COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- When Larry Jackson ventured to Norman to join the staff at Oklahoma in 2004, it was a business decision.
After spending six seasons at Texas A&M, his alma mater, as an assistant strength and conditioning coach, Jackson made a decision that he felt was best for his family. In 2006, when the chance to become a head strength and conditioning coach (or director of sports performance, as it is termed at Houston) opened, Jackson took it. Again, it was a business decision.
When Kevin Sumlin offered Jackson the chance to become the Aggies' director of sports performance after he accepted the head coaching job, Jackson took it. Being back in College Station, the place where Jackson spent his playing career and started his coaching career, is different.
"Whenever this job came around, after years of watching them play and obviously they weren't succeeding the way that they wanted to, then it became a very big deal when I came back to get this job," Jackson said. "This wasn't just business for me, this was a personal decision."
That carries weight in Aggieland. Jackson, the man whom Sumlin trusts to ensure the players are in tip-top shape and ready for battle -- perhaps never more important than this season as Texas A&M prepares for its first season in the SEC -- said that leading the Aggies’ daily workouts is more than just a job to him. Much of that is because he has spent many important years of his life at Texas A&M. He was a linebacker and defensive end from 1991-94, then after a four year playing career in the NFL and NFL Europe, returned to College Station to begin his coaching career.
"When you come back to your alma mater and you played and you get to coach here, all the things that my buddies care about, for them it's a personal deal too because they feel like they have one of their own back in there," Jackson said from his office in the Aggies' new Player Development Center. "So all the guys that I played with, they know that for me, it's more than just a paycheck."
While the fruits of Jackson's labor won't be evident until the Aggies take the field against Louisiana Tech on Aug. 30, the players are already seeing his impact.
"Coach Jackson, he's a great guy, he's been working hard with us and pushing us," senior receiver Ryan Swope said. "You know this whole staff has done a great job this summer really taking us and pushing us to the max level. All the guys want to do extra; he's just been pushing us that hard. He just really shows us that this team has a lot of character."
Senior linebacker Sean Porter called Jackson "a player's coach."
While the 40-year-old Jackson can relate to his players well and has a personality that the Aggies appreciate, there are certainly times when the relationship isn't rosy.
"[Jackson’s] the devil during the workout," senior linebacker Jonathan Stewart said with a laugh. "You can get really upset because of what he's doing, but post-workout, you feel great. You'll go home and eat something nutritious and you feel like 'Wow, I got better today.' With his workouts, you feel like you've gotten better rather than just going in there and doing something redundant and coming out as the same person."
Jackson got the chance to learn the craft from two strength coaches with impeccable reputations. In his first six years on the A&M staff, he worked under Mike Clark, who spent 14 years at Texas A&M before going to the Kansas City Chiefs in 2004.
At Oklahoma, Jackson worked with Jerry Schmidt, who has been with the Sooners since 1999 and is currently their director of sports enhancement. Both Clark and Schmidt have been nationally recognized for their work during their careers.
"I kind of stumbled backward into working with two really great strength coaches and I had played more football than both of them had so I could take what they taught me and apply it to football," Jackson said. "It kind of morphed into something that, as I started doing it, it kind of is one of those things where you feel like you just know things."
At Houston, Jackson's impact was felt when the Cougars annually outscored their opponents in the fourth quarter. He was also a part of a major renovation of the weight room at UH.
Cougars players eventually gave him the nickname "Black Death," for the way he worked the team in the weight room.
"It kind of morphed," Jackson said. "First I was the 'Black Demon,' then I was the 'Black Devil' and finally one of the guys said 'It's just Black Death.'"
Now at Texas A&M, Jackson has an even bigger facility to work with.
"We've been together a long time," Sumlin said. "Our teams have been in excellent condition, particularly for what we do offensively. I think the biggest compliment to him is moving from Oklahoma to Houston, where we really had to develop some guys physically to play in some big games, play in a lot of big games, he was able to do that."
With those resources, his résumé and the passion that comes with working at his alma mater, it appears that Jackson and Texas A&M football are a natural fit.
"This was me wanting to teach my little brothers how to fight," Jackson said. "That's how I view all these players on the team. I was here once, I'm just older than they are and I just want to teach my little brothers how to fight.
"It's kind of like when you're growing up as a kid, if you know how to fight and you have a good friend, and you don't want your good friend to get beat up, then you teach him how to fight. That's just helping a good friend out. But when it's your little brother, you kind of view it a little bit differently."