Darris Jackson has been hired as new head coach of the boys' basketball team at Aiken High School.
The 29-year-old native of Clover is taking over a program that has been without a head coach since June, when Tony Harrell vacated the position to take control at North Augusta. Jackson, who was the director of player development for the men's team at North Carolina A&T, said one of the best things about his first job as a head coach is that he's inheriting an established program.
“I'm not walking into a situation where I have to start from scratch. The guys at Aiken have been well coached,” Jackson said of the Hornets, who posted a 105-69 record in seven years under Harrell, including a streak of four consecutive playoff appearances. “Aiken has a tremendous basketball program and athletic program. … (Athletic director Carey) Johnson and (principal Garen) Cofer were great to me. They made me feel comfortable and like I was having a conversation with old friends. It felt right and I'm extremely excited.”
Johnson was equally complimentary of Jackson, praising his “youth and enthusiasm.” Johnson said the new coach is the ideal choice to follow the footsteps of Harrell and his predecessor Thomas Ryan.
“Hopefully, he can maintain the tradition we've established here over the last 10 to 12 years,” Johnson said.
The transition could be smooth since Jackson said the philosophies he values most as a coach are similar to the strategies that have worked well for Aiken in recent years. Defense is the key.
“I want to defend and get after people, and Aiken has always been defensive. The principles and techniques might be different, but we're still going to get after it,” Jackson said of his emphasis on playing aggressive defense to force turnovers and create high-percentage scoring opportunities. “We're going to press and do some trapping, but we will get after it in man-to-man. … I think it's a style the people of Aiken will enjoy and appreciate.”
Offensively, Jackson wants to see his players move the ball and find the open man. But the main thing he wants to build is a sense of trust, where he can let the players operate freely and execute on their own.
He'll start laying the groundwork for his system in September, when he can begin coaching players who aren't involved in another sport in the fall. He said the time in September is invaluable because it allows him to make up for lost time, after missing the summer sessions. While imparting his schemes and techniques, Jackson said it's even more important for him to establish relationships with his players and get to know them on a personal level.
Jackson said he's seen film of the Hornets, and is aware he'll coach a team in transition. That's because the new coach will look for contributions from a variety of players after losing several key seniors from last season's squad.
“We're going to be young, but Aiken has a tremendous JV program,” Jackson said. “We'll be young, but it won't be a rebuilding process, it will be a reloading process and I expect us to be in the hunt for a region championship.”
Jackson said his ultimate goal, any year, is to win a state championship. But more specifically, his primary concern will be that his team improves throughout the season.
“Our goal is to get better each day and each practice. If you're not improving, you're getting worse,” warned Jackson, who knows a lot about coaching in spite of his limited experience.
He's the son of a coach, saying his father served as an assistant for the Clover High team for more than 40 years, including Jackson's tenure as a player. After playing basketball and football at Clover, Jackson continued to compete in both sport at the college level at South Carolina State. He said he was never a star player, but his awareness and thoughtful approach to the game allowed him to hold his own against players that were better athletes.
“I wasn't great, but I knew what it took to be out there,” Jackson said. “My knowledge of the fundamentals made me the prime candidate,” to show how mind can overcome matter.
It also could be a significant reason Aiken has made Jackson a head coach for the first time. Jackson said his mandate is to continue “the excellent basketball program,” while serving as a teacher and a mentor. He added that he hopes to be doing it for a some time to come.
“I could see myself here for the long haul,” he said.
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard. Staff writer Jeremy Timmerman contributed to this report.