care of itself organically," he said. "If we can build a culture here of caring about each other and willing to fight for each other and not give up, then the winning will take care of itself."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.