For Ernest T. Jones, inheriting a football team that went 1-10 last year is a blessing, not a curse.
"We can only go up from here," the new Morgan State interim coach said.
Well, the Bears could lose them all.
"I don't believe we're going to do that," Jones said. "We can win more than we lose and nobody's going to beat our brains in. It's a new day at Morgan; it's time to climb."
That ascent could start Saturday when Morgan State hosts Towson in the second annual "Battle for Greater Baltimore" at Hughes Stadium at 7 p.m. It's the opener for both. Towson won last year, 10-0, handing the Bears the first of three straight shutout losses to open the season — one a 65-0 rout by Rutgers. Morgan State suffered its worst season in 18 years, fired head coach Fred Farrier and promoted Jones, the associate head coach and defensive coordinator, to interim head coach.
Jones, 48, dived right in. He fired eight of 10 assistants, parted with several disgruntled players and corralled what he calls a stellar freshman class.
"They are the RKGs [right kind of guys]," he said, a mantra he embraced as head coach at Alcorn State, his alma mater, in 2008. It's his experience as both coach and player at Alcorn State that Jones hopes puts some claws into the Bears.
A wide receiver, he suited up on the 1994 team that won the Southwestern Athletic Conference with quarterback Steve McNair — a connection Jones has shared with the Morgan State players. McNair finished third in the Heisman Trophy race that year, then played 13 seasons in the NFL, the last two with the Ravens. He died in 2009.
"Steve taught me that you can always win — that the game is never over, and if you believe in yourself, you can do it," Jones said. That message, Jones has drummed into the Bears.
"Once, Steve sat out the first half of a game with an injury. We trailed at the half, so Steve came into the locker room, dressed, said, 'We're not going to lose,' and played the game of his life," Jones recalled. "He was a magician on the field; that dude did everything. He could just make things happen — and he made you believe that, no matter the score, you could win. That's what I tell our guys."
Jones himself saw little action.
"I thought I was big and bad, but I wasn't nothing special," he said. Instead, he watched and listened and, upon graduation, began his own ascent through the coaching ranks that has taken the Flint, Mich., native from Concordia to Cincinnati, and from Buffalo to Notre Dame, with several stops in between.
Ten years ago, for the first time, he became a head coach, taking Alcorn State (2-8 the year before) to a 2-10 record, though the Braves lost five games by seven points or fewer. Shortly thereafter, seven of Jones' assistants were fired without his knowledge. About a week later, the assistants were rehired and Jones was sacked. A 2009 lawsuit Jones filed against the school, for breach of contract, is pending.
In 2014, Jones joined Connecticut as running backs coach but resigned one month later following an interview with the Hartford Courant in which he said, "We're going to make sure [players] understand that Jesus Christ should be in the center of our huddle, that that's something that is important."
He deflects queries about that incident, saying only, "I'm a spiritual guy who's going to be who I am in my own circle."
Jones arrived at Morgan State in 2016 to run the defense, a job he'll continue to do. Zealous and animated, he has stirred a team that boasts two winning seasons (2009 and 2014) in the past 14 years.
"I love him as head coach," junior quarterback DeAndre Harris said. "He's very passionate about trying to imbed in us how to compete at the highest level — and it's working."
Joshua Miles (Western Tech), a 310-pound senior tackle, said Jones has brought "a major Division I feel to the team and an intensity and focus that we've never had."
"The program has been revamped from top to bottom, including our travel gear," Miles said. "On the road, we've been given blazers and slacks so that we'll pull up to every game looking like business professionals."
Appearances won't be deceiving, Miles said.
"We're going to be amazing, a force to be reckoned with in the [Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference]," he said.
If that happens, Jones said, he'll look skyward and thank McNair.
"I'd like to think he's up there," Jones said, "looking down and saying, 'Way to go, E.J.' "