- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2008

It was eight years in the making. Eight years spent rebuilding American University’s basketball program after losing had become a syndrome.

So when the Eagles captured the Patriot League title and their first NCAA tournament berth last weekend, the emotion was so overpowering that coach Jeff Jones buried his face in a red warmup shirt and cried as fans streamed onto the court.

“I’ve gotten a little bit of feedback on that,” Jones said with a laugh, referring to e-mails he received from former players and teammates. “Among others, taking Tom Hanks’ line ‘there’s no crying in baseball.’ They’ve transferred that over to ‘there’s no crying in basketball.’ ”

Sure, Jones endured some light-hearted ribbing, but the past week has been an affirmation of his work at AU, where winning has become commonplace and the NCAA tournament a reality. His 15th-seeded Eagles open against second-seeded Tennessee on Friday in Birmingham, Ala.

Jones’ deep tournament resume, dating to his time as point guard at Virginia from 1979 to 1982, has helped AU throughout the season, and that experience is at its peak value this time of year. Jones helped the Cavaliers to two tournament appearances, including one trip to the Final Four.

Terry Holland was Virginia’s coach from 1974 to 1990, and when he left to become Davidson’s athletic director, his former point guard-turned assistant coach took the reins. Holland saw it as a natural move for Jones, a coach’s son.

“As a player, Jeff was a coach on the floor. I know that is an overused term for good point guards, but in his case it was definitely true,” Holland said. “Jeff had the opportunity to grow up thinking like a coach from a young age. This allowed Jeff to truly understand the game but more importantly to also understand the dynamics between the players on the floor at all times.”

Jones took Virginia to five NCAA tournaments in eight seasons and made the Elite Eight once. And while they may not know the ins and outs of Jones’ career or about how his Charlottesville sojourn ended abruptly after an 11-19 season in 1997-98, his AU players are certainly aware of his success.

“He’s a guy who’s been here already, through being a coach, an assistant coach and an athlete, so why not listen to him?” senior guard Derrick Mercer said. “That’s a part of our team. We listen. Before we take that step, we listen because we know that he knows what he’s talking about.”

Now the Eagles find themselves in unknown territory, so it’s natural that the players turn to their savvy coach for advice. Jones could espouse the virtues that got him through tournaments past, but he has a bit of a different approach.

“I find sometimes that trying to interject a little humor and some good teasing and needling can help,” he said. “We’ll try to joke around about it but then make the point that it’s a great thing but it’s still basketball and you still have to go out there and put the ball through the hoop.”

The approach makes sense because, as he put it, his playing and coaching days represent “ancient history” to his players.

But what else can Jones say? AU had suffered nine consecutive losing seasons with a combined mark of 89-162 before he arrived. This season his team has done away with its losing reputation, knocking off Maryland for the first time in 80 years and winning the Patriot League title after three recent championship game losses. And each time, Jones has been the stabilizing force, offering the proper perspective on wins and keeping his team focused on the next goal.

“What I have learned personally from Coach Jones is that even with the success that we’ve had this season, you can’t rest on that,” junior guard Garrison Carr said. “Every day you have to come in and improve.”

That has been Jones’ — and AU’s — mantra all season, even now as the Eagles stare down the painstaking task of just hanging with one of the nation’s elite teams.

But just because his team is seeded 15th doesn’t mean Jones won’t enjoy the ride. Like George Mason’s Jim Larranaga circa 2006, Jones said this is a chance to showcase AU and has taken to the radio and TV circuit to provide exposure for his team and a face for his program.

“He seems to be very happy with American University and the D.C. area,” said Holland, who is the athletic director at East Carolina. “So the folks there are fortunate that he will probably stay there even when others may come calling.”

Emotions are what called to Jones after the Patriot League title game, but Holland and AU junior forward Brian Gilmore share the belief that it was nice to see the usually calm coach lose his composure, even if just for a few minutes.

“It let us know that he was pleased, and he had a lot of emotion,” Gilmore said. “It was really neat to see that and to know that’s how happy he was that he was actually crying.”

Mercer was not among those who teased about Jones’ emotional display, admitting he cried “tears of enjoyment” later on. But it was in front of the cameras that Jones revealed himself — the face of AU’s program — and showed just how much the accomplishment meant.

Despite the humor his former teammates and players derived from the quiet celebration, they all knew this was the apex of Jones’ journey. And after eight years, he earned the chance to let his guard down knowing he helped AU reach the spotlight of the NCAA tournament.

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