"I've really enjoyed my 15 years here at Illinois," Jones said. "I was hired here when John Mackovic was the director of athletics, but I've been fortunate to work under Ron Guenther for most of my time here, who is one of the best in the business. The administration here has always supported our program and we really appreciate the fan support throughout the community and university. Sue and I have enjoyed the community very much and thank everyone for their support."
Jones leaves Illinois as one of the most decorated coaches in NCAA history. He ranks 13th on the NCAA Division I wins list with a 1,240-752-6 record and ranked eighth among active coaches at the end of the 2005 campaign. His 39th and final season was one of his more memorable ones, as Illinois, just a year removed from a ninth place league finish, led the conference race wire-to-wire en route to the program's 28th Big Ten Championship. Jones was rewarded with his second Big Ten Coach of the Year award following the remarkable turnaround, which saw the Illini jump out of the gates with a 7-0 Big Ten record on their way to a 20-12 mark.
Jones had his finest season as Illinois' head coach in 1998, leading his squad to a 42-21 record and the first regular season Big Ten Championship for Illinois in 35 years. The Illini subsequently were selected to the NCAA Tournament, where in the South I Regional at Gainesville, Fla., the fifth-seeded Illini fell to top-seeded Florida in the title game in extra innings, falling two outs short of qualifying for the school's first-ever appearance in the College World Series.
On April 8, 1998, Jones became only the 18th coach in NCAA Division I Baseball history to win 1,000 games in his career when Illinois defeated Western Illinois, 18-2. But the accolades did not stop there. Following the 1998 season that saw Illinois win 40 games for the first time since 1990 and advance further in the national tournament than ever before, Jones was honored as both the Big Ten and ABCA Mideast Region Coach of the Year.
After a 1999 season that saw Illinois advance to the Big Ten Tournament for the fourth-straight year, Illinois did something in 2000 that had not yet been accomplished by an Itch Jones-coached squad: win the Big Ten Tournament. The fourth-seeded Illini rode its pitching staff to a championship and, more importantly, the Big Ten's automatic bid to the NCAA Regionals.
In the last 15 seasons, Jones has sent 40 Illinois players into professional baseball, adding to the more than 110 players and coaches sent to the professional baseball or coaching ranks in his 39 years of coaching. That includes an unprecedented five members of the 2000 team (Jason Anderson, Chris Basak, Craig Marquie, D.J. Svihlik and Mitch Walk) and five more from the 2005 squad that were recently drafted (Jimmy Conroy, Drew Davidson, Toby Gardenhire, James Morris, Chris Robinson). Overall, Jones has produced 22 major league players, including former Illini Jason Anderson (New York Yankees) and Jimmy Journell (St. Louis Cardinals) who both made their Major League debuts in 2003, and current Seattle Mariner Scott Spiezio.
"I've been very fortunate to have some players who were first class both on and off the field," said Jones of the exceptional student-athletes he's worked with over the years. "We've had some great young men on our teams and I just hope our players and coaching staff have had as good of an experience as I have here at the University of Illinois." Prior to joining Illinois in 1991, Jones created a baseball dynasty in 21 years as head coach at his alma mater, Southern Illinois University. Jones propelled the Salukis into the national spotlight, leading SIU to a 738-345-5 (.681) record, including 10 NCAA Tournament appearances and three trips to the NCAA College World Series. In 1971, his second year at SIU, Jones led the Salukis to within one game of the national championship, finishing second at the CWS. In 1974 and 1977, Jones brought SIU to the CWS once again, placing third both times. In 1990, Jones' 21st and final season at SIU was somewhat of a storybook ending. He not only led the Salukis to an incredible 49-14 record and sixth Missouri Valley Conference Championship in 14 seasons, but his team also advanced to the NCAA Regionals as the second seed. SIU came within one game of advancing to yet another CWS berth.
For his hard work and dedication, Jones was named 1990 NCAA Division I Diamond Baseball Coach of the Year. He has been selected national coach of the year two times, earning Adirondack National Coach of the Year honors in 1971 and The Sporting News Coach of the Year Award in 1978.
Overall, Jones has racked up 12 NCAA tournament appearances, compiling an impressive 33-26 (.559) record.
Jones received his bachelor's degree in physical education from Southern Illinois in 1961, where he was a three-time All-Conference second baseman for the Salukies. After a professional playing career in the Baltimore Orioles minor league system, Jones returned to SIU and earned a master's degree in physical education in 1965, while also coaching basketball for Jacksonville High School during that same time. He started his collegiate baseball head coaching career at MacMurray College in 1966 before returning to his alma mater for the 1968-69 season as an assistant coach and quickly becoming the head coach in 1970.
"Itch Jones is a Hall of Fame coach and is still considered one of the premier teachers of baseball in the nation," said Illinois Director of Athletics Ron Guenther. "He has always been a team player and I'm thankful for the contribution he's made to the University of Illinois baseball program. I wish him well in his well-deserved retirement." Jones is a member of seven different Halls of Fame, including: the American Baseball Coaches Association, Southern Illinois University, MacMurray College, Illinois High School Association Baseball, Illinois High School Association Basketball, Jacksonville High School and Herrin High School Athletic Halls of Fame.
Jones and his wife, Sue, reside in Champaign. They have two grown children, Michael and Susan, and two grandsons, Richard Caleb and Micah Joseph Jones.
Here is what some other coaches around college baseball had to say about Richard "Itch" Jones:
Illinois associate head coach Dan Hartleb, who has coached alongside Itch for 17 seasons:
"Itch is the reason I'm involved in college baseball. He's been very influential to many coaches, players and friends and has been a great father figure to a lot of people, including myself. As a coach, if I can positively touch the lives of half as many people as Itch did, then I'll have had a very successful career."
"As a coach, Itch is one of the best bosses you could possibly have. He's not a micromanager. He let me do my job and develop my own personality as a coach and was always willing to listen to ideas. However, it's not just coaching knowledge that I've learned from him, but also how to live life. He really believes in family and he taught me a lot about how to separate baseball from my family life. He has helped me put life in perspective, which is not always easy to do when you work in athletics."
"Itch is a one-of-a-kind person and I think a lot of people will miss just being around him on a day-to-day basis because of the kindness, charisma and positive attitude that he brought to work everyday."
Southern Illinois coach Dan Callahan, who was a graduate assistant for Itch at SIU from 1985-87:
"I'll always feel indebted to Itch because he gave me my start in coaching. I truly love my job and don't know if I'd be where I am if he hadn't given me the opportunity. When I started as his graduate assistant I realized how little I actually knew about baseball, but he was patient with me and took the time to help me learn. Itch is one of the big reasons I am where I am, and for that I'll be forever grateful."
"The thing about Itch is that he's so modest. When I coached with him he had completely bare walls in his office. The other coaches and I had to convince him to hang his national coach of the year awards up so recruits would see them when they came to visit. And then of course after he went to Illinois, whenever he came back to Carbondale there was a circus type atmosphere around him to the point where I don't know how he was able to coach the game, but he always managed to accommodate everyone and still find time to do his job."
Ohio State coach Bob Todd:
"It has been a privilege to know Itch, both personally and professionally. He is one of the best coaches in the country and one of the coaches who has carried himself with a great deal of character and class. He has been an asset to college baseball not just because of his abilities, but also because of his principles. He always had the student-athlete in mind."