Once a big-time recruit, Jake Russell sees football as a ministry at Kentucky Christian
By John Herndon, 110forChrist.com
Jake Russell knows that Grayson, Ky., isn’t on ESPN’s radar. He knows that the name “Kentucky Christian University” isn’t a household name with football recruits, even those whose aspirations fall well below the Southeastern Conference or the Big Ten.
He also knows there’s a reason he’s landed in northeastern Kentucky for his first head coaching job.
“This is way more than football,” he says. “This campus is just a special, special place.”
It was less than an hour after Russell had seen Kentucky Christian rally in the fourth quarter to earn a 20-19 win over Ave Maria, a school from south Florida. Down 16-7 early in the final frame, the Knights twice struck on long passes from Justin White to Kody Washington to capture Russell’s first victory.
As Washington crossed the goal line with the game-winner with 4:34 to play, the KCU bench erupted in jubilation. As the Knights’ defense held and the offense was able to run out the clock, Russell got doused with a Gatorade bath as time expired.
Happy? You bet. “That first win as a head coach is something you will never forget, especially with the kind of game it was,” Russell smiled.
But he really does see his passion as being more than football.
He was happy at Union College, where he’d served as offensive coordinator for a year. He’d been married less than two years and was happy when the head coaching position at Kentucky Christian came open. Russell was intrigued.
“I looked at the application and it said to also include a 100-word essay on how you plan to use football as a ministry,” he remembers. “I told my wife that and she said, ‘That’s what you talk about all the time. You ought to do it.’”
A former Mr. Football candidate and three-sport high school star, Russell’s journey had put him in contact with mentors who had cultivated his faith and developed his ability to impact lives. It’s using sports as a ministry.
“That’s why I’m here,” Russell said.
It happened quickly but Russell firmly believes God’s hand was at work as he arrived in Grayson, which sits about 25 minutes down I-64 West from Ashland, Ky. and Huntington, W.Va. Russell’s predecessor, Corey Fipps, had led KCU to a 6-2 record in a COVID-shortened season that was moved to the spring of 2021. It was the most successful season in KCU football history. But Fipps left for the University of Pikeville in late spring.
Much of his KCU staff went with him.
“It was kind of a crazy situation and a unique time to become a head coach but it has been very special,” Russell says. “He officially left in June. I was hired in mid-July. That was only a few weeks before our camp and less than two months before our first game.”
In addition, only defensive backs coach Ryan Beatty and David Manning, the off-field recruiting assistant, remained from the previous staff. Somehow Russell was able to put together a staff ranging from newcomers to high school and college coaching veterans. Offensive line coach and running game coordinator Robert Couch has even spent some time in the NFL as a player and coach.
Most had never met Russell until they arrived in Grayson.
“Seven of the guys are new to the area,” Russell says. “Some of them had never heard of Grayson, Ky., and had no clue we were here. None of them visited here. They might have looked it up on the map and thought, ‘What in the world am I getting into?’
“The Lord works in mysterious ways. They are an unbelievable staff and an unbelievable group of men.”
Coaches needed to become familiar with players and players needed to learn a new system.
“It was two different coaches and two different coaching styles,” Washington said.
And the Knights knew that Russell’s offensive system was said to be high-octane. “We knew when we played Union last year, he had a good scheme and they put up 35-40 points on us last year. We knew he was even keel and a quarterback specialist,” quarterback White said.
KCU defeated Union 38-13 in Russell’s first game at Union but when the teams had a rematch in the season finale, the Knights had a much tougher time, winning 49-35.
In the win over Ave Maria, the Knights put up 413 yards with White hitting on 14-of-22 passes for 267 yards and three scores. Most importantly, it was apparent the Knights were getting more familiar with their new head coach who doubles as offensive coordinator.
It’s just been part of the process. Russell’s first game saw the Knights take a 58-7 whipping from the University of the Cumberlands, a Mid-South Conference foe. The scheduled home opener, against Lawrence Tech, was canceled due to COVID-19 protocols. Then a trip to Warner University, in Florida, saw the Knights fall behind 24-0 before putting on a furious rally.
Saturday, Russell’s emphasis on staying positive and handling adversity bore fruit. “Today, I was just so proud of the guys,” Russell said. “They handled it the right way – stay encouraged, stay up. We had a chance to win last week in the fourth quarter. We had the ball in our hands but just couldn’t pull it off. This week shows tremendous growth and maturation to be able to get the job done.”
There’s no doubt Russell wants to win and win big. As a high schooler, he led Anderson County to an undefeated regular season in 2007, his sophomore year, and then went 9-2 as a senior, earning all-state honors. The Eighth Region basketball Player of the Year in 2010, Russell had played on a team that advanced to Kentucky’s Sweet 16 as a junior. A powerful hitter and hard-throwing pitcher, Russell was part of two regional championship teams at Anderson.
He’d signed with Eastern Kentucky out of high school but things didn’t work out. He transferred to the University of Kentucky, excelling in the 2013 Spring Game, but never getting a chance to play in the regular season. Eventually, he found his home at Campbellsville, where he was an NAIA All-American.
Looking back, the experience has only served to help him as a coach.
“My journey, playing at three different levels, going through that unique journey, which at the time felt like the end of the world, you know, transferring and going from one place to another,” he says, “and kind of knowing in your heart or believing in your heart like a lot of our guys do that they should be playing at the FBS level or in the SEC or whatever it is. And now having that experience of seeing the three different levels, seeing the SEC and EKU and the NAIA, I can relate that to the guys. It’s the same game. You are running the same plays. Some of these guys could play at EKU. Some could play at UK, but everyone has their unique journey that brings them here.”
For Jake Russell, that unique journey was the opportunity to use the game he loves for the Lord he loves.
He says that while he’s always had a strong Christian faith — “I thank my parents and grandparents for that,” he says – it was when he got to Campbellsville, a Christian school in south-central Kentucky, that he learned to share that faith.
“When I transferred to Campbellsville University, it had a huge impact on my life,” Russell says. For the first time in my life, well not the first time because Coach (Glen) Drury (his Anderson County High basketball coach) is a great example of a strong Christian leader. But for the first time in my college experience, I had coaches who invested in me as more than an athlete. They shared the gospel with me.
“Coach Hunter Cantwell (who played at the University of Louisville) was the example of what a Christian coach should be,” Russell says of his offensive coordinator at Campbellsville. “He’s now the head coach at Christian Academy of Louisville.”
And Cantwell had talked with his pupil about one day becoming a head coach. Russell laughs, “I told him, ‘Yeah, I think I could be an offensive coordinator but I could never be a head coach.”
Things quickly changed this summer and Russell is continuing what Cantwell taught.
“He lives by his word, everything he says,” White says. “We have a devotion before every game. I go into his office every day. We aren’t talking about football. We are talking about life. We are talking about God and I really appreciate him for that.”
Russell says the Knights are divided into ministry teams, named for books of the Bible such ast Team Mark or Team Matthew. “They read the Bible together and talk about it each week at devotions,” he explained. “We read and study together. We want them to be able to get in front of the group and talk about what they have read. Then here at Kentucky Christian, we have chapel twice a week, so that’s a big thing, too.”
It’s all about impacting lives.
Russell is happy in Grayson. He and his wife, Dannika, are the parents of a six-month old girl, Naomi. They are expecting their second child in March. And even though Grayson is a very small town, he says, “It reminds me a lot of Lawrenceburg when I was 6-8 years old.
“It’s a culture shock to some of the big city guys to come to this small town, but the people here are the nicest people in the world. I think most of the guys fall in love with it.”
And Jake Russell has fallen in love with his chosen profession. “I was thinking, ‘Are you kidding me? You are paying me to do this?”
But it’s more than just coaching football. And that’s what matters to Coach Jake Russell.
“If I coach here five years and don’t win a game and we part ways,” he says, “ but one young man has come to know the Lord, it’s a success.”
Russell’s first win a thriller
Ave Maria seemed to be in control when Willie Jackson scored on the first play of the fourth quarter Saturday. When the Gyrenes kicked the extra point, they led 16-7 against a Kentucky Christian team that had not been able to generate much offense since taking a 7-0 lead less than five minutes into the game.
“He never gets up and never gets down,” KCU quarterback Justin White says of head coach Jake Russell.
Just over two minutes after Jackosn’s score, Russell called for White to look for wide receiver Kody Washington over the middle. The two connecte and Washington put on the afterburners for a 50-yard score.
After giving up a field goal, the Knights struck again with White and Washington connecting from 54 yards with 4:34 to play.
“When I am playing the game, my eyes don’t get real big,” said White, who hails from El Paso, Tex. “It was afterward, I was like, man, he was so open.”
And Washington could only see open spaces ahead after his catches. “Once I caught it, I just saw green grass,” he said. “I don’t know how far behind me they were but I have always been taught that when you see green grass, you keep going.”
Kentucky Christian, now 1-2, travels to Union, where head coach Jake Russell worked last year. KCU has a 7-4 lead in the series and has won the last three meetings.