CINCINNATI -- The number with the 510 area code flashed across the low-resolution screen of my BlackBerry on an overcast late January afternoon four years ago, and when I answered it on the first ring, Hue Jackson, a football coach banished to professional purgatory, got right to the point.
"I want to run something important by you," he said, his voice gravelly and subdued, a few weeks after having been dismissed as the Oakland Raiders' head coach following a single, 8-8 season. "There's a job opportunity -- Marvin Lewis] has basically created it for me -- to be an assistant secondary and special teams coach with the [Bengals. I've been an offensive coach all my life, and it's obviously a big step down from where I've been, but it's something ... Really, it's all I've got at this point. I'm not sure what to do. And I'm wondering: Do you think I should take it?"
We talked about it for a long time. There was a job opening north of the border that Jackson had pondered going after, before deciding against it. I broached the idea of sitting out a year; he wanted no part of that. Eventually, it became clear that the gig with the Bengals, who'd employed him from 2004 through '06, was his best and only option.
"I remember that conversation well," Jackson said Thursday night as we dined at Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse with his agent, John Thornton, and his close friend John Topits. "It was a hard and humbling period, and there weren't a whole lot of people in my corner. But Marvin and [Bengals owner] Mike Brown were there for me, and I will never, ever forget it."
The next morning, in an interview that will air on Saturday's special edition of "NFL GameDay Morning" (Noon ET, NFL Network), Jackson became so emotional when revisiting the subject that he began to cry -- and it took more than a minute for him to compose himself. He has come a long way in four years, and while many fans, media members and even colleagues often reduced him to a punch line during that time, the people closest to him saw a driven, determined man who put his head down and fought his way back to the upper echelon of his profession.
Now the offensive coordinator for a Bengals team which will host the Pittsburgh Steelers in a first-round playoff game Saturday night at Paul Brown Stadium, Jackson is once again a hot head-coaching candidate, with three teams (San Francisco 49ers, Miami Dolphins, Cleveland Browns) scheduled to interview him on Sunday in Cincinnati. The interviews will take place regardless of the game's outcome because Brown granted the teams in question permission to talk to Jackson should the Bengals remain alive in the playoffs, as per NFL policy.
"We're happy to help Hue," Lewis told me Friday morning after the Bengals' final practice before hosting their bitter AFC North rivals. "We know how rough it was for him four years ago, when he basically went through hell, and how hard it was for him to work his way out of that. He has been a great addition to our staff for four years, in ways that people don't even understand.
"When he came back to coach the secondary, he was able to help Dre Kirkpatrick fight through his rookie year and develop into a player for us ... And he helped Adam Jones turn his life around. Now, he's getting the attention he deserves, and we're very happy for him. We want to support him in any way we can."
Jackson, of course, can help support Lewis and Brown in a highly significant way on Saturday: The third-seeded Bengals are seeking their first playoff victory in a quarter-century, with Lewis holding an ignominious 0-6 postseason record, including desultory defeats in each of the past four Januarys. With quarterback Andy Dalton sidelined by a broken thumb suffered in Cincinnati's 33-20 loss to the Steelers on Dec. 13, Jackson will entrust second-year quarterback AJ McCarron, making his fourth career start, with the keys to his innovative offense.
Either way, Jackson -- who nearly got the Buffalo Bills' head-coaching job last year, before owners Terry and Kim Pegula opted for Rex Ryan -- may very well get a second chance to run an NFL team, something he most certainly does not take for granted.
There are so many layers to his one-and-done season with the Raiders, from owner Al Davis' passing; to the regime change it initiated; to the controversial trade for quarterback Carson Palmer, which wasn't nearly as bad as its detractors claim; to the madness that was Tebowmania.
Much has come full circle, including one especially interesting nugget that Jackson and I chuckled at during our dinner Thursday night: Unable to hire his own defensive coaches after accepting the Raiders' job before the 2011 season -- that was handled by Davis, the legendary owner whom Jackson revered -- the head coach was prepared to make a big change had he returned for a second season in Oakland. Given that the Raiders would have made the playoffs if not for several defensive collapses late in the season, Jackson planned to fire defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan.
Jackson's choice to replace him?
"Jack Del Rio," Jackson said, smiling broadly. "I had him locked in and everything. I think we would have worked really well together."
Instead, Jackson would slink off to become an assistant secondary and special teams coach in Cincinnati, while Del Rio, three years later, would come home to coach the Raiders.
And now, after four trying and fulfilling seasons with the Bengals, Jackson might finally be offered a second chance at being the man in charge of an NFL team -- with a huge, heartfelt assist from his current bosses.