On his way home

LSU athletic director Joe Alleva tabs former Tiger point guard and assistant coach Johnny Jones to take over basketball program.

Sometimes the road back home is longer than you ever thought.

That doesn't mean finally getting there isn't just as sweet, though.

Johnny Jones is coming home after 15 years of waiting and likely wondering if the path back to LSU and Baton Rouge was ever going to be navigable.

Joe Alleva

LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva hired the 51-year-old DeRidder native Friday after a week-long search reached a creschendo, ending with a flirtation with Minnesota coach Tubby Smith that fizzled out.

Jones replaces Trent Johnson, who abruptly resigned late last week for a job at TCU after a four-year tenure that turned lackluster after his first team won the 2009 SEC championship and made the school's last NCAA Tournament appearance.

Now Jones, who spent the last 11 years as the North Texas coach and guided the Eagles to a 190-146 record and two NCAA Tournament appearances, finally gets his chance to come back his alma mater and the program he played for from 1980-84 and was an assistant coach at under Dale Brown for 13 seasons.

"I am extremely excited about this opportunity and I can't wait to get back there to Baton Rouge and LSU to get started," Jones said in a statement released by the LSU media relations office. Efforts to reach Jones were unsuccessful. "I look forward to the challenges ahead and to have an opportunity to come back and be a part of a special program at LSU. This is certainly a dream come true to return to a place that has so many memories for me."

Among those memories are playing point guard for the Tigers' 1981 Final Four team and then serving as a young assistant when LSU got back to the national semifinals in 1986.

During Jones' coaching tenure under Brown, the Tigers played in nine consecutive NCAA Tournaments (1985-93) and followed the 1986 Final Four berth with a spot in the Elite 8 in 1987 where they lost to eventual national champion Indiana. LSU twice won SEC regular-season championships when Jones was on the bench – 1985 and 1991.

There was also a taint of controversy involving Jones late in his and Brown's time at LSU when Lester Earl left the Tigers' program and accused the assistant coach of giving him money. Brown has adamantly refuted the allegations directed at him and Jones. The NCAA cleared Jones of any wrongdoing and Earl issued a public apology to Jones several years ago.

During his apprenticeship under Brown, Jones was also a primary recruiter when LSU landed Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Jackson and former national high school player of the year, Randy Livingston from Newman High in New Orleans.

That aspect of Jones' new job is key right now because the spring signing period is in effect now through the middle of May, and there are as many as five scholarship spots to fill. Recruiting suffered under Johnson, particularly in-state recruiting.

"We will hit the ground running on recruiting with five scholarship spots available for this coming year, and then in the near future I will begin to put together a championship staff for our program," Jones said in the statement.

Candidates for the staff include Livingston, who spent 12 years as a journeyman in professional basketball before launching his coaching career two years ago in the NBDL; Baton Rouge-based AAU coach Quannas White, a guard for Oklahoma from 2001-03 whose younger brother Josh White played for Jones at North Texas; former UCLA star and longtime CBA/NBDL and NBA assistant coach Mike Sanders, who played at DeRidder with Jones; and Chris Oney, a Tallulah native who played at Ole Miss for Rob Evans and coached at Carroll High in Monroe.

One of Johnson's assistants, Brent Scott, has also voiced a desire to stay in the program.

Regardless of who Jones surrounds himself with, he will be the key figure of an LSU program that badly needs an infusion of energy.

In Johnson's final three seasons, the Tigers were 11-20, 11-21 and 18-15. After a 13-3 SEC mark in 2009, LSU cratered in league play with a 12-36 in league games the last three seasons.

Crowds at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center dwindled and apathy set in – some might argue worse than ever –in part because of the lack of success, but also because many of the state's top players spurned LSU and went out of state.

Dale Brown

Jones' initial task is to mend fences with the state's AAU and high school coaches and make a push to construct the same kind of fence around the state that Brown and Johnson's predecessor, John Brady, had consistently built. One of Jones' first calls was likely to Riverside Academy star Ricardo Gathers, who is committed to Baylor but has not signed.

Mining the state's talent is particularly important after this recruiting cycle because the 2013 and '14 crops are regarded as the best the state has produced since the wave of talent that produced many of the players who formed the nucleus of the LSU teams to the pinnacle of Brady's tenure – a Final Four berth in 2006.

"I want to reconnect with the fans in Baton Rouge that pushed us and gave our basketball team so much energy through the years when I was there as a part of the program," Jones said in the statement.

As is often the case, the reaction to Jones' hiring is a mixed bag among a passionate fan base hungry for a successful basketball program that can stand alongisde the Tigers' football and baseball programs.

There are factions that remember Jones fondly and applaud the hiring, some who are quick to link him to the Earl incident and the ensuing probation that hovered over LSU for the first half of Brady's 11-year tenure and others who simply wanted a bigger name.

The man who made the deicison is also in the spotlight, and now likely on notice that Jones needs to be successful.

LSU athletic director Joe Alleva spent a week vetting candidates and calling about the job. Jones got the first in-person interview Tuesday in Dallas, a reunion of sorts after he and Alleva met four years ago when Jones interviewed for the job after Brady was hired. Several sources say Jones' wowed Alleva then.

During the just-completed process, Alleva spoke to several other candidates directly or through intermediaries. The list included Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, former NBA player and New Mexico State coach Reggie Theus and most recently Smith. Two sources said Alleva also gauged interest in the job with several other coaches, most notably VCU rising star Shaka Smart.

In the end, though, Jones was Alleva's choice. And whether the only man to play for the Tigers in a Final Four and coach in one as well was a fallback option or the leader from the beginning, a quote from Alleva sounded like an AD who found exactly who he was looking for.

Alleva dodged every interview request from the local media except one from The Baton Rouge Advocate during the search, and he did not return multiple phone calls on Friday. Instead, he issued a statement through the media relations department.

"I am pleased to welcome Johnny Jones back to Baton Rouge, where he helped build a winner and where I am confident he will once again build a winner and bring excitement back to the Maravich Center," Alleva said in the statement.

"I have followed Johnny closely since my first meeting with him four years ago when he was very impressive in my interview with him the last time the head-coach job was open at LSU. I have taken every opportunity to visit with him since that time and I have come to know him well. He is the solid coach and recruiter that we need and I am particularly impressed with his passion for LSU. It is his passion that I know will translate into success on and off the court for our student-athletes under his leadership."

That passion kept burning for 15 years, with Jones longing to get back home. He got that wish Friday.

Johnny Jones

Age: 51 (born March 30, 1961)

Hometown: DeRidder (DeRidder High)

College: LSU (1985)

Wife: Kelli

Record: 205-162 in 12 seasons; 190-146 at North Texas

Coaching experience

1984-85: LSU student assistant

1985-87: LSU assistant coach

1987-88: LSU administrative assistant

1988-94: LSU assistant coach

1994-97: LSU associate head coach

1997-99: Memphis associate head coach

1999-2000: Memphis interim head coach

2000-01: Alabama assistant coach

2001-12: North Texas head coach

April 13, 2012: LSU head coach


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Johnny Jones
Current position:
North Texas head coach
Alma mater:
Overall record:
205-162 (12 years)
Career stops:
Memphis (1 year), North Texas (11 years)
La. connection:
Grew up in the state, played four seasons for LSU and was an assistant to Brown for 14 years.
Jones is one of a handful of players who has played in a Final Four and also been a coach in one.
Nobody the LSU administration could interview has a stronger connection to the Tigers' history and tradition. Jones has spent 11 seasons crafting his coaching ability at a school and in a conference where winning is a challenge and has put together a pair of NCAA Tournament teams.
Fairly or not, Jones will always be connected to the unsavory end of Brown's historic LSU tenure. His name has been cleared to a degree and he has put together a nice career at UNT, but there will always be a faction of LSU fans leery of reconnecting to that part of the Tigers' past.

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