NORFOLK — Jeff Jones wasn't the first candidate to become Old Dominion men's basketball coach, but athletic director Wood Selig and president John Broderick described him as the best out of a crowded and capable field.
Jones was introduced Thursday at the Constant Center, the first time he set foot in the building that he and the Monarchs call home.
"I had a great job. I love American University. It was a fantastic 13 years," Jones said to a room full of reporters, fans, ODU officials, well-wishers and the generally curious. "But I really do look at this situation, this opportunity, as having so much potential. I wasn't exaggerating when I mentioned that the other coaches out there in the basketball world, they understand what an outstanding opportunity this is.
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Ted Constant Convocation Center, Old Dominion University, 4320 Hampton Boulevard, Norfolk, VA 23529, USA
"It happened pretty quickly, but when I got the call there was no question whether I would be interested," Jones continued. "I think that initial, that gut reaction was strengthened after having the opportunity to sit down and meet with President Broderick. His vision of the school, the athletic department and specifically the men's basketball program, is one that I think I share."
Jones, the 52-year-old former head coach at Virginia and American, emerged from a pool of 150 applicants that was narrowed to a half-dozen finalists in the past couple of weeks.
He traveled to Norfolk last Friday and met face-to-face with Selig, with whom he worked at Virginia in the 1990s, and Broderick, the man he ultimately had to persuade.
"I was very comfortable with any of the people who we talked to," Broderick said, "and I believe that all of them could have done a great job for us. I was impressed with the blueprint Jeff laid out, in terms of his philosophy about recruiting, his desire to engage and connect not only with Hampton Roads but Virginia and North Carolina and Washington.
"For me, I was really looking for what were his goals regarding our student-athletes, not only in terms of what he was expecting of them academically, but the fact that he had a lifelong commitment to them. For me, that was the key factor. I wanted to hear someone who did have that sense that being a student-athlete, in my mind, starts with the 'student' part. It doesn't mean just meeting an APR (number) or graduating people, but graduating people who ultimately are being successful and I liked the emphasis he put on that."
Other finalists were former Western Kentucky and Georgia coach Dennis Felton, North Carolina assistant Steve Robinson and California assistant Travis DeCuire, who worked at ODU several years ago. ODU officials had initial conversations with Florida Gulf Coast's Andy Enfield and wanted to talk further, but he became a hot property after the team's NCAA Sweet 16 run and eventually took the Southern Cal job.
Longtime ODU assistant Jim Corrigan, who took over in the wake of Blaine Taylor's dismissal in early February, was considered before he was told that the program needed a fresh start.
Contract terms were not finalized as of Thursday afternoon, and Jones now works to assemble a coaching staff. Both figure to be discussed at the NCAA Final Four in Atlanta, site of the annual men's basketball coaches' convention and where Jones was headed after meeting with school officials and present ODU players.
Jones said that current staff members will be considered for his new staff. He said that he won't move too hastily, but that he wants to have at least part of the staff in place for the last two weekends in April, which are recruiting evaluation periods. Local hoops guru Boo Williams holds his annual Nike Invitational tournament April 26-28.
Former University of Virginia star and NBA veteran Bryant Stith attended Thursday's event. He played for Jones, both as an assistant and head coach, and said that he has entertained the idea of college coaching. He is presently the head coach at Brunswick High, where his teams have won three consecutive state titles.
"I'm really excited for him," Stith said. "He's such a high-character guy. When he left the University of Virginia and went up there to American, I wasn't sure that he was going to get another opportunity to get a job like this, a high-profile job in a great conference.
"To see him to be able to get back into the game at this level, I'm really excited for him," Stith continued. "I think that ODU got themselves a jewel. I think that they're going to be pleasantly surprised with the results and how quickly they're going to turn around this program."
It's debatable how much "turning around" is needed. The Monarchs skidded to a 5-25 record last season, the worst as a Division I program, but averaged 24 wins the previous eight years under Taylor, with four NCAA tournaments and eight postseason appearances.
Jones' teams were 358-286 in 21 seasons as a head coach. At Virginia, his teams went to four NCAA tournaments and won an NIT title in eight seasons, but were sub-.500 two of his last three years. At American, the Eagles went 10-20 last season, but his teams won at least 20 games four of his last six years and earned the school's only two NCAA berths, in 2008 and '09.
Jones' hiring was met with mixed reviews among the ODU faithful, if social media and Internet chatter are accurate gauges. A segment of fans criticized the pool of finalists as too narrow and the choice of Jones as unimaginative and reeking of cronyism.
"Ultimately, I feel like my role is to put ODU men's basketball in the best possible position to win Conference USA championships and advance in the NCAA tournament," Selig said, "and when we looked at our entire field, our pool of applicants and candidates, given all the success that Jeff Jones has enjoyed at Virginia and American, and given his work ethic, his knowledge of the game, his contacts, we felt that he was the one person that would put Old Dominion in the best position to capitalize on success.
"If people don't agree with that, John Wooden was not available for us," Selig added. "I understand there are naysayers and there are people who would like to take shots, and they can do that. I just hope that they admit they were wrong in several years when Old Dominion men's basketball is operating at a very high level."
Jones comes to ODU during a time of transition. The athletic department cast its lot with Conference USA, the far-flung, ever-changing collection that's part of the present realignment shuffle. He was a part of transition at American, as well, when the school left the Colonial Athletic Association for the Patriot League.
"An interesting time," Jones said of conference moves. "Without trying to make any bold predictions, our goal and our expectations is we're going to be competitive. We want to be competitive right away. That means that there will be a lot of work, a whole lot of hard work, probably a little bit of luck, but that certainly is our goal."