Joe Jaggers was an old school football manager with a knack for getting the best out of his players, his coaching staff and himself.
There was a time when Fort Knox High School was football royalty statewide.
In three years, the Eagles went 37-6 and won two Class 2-A state championships in 1988 and 1990.
I happened to come to The New Company just weeks before the start of the 1988 season and he came with a warning a day or two into the job: ‘You’re going to be dealing with Joe Jaggers and he’s going to test you to try and get the best out of you. Don’t let him get the better of you.
The words were then and now boss, Ben Sheroan – and he was right. Joe tested me several times and I stood my ground.
The first time was in the August heat a few weeks before that 1988 season. His first words to me were like, “How do you say your name?”
I told him, and he still didn’t understand. Few do. It’s good now and it was good then.
The more I interacted with Joe, the more I liked him and the more I realized he just had a way of doing it, like most great coaches. I’m sure Nick Saban does.
He didn’t always agree with me or what I wrote and that was okay. I mean there’s not much not to like when a team is 14-1 twice in three years.
There were good times, bad and funny.
His record of 292-105-3 indicates the obvious the guy could coach.
I’ll always have this snapshot of Joe in my mind: the ball is in the middle of the field at McAdams Field in Fort Knox or Trojan Stadium in North Hardin, or any field, really, and he’s crouched like a receiver in baseball to the 15- or 20-yard line. And he watches the game, sometimes for several games, while his assistants take care of training.
It was his way of analyzing what was happening with every move. Long before iPads and photos and videos from the game to help coaches, Jaggers, as his grandson Josh Jaggers said on Monday, wanted to see what the 22 guys were doing on the pitch.
And then he made the necessary adjustments and few have done it better. He had a footballing spirit like few others.
It was his chess match. He rarely lost.
In 1990, after the Eagles crowned their second state title in three years with a 21-7 win over Corbin at Cardinal Stadium in Louisville, several of its black players said they heard racist comments during and after the game.
A fight breaks out in midfield.
Several players were furious, many players were in tears. So did Jaggers, who went from furious to heartwarming for his players. I remember him hugging a player, I think it was Lavon Washburn, and he and his coach were in tears – tears of pain.
Then, as Jaggers tried to speak, he got choked up and words were difficult.
Often I would tell Joe which player I wanted to write about. It became a habit that if the player was not a senior, he “told me” which senior I should write about.
I often wondered why he insisted so much on promoting his elders. I think in a way it was their reward to be written for all the demands he placed on his players.
He was demanding and his players could take it. This is not always the case, especially today.
We became friends and after games when he was at Fort Knox, I would drop by his house for pizza and a beer once in a while. I made it clear that work and pleasure were separated at the door.
Joe had a way of him and he rubbed a lot of people the wrong way sometimes. If I had a dollar for every time I heard the phrase “Joe is Joe,” I’d probably be able to fill up my SUV with gas tomorrow.
Over the years, even when I quit sportswriting, he would call me with a sports question or ask me why we were doing something in our journal. I think he was still testing me, at least a few times.
What I do know is that the man influenced thousands of young men during his 81 years of life. How many can say that?
In death we often hear the best stories about someone. Former FKHS players Eddie Thompson and Darren Bilberry said Monday they had both spoken to Joe regularly over the years, long after their high school careers ended in the 1980s.
The last time I spoke to Joe was last fall and it was, of course, about football. He wanted to know where he could find which TV channel was showing the Kentucky football game the next day.
I told him several times. Finally, he apologized to me for asking so many times.
I told him it was no problem and he said, “Thanks, Jeff.
No, thank you, Joe.