- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 25, 2002

As a basketball player, assistant coach and head coach, Jeff Jones spent more than half his life at the University of Virginia. That breeds a certain attachment. So does the hoops culture of the ACC, which, based on the intense interest and high level of competition, is as big-time as it gets.
But Jones, in his third season as coach at American University, no longer is bound by such ties, the large Virginia diploma hanging prominently in his office notwithstanding. As if to prove it, he received a seven-year contract extension last week.
Still, this raised some eyebrows, and some questions. Such as, will Jones stick around that long? You can take the coach out of the ACC but can you take the ACC, or some other conference where basketball is large and important, out of the coach? According to American athletic director Tom George, the deal does not include a buyout clause. "There's a very good chance that Jeff Jones will play out his contract," George said.
"I certainly plan to," Jones said, although a bit later he added, "Anything is possible."
Jones would know. His has been an interesting journey.
Jeff Jones, a native of Owensboro, Ky., the son of Bob Jones, the longtime and highly successful coach at Division III Kentucky Wesleyan, became, at 29, the youngest coach in ACC history. He had more wins in his first six seasons than the legendary Dean Smith had at North Carolina over a similar time. But things went sour for Jones and three years later, in March 1998, nearly 20 years since he first showed up on campus as a freshman, he resigned under extreme pressure from boosters, alumni and the administration.
After a painful, yearlong absence from the game and another year as an assistant coach at Rhode Island, Jones was hired at AU in 2000. In his first year, the Eagles went 7-20, the program's 10th straight losing season. Then last year, AU won 18 games and came within a minute and a half of making the NCAA tournament for the first time.
Anything is possible.
Now 42 but still bearing a youthful, albeit somewhat fleshier resemblance to the point guard who directed Ralph Sampson to the low block and set the Cavaliers' career assist record at the time, Jones is in a different world. The stage is smaller; Virginia was about as big as it can get. "But that doesn't necessarily mean it was better," he said.
"It's nice to be wanted, and the folks around here made that clear," said Jones. "I'm happy here. I enjoy working here. And being in a situation that I really believe you can be successful in. In this case, it's winning basketball games and having the kids do well in school."
Jones acknowledged that the crowds are smaller, the trappings of life in the Patriot League different from what he was accustomed to in the ACC.
Most of the travel is by bus, and you don't call the scheduling shots like you used to. For example, the Eagles traveled to South Carolina for a game against College of Charleston on Friday night, then had to play Fairfield in Bridgeport, Conn., Sunday afternoon.
The Eagles, after taking Charleston, which was ranked in the Top 25 earlier in the season, to overtime before losing, had no legs and lost to Fairfield. AU is 3-5 going into Saturday's game against Elon at Bender Arena.
But Jones won't complain about the differences. In some ways, he believes he has it better.
"Coaching is in my blood," he said. "My father was a coach, and he didn't make a lot of money. But you were into it for a lot of different reasons than people I think are into it now. There's a whole bunch of mercenaries out there who look at coaching as a way of having a great living. I'm not saying it's wrong, I'm just saying it's different from the reason I coach.
"Here, I can focus on our team the majority of the time. In other situations at higher levels, you have to worry about alumni a lot more, the media, a lot more peripheral issues. Hey, those are important, but they're peripheral to winning games, or to help the kids develop and grow. I'm sure for a lot of folks the grass is always greener on the other side, but I'm very content. I very much enjoyed coaching at Virginia, but I enjoy coaching here."
You can't go home again
In his first year at Virginia, 1991, Jones was the only rookie coach that season to take his team to the NCAA tournament. The next year, the Cavs won the NIT. In 1993, Jones became the first ACC coach to win at least 20 games in his first three seasons, and in 1995, Virginia advanced to the Elite Eight.
But there were injuries and a few recruiting setbacks, and in 1996 Jones had his first losing season, followed by another two years later. The 19 losses in 1998 were the most at Virginia in 35 years and marked the third straight year without an NCAA tournament appearance. By then, people were starting to take note of the players Jones had to discipline or dismiss for off-court incidents ranging from shoplifting to assault.
The most notorious occurred when Melvin Whitaker, a 6-foot-10 recruit, slashed the face of a football player with a box-cutter during a pick-up game in 1996. Whitaker was booted from school and spent time in jail before enrolling at Mount St. Mary's. Another case involved Courtney Alexander, an outstanding guard who assaulted his girlfriend and was kicked off the team. Alexander transferred to Fresno State and ended up in the NBA, playing for the Wizards, among other teams.
Virginia also was reprimanded by the NCAA for "secondary violations" involving Whitaker's recruitment. It was determined that a booster arranged for Whitaker to live rent-free in an apartment and also provided transportation, long-distance telephone usage, meals and a small amount of cash, all in violation of NCAA rules. Virginia was penalized one scholarship after Jones left.
Lee McElroy, the AU athletic director who hired Jones, said he was convinced that Jones' reputation and integrity remained clean. He noted that Virginia consistently led the ACC in graduation rate.
"Whenever you have an NCAA issue, it becomes very complicated," said McElroy, now the athletic director at Albany. "I interviewed a lot of people and I talked to [Virginia AD] Terry Holland, and they all said it was an unfortunate incident but Jeff was not directly involved. It was an issue of management."
Further clouding Jones' final years at Virginia were whispers about his personal life. He was going through a difficult and public divorce, and there were all sorts of rumors. Nothing tangible was determined, although that didn't stop rival recruiters from using that against the program.
In March 1998, Jones submitted his resignation to Holland, his old coach, accepted a $600,000 buyout that covered four years of his base salary, and walked away.
"I could have kept fighting, but it was time to go," he says now. "A lot of my friends said, 'You were pretty naive, you were pretty idealistic, it's a cutthroat business,' and they were right. Hopefully, I'm a little bit wiser, but I'm probably a little more skeptical. At the same time, the things that attracted me to the profession are still there, and they still outweigh any skepticism or negative feelings I may have developed."
The bottom line, Jones said, "is that we didn't win enough basketball games." But he would just as soon not talk about Virginia anymore. It's old news, and it still hurts.
"When it became clear I was no longer wanted there, did it break my heart? Absolutely," he said. "You could make the case that I grew up there."
Picking up the pieces
Jones took a year off from coaching. He hung out with other coaches, like Maryland's Gary Williams (a former AU coach), Utah's Rick Majerus, and then-Indiana Pacers assistant Rick Carlisle, a former Virginia player who is now the coach of the Detroit Pistons. But it wasn't the same. "It was very difficult," Jones said.
It also proved to be something else.
"A great learning experience," Jones said. "I learned how much coaching means to me. I learned that not being part of a team, there was a void in my life. That was the first time since sixth grade I hadn't been part of a team. It was significant to realize that."
Jones compares the role of basketball in his life to the movie "A River Runs Through It."
"The premise of the movie was that a family's life centered around this river," he said. "To me, the game of basketball was a river. My dad was a coach. My mom took my brother and sister and me to games and practices. It became very clear I wanted to stay in coaching."
Jones applied for the vacancy at Rhode Island, didn't get it, but ended up working as an assistant to Rams coach Jerry DeGregorio. "I jumped at the opportunity," Jones said.
A year later, with university president Benjamin Ladner pushing hard, Jones jumped at the offer from AU. His three children were still living in Charlottesville; the location was right. And although it was interpreted as a step down in competition, Jones liked the switch from the Colonial Athletic Association to the academics-intense Patriot League.
"The Patriot League is a perfect fit for us," he said. "It was the right move for this school."
Jones has the full and enthusiastic support of the higher-ups at AU Ladner and George, a former marketing whiz who became athletic director last year. The facilities have been upgraded, the program is being promoted unceasingly and basketball is a hot topic on campus after a decade of dormancy.
It all centers on Jeff Jones. Extending his contract for seven years (AU is a private university and terms were not disclosed) "was the easiest decision I ever made," George said. "He is so obviously the right guy for this time and this place and this program."
George said last year's success was not what convinced him (although it definitely helped). Rather, the defining moment was when he looked out his office window overlooking the court and saw Jones spending time after practice with a walk-on who didn't even play.
"He has a great relationship with the players," senior guard Glenn Stokes said.
"I think Coach Jones is getting exactly what he wants out of being a Division I basketball coach," George said. "The old-school concept, being a coach, a mentor, a surrogate father, a teacher, a tactician. It's still about taking 12 young men and making them better. But it's not as much about alumni relations, press relations, winning at all costs."
But winning sure beats losing, as George and everyone else connected with the program learned last year. With 10 new players (including walk-ons) joining veterans Keith Gray, Vladimir Buscaglia and Patrick Doctor, the Patriot League player of the year, Jones fashioned the second-biggest turnaround from the previous year in Division I. Then, playing Holy Cross in the conference tournament finals with an NCAA bid on the line at Bender Arena, filled to beyond capacity by a juiced and deafening crowd, the Eagles took a one-point lead with 1:30 to play. But they couldn't hang on and lost, 54-50.
"I walked away and, internally, it hurt so bad to have come that close," Jones said. "But on the flip side, I was really, really happy with the team. I was proud of the kids, for everything we'd gone through, everything we accomplished."
Now there is a tangible basketball buzz along Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest D.C., the likes of which hasn't been felt since Tom Young, Tom Davis, Gary Williams and Ed Tapscott were building an AU tradition in years past. Students were even heard complaining that there was no Midnight Madness.
"Before the season, people were really looking forward to the first game," said Stokes, a former star at Einstein High School in Silver Spring who transferred from Tallahassee (Fla.) Community College before last season. "It makes it fun to come here and play."
Jones remarried last year. He sees his kids when he can and seems to be settled after enduring some difficult times. He is again riding the river.
"I've got a great staff, there are good people in the department and I really enjoy the players," he said. "I don't know if anything can be perfect, but I enjoy what I'm doing."

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