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Coaching, a Life

BU basketball coach has the game in his blood

Joe Jones, Boston University Terriers men's basketball coach

The men's basketball Terriers, under head coach Joe Jones, are seeded third in the America East conference tournament. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Growing up on Long Island, Joe Jones spent summer days in the jungle-like heat of a dry cleaner’s, watching his father press clothes. It wasn’t his choice. Each morning his father roused him and his brothers, James and John, and insisted they join him on the job. Amid the hot steam and the hissing of the press, their father would preach the virtues of hard work and of being a stand-up person to the lanky boys. The memory still makes Jones roll his eyes.

“I hated it,” he says.

Now Jones, 46, the head coach of the BU basketball team, looks back on those days as formative. His dad taught him a near blistering work ethic and the importance of giving all you have to whatever you do, even pressing shirts, lessons he says shaped him as a coach and a person.

That foundation has served Jones well. His coaching career includes a stint as head coach at Columbia University and an assistant coach position at Boston College before being hired by the University last July, four months later than the ideal time to take the reins. Once he was here, he had to start recruiting immediately. He also had to hire a coaching staff and watch hours of tapes to prepare for the new season. The fact that he was replacing the popular Pat Chambers and inheriting a title-winning team just added to the pressure. Undeterred, Jones did what he always does: worked hard.

“He only sleeps like three or four hours a night,” says Curtis Wilson, hired by Jones as Terriers assistant coach last August. “Joe is a 20-hour-a-day basketball coach.”

The regular season, which wraps up at home tomorrow with a game against Hartford University, has been a roller-coaster ride, with highs that include a victory over BC for the first time in 37 years and lows that include a seven-game losing streak. Although the team has gone 15 and 15 overall, with a tough nonconference schedule, it is 11 and 4 in America East conference games. Given that, the Terriers are seeded third in America East. So a little over six months into the job, Jones has produced a team with a shot at winning the conference tournament, which begins March 3.

“I’m thrilled,” says Michael Lynch, assistant vice president and director of athletics. “But I’m even more thrilled with him off the court than on.”

People around Jones mention how down-to-earth and genuinely personable he is, a combination rare in any profession, but especially in the pressure cooker of college basketball coaching. Jones is known as a hugger and high-fiver. He says hello to everyone. He’ll crack a joke in the locker room during halftime. His natural expression may be a bit of a scowl, especially on the court, but it easily breaks into a wide smile.

“I’ve never met someone who doesn’t like Joe,” says brother James Jones, Yale University men’s basketball coach. “I was just down at Columbia, and everyone told me how much they missed him.”

“A lot of coaches get so caught up in their job that they can lose some enthusiasm, some perspective,” says Steve Donahue, Boston College head basketball coach. “Not Joe. He’s got a sense of balance. That’s comes easily to him because that’s how he leads his life. He’s got a little hop in his step.”

That isn’t always apparent on the sidelines. Jones paces the entire game in a well-cut suit like a general. With his long legs and broad shoulders, he still looks like a basketball player. He is demonstrative, yelling plays, waving his arms at botched shots, throwing his head back at fouls. Yet there is none of the raving that characterizes so many basketball coaches, no belittling of players.

“He keeps calm, which keeps us calm,” says guard Matt Griffin (SMG’14). “It makes us want to play hard for him.”

Joe Jones, Head Coach Boston University Terriers men's basketball

Something close to a calling

Lynch says Jones is such a cool-headed teacher that after he benches a player he will often take the time to explain what the player is doing wrong. “The kid is learning something,” Lynch says. “You don’t see that often in college basketball. That says a lot about the kind of coach he is.”

College basketball is one of those careers that requires something close to a calling. Jones got his at 17, working at a summer basketball camp for junior high kids. “There aren’t too many things I don’t enjoy about coaching,” he says. “I knew that the very first practice I coached.”

Jones played guard on his high school basketball team with his brother James, who is a year older. He was a good shooter and an analytical player, says James, who admits that the brothers were competitive, to the point that they once got into a fight on the court. It was only later, after both became coaches, that they decided they liked each other. Now they talk on the phone most days, about family and basketball.

Each played college basketball, James at SUNY Albany, Joe at SUNY Oswego. James then took a job coaching at his alma mater, and Joe became assistant coach at Hofstra University, where he quickly earned a reputation as a top-notch recruiter. He moved on to Villanova University, working under head coach Jay Wright, the man he credits with teaching him 90 percent of what he knows about coaching.

In 2003, Jones landed the head coach job at Columbia, taking over a team with a miserable 2 and 25 record. There he found himself having to play against his brother, who by then was at Yale. The brothers had once enjoyed besting each other, but that time had long since passed. “There was no winner,” James says.

By 2010 Jones was looking for a change, not only professionally, but also personally. He and his wife wanted to raise their two young children in the suburbs, not in Manhattan, where they lived near Columbia. He made an unconventional move, signing on as an assistant coach at BC under Donahue. It was a sabbatical of sorts, a rare chance to step out of the limelight and reconsider the game he loved.

“Once I was able to put my ego aside, it was wonderful,” Jones says. He learned not to take losses so hard, how to be a better recruiter, and to have a little more balance in his life.

In a college basketball coach’s life, however, balance is a relative term. At BU, Jones starts most mornings by dropping his kids off at school in Brookline. Then he runs a loop from his office on Babcock Street, along the Charles River, and over the Mass Ave Bridge. That’s how he’s stayed fit since he quit playing basketball years ago. Wilson teasingly calls him Forrest Gump.

The rest of the day is taken up by meetings with players and staff, practice, and watching game videotapes. Jones heads home at 7 or 8 in the evening so he can say good night to his kids before they go to bed. Then he watches more videotapes late into the night. And when at last he goes to bed, he dreams about basketball.

The BU men’s basketball team hosts Hartford University at 3 p.m., Saturday, February 25, at Case Gymnasium, 285 Babcock St. Tickets are $5 for faculty, staff, and students without a Sports Pass, no charge for students with a Sports Pass, and $10 for the general public. More information is available here.

Amy Sutherland, What Shamu Taught Me About Life Love and Marriage, Boston Globe, Boston University
Amy Sutherland

Amy Sutherland can be reached at alks@bu.edu.

4 Comments on Coaching, a Life

  • Old School on 02.24.2012 at 6:39 am

    From all indications, Coach Jones seems like a very good man, and a good role model for the young men he coaches. I wish him great success at BU, and hope his outcomes are equal to his character as portrayed so far!

    It’s very interesting that this piece would run the same day as the Hockey task force piece…the timing is a bit too coincidental…

  • Time for Jones to go on 02.24.2012 at 9:58 am

    Although I am happy to hear the wonderful things people have to say about Jones’ character, he was brought to this school for one reason… to continue the winning tradition that Patrick Chambers started. Unfortunately Jones has proven incapable of doing that. Despite returning all but one player from last year’s America East Championship team, Jones has been unable to produce results. We are in THIRD place in the weakest basketball conference, yet we returned four of five starters from a team that kept up with Kansas.
    Additionally, besides a sellout home opener (which is more a reflection of Chambers than Jones), Jones has been unable to spark any enthusiasm for his team from the student body or elsewhere. Even amongst us diehards, it is hard to continue to believe in BU Basketball when we lose to Quinnipiac, Vermont(two times), Stony Brook and New Hampshire.
    Despite Jones’ positive demeanor, he has not proven capable of being a successful coach at this level. I have no doubt he is an excellent role model and supporter for our student athletes, but there are higher expectations at this level. BU is a school that demands excellence.
    A final thought as we near March madness…. a person who trains at a five hour marathon pace for four months of training has no reason to expect to qualify for Boston on marathon day.

    • Marc on 05.30.2012 at 6:00 pm

      Please get a clue and realize what you have.

  • reality on 02.24.2012 at 3:25 pm

    whoever commented on jones’ status – and says he must go is clueless, and they should turn in their die hard fan status. You are talking about the team that loss the best player in the league that did not win regular season title the conference tournament championship by 2 pts on their own court with a controversial call. clueless! also the team has the same record as last year at this time with a harder non conference schedule. and for a side note with your winning tradition last regular season title was 2004 and before last years tournament title (by 2 pts)they hadnt wont that since 2002. you should feel gratefull. you are not spoiled from winning all the time, just from last years 2 pt victory over a team that returned everyone besides the best player in the league that graduated.

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