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Clouded by Campbell saga, James still realizes vision

Clouded by Campbell saga, James still realizes vision
Jason James’ dream of becoming a head basketball coach almost became a nightmare.
In the end though, he’s confident it’ll have a happy ending.
James was elevated from top assistant to head coach of the UT Martin men’s hoop program late last week, but only after his mentor, Bret Campbell, was forced from that position after a 10-year tenure with the Skyhawks.
The 31-year James became the nation’s second-youngest Division I men’s basketball coach and the first African-American in that position in UTM history by moving over a seat on the Skyhawk bench.
He admittedly did so with somewhat of a heavy heart after Campbell, the man who brought him to Martin seven years ago, was essentially fired after an University of Tennessee system audit investigating funds from his team basketball camps revealed not all policies and procedures were followed. 
Though there was no proven evidence of fraud or embezzlement and no NCAA rules were violated, Campbell was put in a “resign or be-fired” position by UTM Athletics Director Phil Dane.
One of the conditions of his departure — according to the now ex-coach — was that James would be his hand-picked successor without an interim tag.
“It’s a little bittersweet because Bret Campbell has been so good to me. He’s my guy, and I feel like I owe him everything,” James told The Messenger. “There’s no doubt that I’m more prepared to be a head coach after working for him after seven years, but I certainly never envisioned that it would happen this way.
“At the same time, I always knew I wanted to be a head coach from an early age and I had no doubt I’d eventually reach that goal. I first started dreaming about it when I was about 10 years old. I’d come home from church and we’d turn on the television and I’d just pick one team or the other and pretend I was the head coach.
“I never wanted to play in the NBA like a lot of kids. I just wanted to be a coach.”
James inherits a UTM roster that must replace the school’s most decorated player ever in two-time OVC Player of the Year Lester Hudson.
Two other seniors, Olajide Hay and Djero Riedewald, also graduated, but the starting backcourt of former Union City High School standout Marquis Weddle and Delrico Lane will return, as will a handful of others who saw significant playing time.
James came to UT Martin in 2002 from Forest Park Community College in St. Louis where he had served two seasons as an assistant coach and helped send several players on to the Division I and II levels.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in physical education and health with a coaching endorsement from Graceland (Iowa) University in 2000.
He was the team captain for GU for two seasons and voted the Graceland Freshman Player of the Year his first season at the school and team MVP his senior year.
A widely-respected recruiter who had a large role in landing most of the players on the current Skyhawk roster, James believes the already-established relationships with team members will aide in healing the wounds of Campbell’s sudden departure.
“That I know the guys and each individual situation will make things a lot easier than if someone from the outside were coming in,” James claimed, while also adding he will remain somewhat involved in the recruiting process of future Skyhawk players. “It’s very important that we deal with Bret being gone first, then turning the page as quickly as we can. We all know what Bret has done for each of us and how he felt about us — both individually and collectively — and I’m convinced he wants us to continue to move in the direction he had the program headed.
“And I think the guys are ready to move on. The ones we’ve had here on campus this summer and with Marquis (Weddle) and MJ (Brown) being close, I think they’ve already leaned on each other and began the healing process. I believe battling through this adversity will make them better people and better basketball players.”
James said he took special pride in being UTM’s first black head men’s hoop coach, and pledged he’ll put a product on the floor that will not only be competitive, but will make school supporters proud.
“Being the first African-American men’s head coach at UT Martin is historic for sure, and I’m very gracious for the opportunity and the confidence shown in me,” James said. “There have been a lot of good coaches here before me — both black and white — but I’m honored to be the first man of color to be put in charge of the program.
“I promise we’re going to do the right things under my watch and our kids will continue to represent UTM well and be good ambassadors to the university. I feel like Bret laid a great foundation in that area, and my plan is for us to continue to move up in the realm of Ohio Valley Conference basketball while conducting ourselves with class and humility.”
Sports editor Mike Hutchens can be contacted by e-mail at

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