Plenty is said about the trials and tribulations that freshmen players experience during their transition to the higher level of competition they face in college.
But it is a different kind of first-year member that is making an immediate and significant impact on the Duke women's basketball team. Assistant coach Tia Jackson is in her first season with the Blue Devils after a five-year stint as an assistant at UCLA.
"I feel very fortunate," head coach Gail Goestenkors said. "Tia's one of the best assistants I've ever had.... I think she has all the necessary skills to one day become a head coach, but I hope it's not for a while because she's doing a great job for us."
Hoping to grow and challenge herself, Jackson believed she had maxed out as a Bruin assistant. After coaching at Virginia Commonwealth, Stanford and then UCLA, she felt it was necessary for yet another step up the career ladder. Luckily for her, Goestenkors came knocking with the Blue Devils' offer.
"I would have been a fool if I didn't accept Coach G's phone call," Jackson said. "I said, 'Well, I at least have to see what they have to offer and what they're talking about.' And to come in and be a part of a program of this caliber, it was definitely a flattering gesture."
Jackson's responsibilities include planning practice, scouting and recruiting, which is her specialty. During her career with the Bruins, she spearheaded efforts to sign two top-ten recruiting classes and reeled in five McDonald's All-Americans.
"Across the board, it's always going to be about developing relationships early," Jackson said. "And that's something I've had to learn on my own. I also bring a different personality."
This is something her colleagues and players can certainly attest to. The former WNBA player is motivated, energetic, vocal and meticulous, Goestenkors said. While many assistant coaches have their strengths and weaknesses, Jackson has continuously proven this season that she has it all.
Despite being in her first year at Duke, Jackson had no problem jumping in and voicing her opinions. She is also not afraid to diagnose her own coaching style.
"I'm very hands-on, and I like to yell a lot," Jackson said. "I'm almost like one of their teammates, so to speak. I provide positive reinforcement but at the same time get on them. I like to get my hands in the mix.... I'm that voice they're going to keep hearing every time."
Her players and staff praise her on-court coaching abilities, but one of her special qualities is her persona off the court. Instead of constantly focusing on basketball, Jackson prides herself on also being able to talk about life.
Coined as a player's coach by many of the Blue Devils, she is known for slapping high-fives, giving thumbs-up and most importantly, listening.
"She likes to talk to you about things outside of basketball," senior Monique Currie said. "And it means a lot that she cares about what's going on in your non-basketball life. You don't have to be worried about basketball with her all the time."
Whether it's weak-side defense or weekend parties, blocks or boyfriends, Jackson loves to talk about it all with her players. While she has contributed immensely to the team's on-court successes this season, she is also been partially responsible for the high level of morale and optimism in the locker room. The stress of a National Championship run may be weighing on the Blue Devils, but Jackson has worked to keep the mood loose and excited.
"Tia's goofy," freshman Abby Waner said. "She's really great to be around, she's really light-hearted. She just loves life."
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