MSU Athletics Hall of Fame Class of 2010: Dr. Nell Jackson
Sept. 30, 2010
DR. NELL JACKSON
Women's Track and Field Coach (1973-77, 1978-81)
Assistant Director of Athletics for Women (1973-81)
Dr. Nell Jackson was a difference maker in every stop of her life.
Along the road of her esteemed career, she was instrumental in implementing the women's athletics program at Michigan State University. She was the first-ever Assistant Director of Athletics for Women at MSU, serving from 1973-81, and also served as the women's track and field head coach for six seasons.
During her tenure as an administrator, Jackson pioneered quality and successful women's athletic programs in nine sports. Michigan State participated in several AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) national championships and the women's softball team claimed the national title in 1976.
As a Spartan coach, Jackson coached 13 athletes to All-America honors, including Karen Dennis, who succeeded her as head track coach at MSU from 1982-92. Dennis went on to become the coach of the U.S. National Team at the 2000 Olympics and is now the head women's track coach at Ohio State.
"She was somebody you just didn't see in that position during that time," explained Dennis. "Coming up in a culture and a society where you didn't see very many women, and certainly not many women of color, in a leadership position in athletics, it was inspiring. Here was a person who was an Olympian herself, who had a Ph.D., and was an athletic director. You just didn't see this kind of an individual in the realm of athletics. She was new, she was refreshing, she was something that I just wasn't accustomed to. She certainly was a pioneer, no question about it. She opened my eyes to a whole new arena that women could go into in athletics."
An accomplished runner before getting into coaching, Jackson was a member of the 1948 Olympic Team and won a silver medal in the 200-meter dash at the 1951 Pan American games. She set an American record in the 200 meters in 1949 (24.2 seconds) and won two national titles for Tuskegee University (then Tuskegee Institute) in 1950 (200 meters and 4x100 relay).
After getting her bachelor's degree in 1951, she earned a master's degree from Springfield College in 1953 and eventually her doctorate degree from the University of Iowa in 1962.
Jackson's first coaching position was at her alma mater, beginning in 1953. She later coached at Iowa, Illinois State and Illinois before coming to East Lansing, including winning a national championship with the Illini during the 1970 outdoor season.
In 1956, Jackson became the first African-American be named head coach of the U.S. Olympic Women's Track and Field Team, and she served as coach again in 1972. Jackson was also the first African-American to serve on the U.S. Olympic Committee's Board of Directors.
Jackson was familiar with Spartan men's track coach Jim Bibbs when she arrived at MSU, as the two had crossed paths along the AAU circuit in the 1960s. Bibbs said there was a great relationship between the men's and women's track teams at Michigan State.
"We just fully cooperated with each other, and our teams did the same, which a lot of programs didn't do at the time," he said. "We liked to think we were coaching for the right reasons, and that was for the kids. We thought that was best for them - it made for a better team environment, and we never had any problem with it."
Dennis was deeply influenced by Jackson during her time at MSU, inspiring Dennis to get into coaching. She said she couldn't "have been any luckier" to be at Michigan State alongside both Bibbs and Dennis.
"I had never planning on going into coaching - I got my undergraduate degree in agricultural economics - but Dr. Jackson encouraged me to get my master's and assist her in the program, and that's how I got into coaching," Dennis said. "She was very involved in mentoring women to go into athletics and to go into coaching. I think that there are a lot of coaches and a lot of women throughout the country who benefited from her tutelage, whether they had her directly as a coach, or someone as an example as someone they could look to that accomplished what seemed like impossible dreams. I was just lucky to have them both at the same institution and at the same time. I wouldn't have coached, no question."
Another standout that Jackson affected was Spartan All-American Judi Brown Clarke, a future silver medalist in the 1984 Olympics.
"It was one of those relationships you don't appreciate at the time, but it forms you," said Brown Clarke, who ran for Jackson for two seasons at Michigan State before Jackson retired from full-time coaching in 1981 and accepted an administrative position at SUNY Binghamton. "Dr. Jackson expected the best out of you - no excuses. She saw a tremendous amount of potential in me, and she wasn't going to have anything less than that.
"She was the first one to let me know that there was an ability to be both an athlete and have academic success. From her getting her doctorate, I just knew I was going to get my doctorate (Brown Clarke has a Ph.D. in public policy and administration) because I just so admired that of her, that she pursued athletic excellence and also academic excellence. She expected the best of you, which was no more of what she expected of herself. She really set the bar that I hope that I have been able to pave forward for her.
"Her ability to transform women's position in athletics as well as its policies, its laws and so on, was phenomenal. A lot of things that didn't necessarily make sense to me at the time, I quickly understood just from her desire for me to be a leader, and what that meant just not on the track, but a leader in many forms. She really was an incredible role model and mentor."
Although Jackson is a member of several halls of fame, including the Black Athletes Hall of Fame, the Women's Sports Foundation Hall of Fame, and the National Track & Field Hall of Fame, Bibbs knows going into the Michigan State Athletics Hall of Fame would mean a lot to her. Jackson passed away at the age of 58 in 1988.
"She would feel very, very proud and honored to be going into the MSU Athletics Hall of Fame," said Bibbs, himself a 2010 inductee. "She always championed women in athletics and fought for equality. She wanted to see them get equal recognition as the men, because she knew they worked just as hard. She was a great coach and great administrator."