Biff Jones: A Place In The Sun
If you’ve studied college football coaching with any degree of depth, especially in the Deep South, you are very likely aware that a number of coaches played at one school and then coached at a rival school. Vince Dooley of Georgia played his college ball at Auburn. Pat Dye of Auburn played his college ball at Georgia. Former Florida head coach and current Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp played at Georgia, a rival of both the Gators and Tigers. Because of the job market, and also because of the weight of coaching one’s alma mater, the idea of going not just somewhere else, but tasting a rivalry from a different side of the fence, can be – and has been – exhilarating for a number of men, far more than just the three ones mentioned here.
Biff Jones, in his coaching career, did something different. He coached at two rival schools consecutively, despite having no affiliation with either institution as a player. It’s true that the two coaching stops in question were not the United States Military Academy, but that’s part of what makes Jones’ story so interesting. Army-educated, Jones coached at Oklahoma and Nebraska in consecutive stops. Yet, when he was called by Army to serve in one capacity or another, he always answered the call.
That he was a legitimately great football coach didn’t hurt.
It’s so fitting that last week, we looked at the career of one of Army’s two best coaches of all time, Charles Daly. (Confession/admission: Writing about Jones one week after Daly was NOT pre-planned. I wish I was that smart, but I’m not.) It just so happened to be that Jones was a tackle on the 1916 Army team which – guided by Daly from the sidelines – stormed to a 9-0 record, the second time West Point registered a perfect season. (Daly had done the deed just two years earlier, in 1914.) Jones knew what greatness was and how it was attained; more specifically, he learned how Charles Daly created greatness, so he was perfectly situated to become a future Army head coach.
In 1926, possibility became reality, and Jones began his head coaching career. Other schools got the best of what Jones had to offer, but Army was not excluded from that list – not by any stretch of the imagination.
Jones inherited a 7-2 team from previous coach John McEwan in 1925 and made it slightly better in 1926. Biff’s boys largely buffaloed the competition that year, going 7-1-1 and losing their only game to one of Knute Rockne’s many great Notre Dame teams, 7-0. The Fighting Irish steamrolled many opponents in their day under the fabled Rockne, arguably the most famous coach in the first half of the 20th century. Yet, Army held Notre Dame to only one score, losing valiantly if it was ever possible to endure defeat on the gridiron. Jones had established a standard – would he be able to maintain it?
Though his fourth and final season at West Point involved a wobble, Jones largely answered that question in the affirmative.
In 1927, Army learned from its 1926 loss to the Irish, smoking Notre Dame by an 18-0 count. Army’s defense recorded six shutouts that season and never allowed more than 12 points in any game, conceding more than 10 points only once. Army tied Navy in 1926, but the Cadets were able to topple the Midshipmen in 1927, 14-9. The result of various improvements was a 9-1 record and another one of the distinct high points of the pre-Red Blaik era. This was easily Army’s first great moment after Charles Daly stepped away from coaching, and the ’27 season is just as clearly one of the three best seasons for West Point football in the 19 years separating Daly’s last season (1922) from Blaik’s first (1941).
In 1928, Army went 8-2. Notre Dame gained revenge against Jones’s gentlemen from the previous year. A powerful Stanford team – coached by a man you might have heard of: Glenn “Pop” Warner – gave Army its other defeat, one of the most decisive during Jones’s four-year tenure. There’s no shame in losing to giants, and that’s pretty much how Army lost in the first three years under Jones: rarely, and only to the best of the best.
In 1929, Army did slip to a 6-4-1 record, as the team lost its edge on defense. The team allowed 17 or more points in four games, and the Cadets won none of those contests, going 0-3-1.
Jones had produced a good run, but opportunities lay elsewhere, and Jones moved to LSU to taste life in the SEC, beginning a decade (the 1930s) in which “tasting something” became Jones’s pattern and preference.
Jones never won more than seven games in a season in Baton Rouge, but he never lost more than three, and in 1933, he went unbeaten at 7-0-3. After the 1934 season – his third at LSU – Oklahoma offered Jones the ability to be football coach and athletic director. Getting more take-home pay was something to strive for, and Jones took the double gig. He coached Oklahoma to a second-place finish in the Big Six (later Big Eight) Conference in 1935. Not bad.
In 1937, Nebraska offered the same AD-and-coach package to Jones, and while it’s easy to sit here and examine the long history of Nebraska-Oklahoma football games in 2015, the Husker-Sooner series might not have conveyed the same impression to Jones in the late ‘30s. Jones became Nebraska’s head coach, and as the team got better under his watch, the theater of European world events was leading the Western nations toward a global conflict. In 1939, Nebraska went 7-1-1. In 1940, Nebraska went 8-1 in the regular season, earning a Rose Bowl bid, the school’s first-ever bowl appearance. The Huskers lost to Stanford and another legendary coach, Clark Shaughnessy, but Jones had found his crowning moment as a head coach.
Without World War II, Jones likely would have coached many more years, but when Pearl Harbor occurred, Jones – following the 1941 season – returned to West Point to serve in the war effort. His coaching career ended after 14 seasons. Trained by Charles Daly and a highly successful West Point coach at the beginning, Jones found sweet success – recognized on a national scale and in a very public way – at that 1941 Rose Bowl game against Stanford. He kept coming back to Army after his playing days – first as a coach, then in administrative realms – but it’s good to know that Biff Jones’s coaching career found the kind of special moment it deserved.
It should also be said as well: Army deserved a man like Biff Jones.
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