June 21, 2005
ATLANTA -- Austin Jackson said all the right things about his commitment to play basketball at Georgia Tech. But when the New York Yankees drafted him in the eighth round of the Major League Baseball amateur draft, it changed everything -- for Jackson and for the Yellow Jackets.
When Jackson, a two-sport star at Ryan High in Denton, Texas, committed to the Jackets last fall, the Tech coaches knew they were taking a chance that the 6-1 point guard would never make it to campus.
But Jackson maintained all along that he wanted to do both -- play college basketball and minor-league baseball -- and, until recently, the Yellow Jackets expected him to do just that. They had high hopes for him, even figuring that he might beat out sophomore Zam Fredrick for the starting job before the 2005-06 season ended. Jackson's basketball potential, they believed, was extremely high.
Most baseball teams backed off Jackson before the draft because of the strength of his commitment to Tech and/or a subpar senior season. Many scouts felt that Jackson, once named by Baseball America as the top 12-year-old prospect in America, was not performing up to his capabilities on the diamond. Some even questioned his desire.
In recent years, many baseball teams have been reluctant to draft high school players they deemed difficult or unlikely to sign. Such pre-draft talk was good news in Atlanta, where thoughts even turned to the possibility that Jackson would play basketball and baseball for the Yellow Jackets.
But the Yankees, Tech coach Paul Hewitt's favorite team, did not give up that easily. With their vast resources, the Yankees can afford to take chances in the later rounds, especially with players of high talent. Jackson was ranked No. 77 in Baseball America's pre-draft rankings. Mark Batchko, the team's area scout for Texas and a long-time friend of the Jackson family, convinced the Yankees to take a chance on Jackson, even after a pre-draft deal could not be worked out.
Within days of the draft, the Yankees and Jackson, a gifted center fielder, agreed to a baseball-only contract that included a signing bonus just shy of $1 million. The deal extends the bonus money out over four years, meaning that if Jackson decides to give college basketball a try at any point, he'll be leaving significant money on the table.
Jackson said calling the Tech staff, which had built a close relationship with the player over the years, was very difficult. Tech was surprised that Jackson signed so quickly.
The situation obviously left the Yellow Jackets stuck for options at point guard.
Three-year starter Jarrett Jack appears less and less likely to return for his senior season. NBA scouts became enamored with him during pre-draft workouts. Jack didn't make his intentions known until right at the June 21 deadline, but most observers expected him to take the pro riches. Jack's few public comments seemed to indicate that he was leaning in that direction.
Fredrick opted to return to Tech after flirting with a transfer to South Carolina earlier in the spring. But he's a converted shooting guard, with very little point guard experience, and there are some questions about his ability to handle the position in the grueling ACC.
In the meantime, the Yellow Jackets have to consider whether it's better to just hold onto Jackson's scholarship for a top-tier player next season or sign a lesser prospect now. The staff seems to be leaning toward saving the scholarship and going with Fredrick as the primary ball-handler. Incoming wing guard Lewis Clinch can play some point guard, but everyone agrees that's a less-than-ideal plan.
Without Jack, it was going to be a tough season for the Yellow Jackets. Without Jackson, it could be a painful one, even in a young ACC.
Tech's top nine players in 2005-06 will include three true freshmen, four sophomores and two role players, senior center Theodis Tarver and junior swingman Mario West. Tech could bring in a foreign big man before the season starts, but that won't address the problems in the backcourt.
Meanwhile, Tech remains the leader in the recruiting process for point guard Javaris Crittenton, a tall and talented Atlanta high school product in the Class of 2006.
Hall Survives Another Big Flop
Despite being Georgia Tech's all-time leader in victories, baseball coach Danny Hall always seems to be answering questions about his team's postseason failures.
For a while this spring, it almost seemed enough to drive him all the way to Texas A&M. Hall was the leading candidate for the Aggies' job, and he expressed sincere interest in the position, but in the end Tech was able to keep its coach in Atlanta.
A departure would have been just fine with many Tech fans, who have grown tired of seeing the highly ranked Yellow Jackets falter in the NCAA Tournament. In 12 seasons under Hall, the Jackets have qualified for the tournament 11 times and made two appearances in the College World Series.
But since the conversion to the current Regional-Super Regional format in 1999, the Yellow Jackets have made just one trip to the CWS, despite playing at home in the playoffs almost every season.
After being swept by Tennessee in the Super Regional this year, Tech now has been swept at home in the Round of 16 three times since 2000. In 2001 (in Athens) and 2003 (at home), the Jackets were swept in the Regional. In 2002, Tech made the CWS before losing two of its first three games.
Since 2000, Tech is 15-13 in the postseason, and that's what most fans are focusing on. Hall was booed throughout the Jackets' losses to Tennessee.
But Hall, who has consistently defended his program, is disappointed that the team's consistent success is overlooked. Tech has hosted an NCAA Regional in five of the last six years and been a top-four national seed in each of the last three seasons. Tech won the ACC regular-season title in 2000, 2003 and 2005. It won the conference tournament crown in 2000, 2004 and 2005.
The 2004-05 campaign was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Yellow Jackets, who had 10 players drafted after the 2004 season. Star Micah Owings transferred to Tulane. But Tech, which became the first No. 2 national seed not to qualify for the CWS since the current format started in 1999, had raised those expectations by the time postseason play rolled around. In the end, Hall again seemed frustrated that the fans have not appreciated what his team has accomplished.
The Yellow Jackets often are compared to the Atlanta Braves, who have dominated the regular season but floundered in the postseason. It's an apt comparison, not only for the results, but also for the differing views. Should a reasonable fan applaud the regular-season success, fume about the postseason trouble, or both?
"We've had a hard time getting out of the Super Regional of late, but I'd rather keep having the hard time getting out of it than not getting in it at all," Hall said after being swept by Tennessee. "Our expectations are high, but would they rather have us getting in the NCAA Tournament every fourth or fifth year or getting in every year and having a chance to get to Omaha? As disappointed as I am that we're not going to Omaha, there's a lot of other good things that I think we're doing very well here, and I can't lose sight of that."