April 5, 2013
NORFOLK — Each year at the Final Four, Jeff Jones hosts a large dinner. The guest list tops 30 and includes coaches and administrators with whom he has worked. They reunite, lie about their handicaps and chow on Jones' dime.
Thursday night's gathering in Atlanta, at Morton's, almost certainly was like none prior.
Late Thursday morning, Old Dominion introduced Jones as its new coach, and even at 52, after 21 seasons wearing the big whistle and myriad experiences, the opportunity clearly energizes him.
True to his nature, Jones didn't try to "win the press conference" with scripted one-liners or evangelical preaching. Rather, he vowed to recruit, nurture and coach as he did for the last 13 years at American University and for eight at his alma mater, the University of Virginia.
"Coaching is not something that I do," said Jones, a native of basketball-mad Kentucky and the son of a coach. "Coaching is who I am. Coaching is in my blood."
At Virginia, Jones enjoyed considerable resources. At American, he did not. Yet he thrived at both schools, guiding the Cavaliers to five NCAA tournaments, the Eagles to the only two in their history.
That requires consistency of approach, attention to detail and, at those institutions, devotion to academics.
"I can assure you that I am doing more than paying lip service to that ideal," Jones said of supporting players not only in the classroom but also following graduation. "That's a legacy of the utmost importance to all of us."
Case in point, Brian Gilmore. A graduate of Chesapeake's Great Bridge High, he was a key player on American's 2008 and '09 NCAA teams, and he attended Thursday's news conference to support his former coach.
Moreover, Gilmore's mother, Dee, a member of Old Dominion's Board of Visitors, endorsed Jones to university president John Broderick. When a mom speaks highly of how a coach treated and taught her child, we are wise to listen.
"I'm ecstatic for Jeff," said Brian Gilmore, who works in defense contracting in Virginia Beach. "I think it's a great fit for Old Dominion. I think they're going to find out in short time that he's the guy for the job."
At American, Jones coached less-gifted athletes, but in those NCAA appearances, the Eagles challenged Tennessee and Villanova well into the second half.
"We found a core group of seven, eight, nine, 10 guys that bought into Jeff's system, that played defense every possession, made the most of every offensive opportunity," Gilmore said. "Jeff had a great plan for us. We were going to be a hard-nosed team that outworked everybody.
"I like to say we were one player away from being a Sweet 16-type team. ... We showed with limited resources and a league that's not as sexy ... that we could compete with any team in the nation."
Jones recruited Gilmore out of Fork Union Military Academy's post-graduate program, and he was adamant Thursday, and also during his interview with athletic director Wood Selig and Broderick, about aggressively mining all of the state, not just Hampton Roads.
At U.Va., Jones and his staff feasted on the state. Jason Williford and Yuri Barnes from the Richmond area, Harold Deane from Petersburg, Cory Alexander from Waynesboro, Curtis Staples from Roanoke, Junior Burrough, a North Carolina high school product who prepped at Oak Hill Academy in southwestern Virginia.
That group formed the core of Jones' 1995 team, which shared the ACC regular-season title with Maryland, Wake Forest and North Carolina, teams that featured the likes of Joe Smith, Tim Duncan and Jerry Stackhouse. The Cavaliers reached the NCAA Midwest Regional final that season, played the physical, man-to-man defense Jones demands and averaged 77.4 points per game.
So spare me the notion that Jones won't allow his teams to run. With the horses, he'll run plenty.
Speaking of thoroughbreds, Jones' father, Bob, coached Kentucky Wesleyan to the 1973 Division II national championship, and during that season lost a road game to Sonny Allen and ODU, 125-112.
Jones believes the Monarchs can exceed their previous Division I benchmark of advancing one round in the NCAA tournament. He believes the Constant Center, palatial compared to the arenas he's previously called home, can help attract major-league talent.
And he's right. Now it's up to him, his assistants and players.
"I can't wait to get started," he said.
Thursday was a whirlwind for Jones. Following his introduction, he met with his new team. What little down time he had was spent returning calls, texts and email.
His flight to Atlanta was scheduled to depart at 4 p.m. Dinner was at 7:30.
Here's guessing the celebration went well into the evening.
Copyright © 2013, Newport News, Va., Daily Press