Where Are They Now: Jamil Northcutt
By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
OXFORD, Miss. – If one were thumbing through a dictionary and happened upon the phrase student-athlete, they might well find a picture of former Ole Miss football player Jamil Northcutt to accompany the description.
For Northcutt, the list of accolades is long and exemplifies success in every area of his life. Lettering for the Rebels from 1999-2003, Northcutt was the 2003 Chucky Mullins Courage Award Recipient, playing in four bowl games during his tenure. He was a member of the AFCA and SEC Good Works Teams, made four entries on the SEC Academic Honor Roll and was a member of numerous campus and leadership organizations.
“When you play college athletics, there’s no time left for anything else,” Northcutt said Monday from his home in Oxford. “I had to make time for other things and I’m so glad that I did. You can’t just be playing sports, you have to focus on finding your purpose in your life.”
Northcutt is now the associate athletics director for internal operations at his alma mater, returning to Oxford in January of 2008 and receiving a promotion this past May. In his current role, he oversees a number of areas, including housing, camps and clinics, campus sustainability, the M Club, team apparel, the cheer and dance programs and serves as the administrative liaison with the football, men’s and women’s basketball and baseball programs.
No one knows the route from Birmingham, Ala., to Oxford, Miss., better than Northcutt.
He traveled that road multiple times a week during the fall of 2004 when he was serving as an administrative intern in the Southeastern Conference offices.
Northcutt had redshirted at Ole Miss and was able to complete his bachelor’s degree in exercise science in three-and-a-half years. While still playing football, he began pursuit of a master’s degree in higher education and administration.
Beginning an internship with the SEC office in the fall of 2004, Northcutt still had nine hours remaining to complete his master’s degree. The solution to finishing his degree wouldn’t be an easy one, but Northcutt was willing to make the sacrifice.
“The SEC was very gracious to let me finish nine hours of credit at Ole Miss,” Northcutt said. “I would drive back and forth between Birmingham and Oxford during Mondays in the fall of 2004. On Monday, I would come in early, around 7:30 and work until 10 a.m. I would leave at 10 and drive to Oxford. And that was before Interstate 78 was finished, so it took about three-and-a-half hours each way, and then I would go to class. I would stay with one of my friends [Tre Stallings] in Oxford. I would get up early, leave about 5 a.m. and make it in to work around 8 a.m.”
Northcutt admitted that his unusual arrangement raised a few eyebrows and elicited some laughter, but that all of his colleagues were very supportive of his desire to finish his master’s degree.
“A lot of people would laugh about it,” Northcutt said. “But my supervisors there were very supportive of me. They thought that it was great, as long as I got my work done.”
It would be a grueling semester, but Northcutt said his motivation came from values that had been instilled in him early in life.
“It was a grind, but I just kept thinking that I was almost done,” he said. “One of the things that my dad always taught me was not to start anything if you aren’t going to finish it. Coach [David] Cutcliffe always used to talk about finishing too, so I really wanted to finish my master’s degree strong. I knew that I was going to need it. It has been shown that people with advanced degrees get more opportunities. It gives you an opportunity to put yourself on a different level professionally.”
By the time he finished his undergraduate degree, Northcutt was well versed in the numbers supporting the benefits of advanced degrees. It was quite a progression from when he arrived on campus, when he didn’t realize the benefits of what an advanced degree was.
When his girlfriend – now his wife – Kimberly began pursuing a business degree, Northcutt started developing an interest in graduate studies.
“The funny thing is, I didn’t really know what a master’s degree was when I came to school,” Northcutt said. “My girlfriend went on to get her MBA. It wasn’t until she got in the program that I started asking questions and I really stumbled upon it. After that, I really worked hard to position myself to get my master’s degree.”
By the spring of 2005, Northcutt, armed with his master’s degree, had completed a year-long internship at the SEC, which he credits for giving him a strong start.
“I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to work at the SEC,” Northcutt said. “I really believe that set me on the course I am on right now. I got to do so much and meet so many people. They were really good people and opened my eyes to what working in sports was like. I was just able to see the big picture of it all.”
It’s called athletic role identity.
Northcutt cautions the Ole Miss student-athletes about it all the time now. It involves athletes who don’t relate anything to their identity other than their statuses as an athlete. For Northcutt during his Rebel playing days, he made sure it was never an issue.
“Being involved in so many activities, it helped me not get caught up in athletic role identity, which is detrimental to so many Division I athletes facing career transitions,” Northcutt said. “Everybody on my team at some point or another, said they were going to go to the NFL. Even if you go, the average life span of an NFL player is only three or four years. Even if you do end up playing for 10 years, the average life span is 80 years. So, when you get done playing, you’ve still got 50 years or more left in your life. You’re not just going to sit at home. You have to find your purpose.”
Northcutt, who is now pursuing his doctorate degree in higher education at Ole Miss, always looked forward to his time in the classroom during his tenure as an undergraduate.
“Being in the classroom was always great,” Northcutt said. “To me, participating in athletics was probably the tough part. Things in the classroom always seemed to come somewhat easy to me. It was a nice break from football and gave my body a chance to relax. When we were in two-a-days – and we did real two-a-days back then – we couldn’t wait until school started.”
It was on campus that Northcutt met many of his lifelong friends. He will always have a special place in his heart for his teammates, but he also met plenty of non-athletes who became close buddies.
“One of the things I realized that being an athlete, I couldn’t have fellowship only with other athletes,” Northcutt said. “I needed to be on campus more and socializing with all of the other students. I was on the Student Leaders Council; I joined a fraternity. It was a great opportunity. I made a lot of friends that were outside of football that I still talk to today. It gave me an opportunity to see beyond athletics and really enhance my college experience.”
In addition to the Student Leaders Council and Kappa Alpha Psi, Northcutt was a member of the M-Club, the Student Athlete Advisory Committee and the FCA leadership team. Fittingly, he was awarded with the SEC Community Service Postgraduate Scholarship.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the grind of wins and losses,” Northcutt said. “But those things don’t last long. Education is something you can have with you forever.”
Northcutt, finding time between his football responsibilities, academic pursuits and civic activities, also worked a part-time job in the Outreach office at Ole Miss during his time in college. He found the experience invaluable.
“I worked a part-time job while I was a scholarship student-athlete,” Northcutt said. “It really helped me to learn administrative skills and put some money in my pocket. It also taught me work-ethic and how to manage my time. Because it was a campus job, it also got me out of athletics and allowed me to meet some others on campus.”
Northcutt uses that word a lot. But with good reason. If there is a good example of someone who has found and followed his purpose in life, it is Northcutt.
His junior year at Ole Miss, Northcutt had the opportunity to do a practicum with Derek Horne, then the school’s senior associate athletics director for external affairs and now the athletics director at Florida A&M. It was then that he began to realize one of his main purposes would be working in college athletics.
“It was great to see what he did on a day-to-day-basis,” Northcutt said. “He was very adamant in telling me ‘You can do this as well.’ That’s when I really started paying attention to careers in athletics – researching people’s job descriptions and bios. It was revealed to me then that I wanted to work in athletics.”
Just like his approach to his role on the gridiron, Northcutt’s approach to his job centers around the entire student-athlete experience.
“For me, being involved in athletics is not about having a high seat, it’s more about the impact I can have on the lives of young men and women,” Northcutt said. “We’re here for them and want to help them grow and develop. If people don’t know what they want to do, they’re not going to understand this, but it feels great to be able to get into a career that’s not a job. It’s something that I love doing every day. It feels good to get up and go to work. I love the camaraderie.”
Ole Miss fans may most remember Northcutt for his interception and 19-yard return in a 2002 victory against border-rival Memphis. And his accomplishments on the gridiron aren’t to be overlooked.
Northcutt played in every game his final two years in a Rebel uniform. His senior year, Ole Miss finished 10-3 and won the Cotton Bowl. It’s not the wins, however, that he will remember most.
“It was great – it was an opportunity to play in the best conference in the country, especially in the sport of football,” Northcutt said. “There’s nothing like being in a football locker room. I can’t describe that experience. Even if you don’t talk to your teammates every day or every month, you know how you feel about them. That’s what was important to me. On a team, people come from so many backgrounds. Football can just sometimes be a getaway. When you first get there, it can be a little bit of a shock because it’s different and the stakes are very high. But, you adjust to playing college football at a high level. I will never forget the times I had.”
The instances in which you see former college athletes clinging on to their far-fetched dream to play professional sports are much too numerous to count. That wouldn’t be the case for Northcutt. He knew his future was brighter on the administrative side of athletics.
“Upon graduation, I had an opportunity to play Canadian football,” Northcutt said. “But I chose not to because I had a few internship opportunities. I had the opportunity to intern with the NFL Office in New York and I also had an opportunity to intern with the Southeastern Conference. I chose to go to the SEC.”
While the decision to forego an opportunity to pursue professional football wasn’t an easy one, Northcutt knows his decision has paid off.
“At that point, I had to be honest with myself and my career,” Northcutt said. “It was a tough decision, but when I look back on it now, I can look at my life and say I’m ahead of the curve in some areas. I’ve chosen to make sports my career. I had the opportunity to work my way up and get ahead of a lot of people. A lot of those guys haven’t done those internships and didn’t have the experience they needed to get the jobs. It’s going to take them longer to transition out of the game and adapt to the real world.”
Jon Harris had served as the NFL’s manager of player development and continuing education during Northcutt’s college days and had gotten to know Northcutt when he was contemplating accepting an internship at the NFL Office in New York.
By the spring of 2005, Harris had started Athlife, his own consulting firm dealing with helping professional athletes make the transition to life after sports. He and Northcutt had kept in touch over the past year.
When the Kansas City Chiefs were looking for recommendations for an open position and had contacted Harris, Northcutt was one of the first names that came to his mind.
“Jon recommended me to go with the Chiefs,” Northcutt said. “I interviewed and was offered the job to do player development. I left the SEC in June right after the baseball tournament and I wore many hats in Kansas City.”
As the player development coordinator at Kansas City, Northcutt did everything from football operations, to creating opportunities for athletes after their professional careers were over, to assisting coaches on gameday and serving as a liaison with a number of different constituents.
During his time with the Chiefs, Northcutt was sought after for a number of jobs with opportunities both in college and professional football. One of the calls came from Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee. Fulmer had hired Cutcliffe as his offensive coordinator and was looking to fill a position in football operations. Cutcliffe had recommended his former pupil.
“Within that timeframe when I was interviewing at Tennessee, I had called [athletics director] Pete Boone at Ole Miss to see if he could give me an idea of what the interview process at Tennessee would be like,” Northcutt said. “I knew what things were like in the NFL, but I hadn’t worked in college, so I wanted to make sure I had an opportunity to speak with him about the interview process.”
Shortly after, Ole Miss began looking to fill a position in football operations under head coach Ed Orgeron. Boone immediately thought of Northcutt.
“Pete asked me if I was interested in coming back to interview,” Northcutt said. “I told him I would like to look at it. It gave me an opportunity to come back and see how things had change since I played there.”
But, for whatever reason, none of Northcutt’s job opportunities worked out that year and he would spend another season with Kansas City.
A year later, Northcutt received a similar call to the one he had taken less than a year prior.
It was Boone on the line again.
“I spent another year with the Chiefs and then I got a call from Pete asking if I had any interest in an assistant AD position that had come open,” Northcutt said. “Anytime you have a chance to go back to your alma mater, you look at it real closely. One of my many goals is to be an athletics director. It was an opportunity to learn, and also to bring the skill set that I had gained back to Ole Miss to help them be more successful. I applied, interviewed and they decided that they wanted to bring me back.”
Northcutt now has the platform to use his experiences to help Ole Miss student-athletes achieve success in life. He focuses on the complete student-athlete experience.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work at a conference office, for an NFL franchise and now on campus in college athletics,” Northcutt said. “I have been able to see things from a lot of different perspectives and points of view. It gives me a lot of credibility to speak to our student-athletes because of these experiences.”
Northcutt uses the connections that he has built to help explain the truths of playing at the next level and achieving success outside of athletics.
“I can bring in players that I know that are still in the league and they can talk about truths and give them an idea of what it’s really like,” Northcutt said. “Most people think that all professional athletes are millionaires and that’s just not the case. I give them statistics. Numbers don’t lie. I use video presentations and player testimonies to give them an idea of what things are like. At a certain point, I wasn’t good enough to continue playing football and everyone has to come to that realization at some point. Playing professional sports is not a career, it’s an opportunity because it doesn’t last long. It doesn’t define who you are. You have to discover who you are as an individual, not what everybody else tells you that you are. At the end of the day, you still have to come back to what your purpose is in life.”
The statistics that Northcutt uses are staggering. He is realistic with the student-athletes at Ole Miss about their prospects for future success, and encourages them to become well-rounded people.
“Playing in the NFL is great, but there are a lot of things about it that hinder your progress in growing off the field,” Northcutt said. “There are programs established to help players with that. A lot of people take advantage of them, but a lot don’t. Sixty-five percent of NFL players lack a college degree and marketable job skills. I just try to help our student-athletes gain skills. A lot of times those are tough discussions to have, but I have to be honest and tell them that they aren’t ready.”
He encourages the student-athletes to reflect on the things they are good at to help them discover who they truly are. Northcutt tries to put them in touch with professionals who can help them understand what different career options are like.
“You have to try to prepare them for the paths ahead,” Northcutt said. “It’s very important that you do that and it’s also a lot of fun. You reach out to your other colleagues and constituents and let them speak with them and interview them. They can find out if they really like that career or not. A lot of people don’t self-reflect, but it is very important to take time out of your day to figure out what you like – to write down your gifts, talents and what you need to work on. That way, they can really discover what they were called to do.”
For every negative story about college athletics that is out there, there are also plenty of stories like the one of Jamil Northcutt.
Northcutt was married in 2006 to Kimberly, whom he met on his first day of college. The couple now resides in Oxford with their son Kellen Josiah.
The former Ole Miss letterwinner takes pride in his role in college athletics. He has never lost sight of his purpose in life and in his current role.
“We’re in higher education and we can’t forget that,” Northcutt said. “We’re at the point where schools are making a lot of revenue, so the focus kind of shifts to sports and winning. But we can’t forget that we’re in education – we are educators. We need to make sure that the student-athletes in our institutions have their priorities in the right place.”
Northcutt is one who has always had his priorities in the right place. He cherishes the time he had as a student-athlete at Ole Miss and knows the knowledge he acquired has helped him throughout his life. And he hasn’t stopped learning.
“Education can do so much for you,” Northcutt said. “Especially if you have the opportunity to play sports and get your education paid for. Coming from where I did, if I didn’t have athletics, I wouldn’t have been able to pay for school. I had a great mother and father, and they helped me realize what was important. We’re supposed to be life-long learners. Whether it’s in your job or in the classroom, you can always learn things that can help you or help somebody else. When you mix the skills you have learned with experience and common sense, you can do a lot of great things. Education has taken me a long way.”