Jeff Jones comes of age as a winner at Virginia


CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- The questions raised about the University of Virginia basketball team coming into the current season were typical, regarding age, experience and the ability to compete among the elite of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

But this Cavaliers situation was different: Most of the questions were not being asked about the players, but about the coach. About Jeff Jones. Barely-turned-30 Jeff Jones. Not-a-stitch-of-head-coaching-experience Jeff Jones. Good recruiter, but can he X-and-O Jeff Jones.

"I'm the first one to admit that I was in the right place at the right time," Jones said Sunday, sitting in his as-of-yet fully unpacked office at University Hall. "I don't want to apologize for that. It's a great opportunity for me."

Jones, the youngest coach in ACC history when he was hired to succeed Terry Holland last spring, is making the most of his chance so far. The 14th-ranked Cavaliers are 10-3 (2-1 in the ACC) going into tonight's 7:30 game at Maryland (8-6, 1-3).

Aside from a few bumps along the way -- a 15-point pounding from UCLA in the Great Alaska Shootout final, a five-point loss to New Orleans at home and Saturday's double-overtime defeat here to fifth-ranked North Carolina -- it has been a smooth ride for the former Virginia point guard.

"I feel very comfortable out there, especially on the court," said Jones, who probably has displayed more emotion in his first half-season than Holland showed during his successful 16-year stay. "As far as all the other things a head coach has to do, I'm still learning."

As Holland's chief recruiter for much of the past four years, Jones was responsible for putting together a team that is the most experienced in the ACC. All five starters returned from last season, when the 20-12 Cavaliers began slowly, finished strong and said farewell to Holland after a second-round loss to Syracuse in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament.

"They're just the most-experienced team in the league," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose younger Blue Devils were spanked by the Cavaliers, 81-64, Jan. 5. "They've played together for something like 50 games. They've won big games together. They've lost big games together. The best type of experience is collective experience."

And then there is Jones. A three-year starter on Virginia teams that, led by Ralph Sampson, won 102 games over four seasons but never played for the national championship, Jones has been here for all but a few months since graduating in 1982.

"In the back of my mind, I hoped that at some point of my career, I'd become the head coach at Virginia," said Jones, the school's all-time assist leader until senior point guard John Crotty broke his record Saturday night. "There's no way I thought it would come so soon."

It wouldn't have happened this time had Providence College let Rick Barnes out of his current contract last spring. Or if Virginia athletic director Jim Copeland had left himself some backup candidates instead of telling Stanford's Mike Montgomery and Penn State's Bruce Parkhill that Barnes was taking the job.

But during a wild, 10-day period, Jones went from holding a one-year stopgap position in the Virginia athletic department to one of the most prestigious coaching jobs in the country. "It's almost a miraculous sort of thing," said assistant coach Tom Perrin. "Nothing short of that."

While Jones' dreams came true, the mostly silent prayers of the Virginia players were answered as well. Given the experience and success of this team -- it reached the final of the ACC tournament as well last season -- less change was for the better.

"We didn't know what was going to happen, but this was the best situation for everyone concerned," said junior forward Bryant Stith, the team's leading scorer and perhaps the best all-around player in the conference. "This team has been like a family, and there was no reason to break up the family."

There have been no calls so far to break up the Cavaliers, but Virginia is expected to stay in contention with the Tar Heels and Blue Devils for the first-round bye (caused by Maryland's NCAA banishment) in the ACC tournament.

"We're a good basketball team; we're not a great basketball team," said Jones. "We've got parts that fit together, and we're missing some parts. We're trying to hide our deficiencies."

Youngest Division I coaches


Coach .. .. .. School .. .. .. Age (birth date)

1. Jack Armstrong Niagara 28 years, 13 days (1-3-63)

2. Rich Zvosec St. Francis (N.Y.) 29 years, 10 months (3-13-61)

3. Tim Capstraw Wagner 30 years, 4 months (9-14-60)

4. Jeff Jones Virginia 30 years, 6 months (6-29-60)

5. Kermit Davis Jr. Texas A&M; 31 years, 1 month (12-14-59)

6. John Wade Eastern Washington 31 years, 1 month (11-24-59)

7. Dwight Freeman Marshall 31 years, 6 months (6-29-59)

8. John Stroia Youngstown State 31 years, 10 months (3-11-59)

9. John Calipari Massachusetts 31 years, 11 months (2-10-59)

10. Dana Altman Kansas State 32 years, 7 months (6-16-58)

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