Fifteen years ago, Johnny Jones walked away from the LSU basketball program he dearly loved and wondered if he’d ever be back.
It was the spring of 1997 and His mentor – really as much father figure as coach or boss – had just retired and Jones, after 17 years as a Tiger player and assistant coach, was staring at an uncertain future.
Jones sat down with LSU’s Athletic Director at the time, Joe Dean Sr., and realized it was time to take a leap of faith.
That faith came full circle last week when the 51-year-old DeRidder native found his way back home.
Monday was Jones’ official re-introduction to the fan base and he was as on point as could be imagined as he delivered his opening message with equal parts eloquence, humor and humility.
“I understand what it means to be a part of that LSU family,” Jones said. “I am home. I can tell you that there is no place like home. I can’t tell you how excited I am to be here.”
LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva wrapped up a whirlwind search that began when Trent Johnson resigned late last week to take the TCU job.
Alleva reached out to Jones on Easter weekend, interviewed him last Tuesday and then crisscrossed the country to interview candidates in what he emphatically called a national search. Of all the men Alleva spoke to, he kept coming back to the man who was a point guard on Dale Brown’s first Final Four team in 1981 and an assistant when the Tigers got back to the national semifinals in 1986.
There were flirtations, at some level, with a handful of coaches with bigger names and glossier resumes – most notably Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon and Minnesota’s Tubby Smith, one of 11 active coaches who has won a national championship.
While the wave of candidates all had something to offer, none of them could match Jones when it came to his passion and love for LSU.
“We talked to a lot of people, and there is no doubt in my mind that we have got the right man for this job at this point in time,” Alleva said. “There is no doubt in my mind.”
“To get a guy that was born in Louisiana, went to school here and coached here is just a bonus. It really adds to the fit into this job. Let me assure you that he has earned the right to have this opportunity. He has paid his dues, and he has earned this opportunity. He has great passion and love for this place.”
Most of the opportunity Jones earned came from an 11-year head-coaching stint at North Texas. He got there in 2001 after three years at Memphis and a single season at Alabama.
From the time he got to UNT, Jones implemented a style and system that had its roots from playing for and coaching with Brown, but also mingled in Jones’ own personality. The Mean Green was 190-146 in his tenure and he was the winningest coach in the Sun Belt Conference the last six seasons.
After five years of rebuilding North Texas and establishing his program, the Mean Green took flight in 2006-07 with a 23-11 record and the first of two NCAA appearances under Jones. Starting with that season, UNT averaged 24 wins a game through 2010-11 before an 18-13 season last winter.
That was what Jones had in mind in that meeting with Dean when he realized it was time to spread his wings.
“I had an opportunity to go out there and grow and be my own man,” said Jones, who was joined by his wife, Terri, their two children, his sister and mother at his introduction.
“The best thing that happened to me in 1997 was Joe going in a different direction. … That gave me a chance to leave and branch out.
“I think I’ve put my own mark out there. I hope I can come back and put my own stamp on the LSU program.”
This wasn’t Jones’ first shot at returning to Baton Rouge.
Four years ago after John Brady was fired, Jones got an interview with Alleva before Johnson was hired.
“At the end of that interview, I said to myself ‘Wow, that guy is really impressive,’ ” Alleva said. “For the last four years, I’ve followed him. I’ve watched some of his press conferences. I’ve watched a lot of his games. Whenever I was in his company, I tried to get to know him. So he was on my list.”
And Jones was on other lists.
In part because of the impressive interview he had with Alleva in 2008, Jones got calls from Auburn, Texas A&M and Texas Tech, as well as several mid-major programs. There were a few job offers made, but none of those jobs felt right.
Only one was exactly what Jones was looking for, perhaps the only place that could get him to leave North Texas.
“I’ve had a chance to do some other things, but I wanted to come back here and make this right,” Jones said. “We’ve got some unfinished business.”
It won’t be easy business, either.
Jones inherits a team with seven scholarship players – but players from a program that has fallen on hard times the last three seasons. LSU is 12-36 in SEC play the last three seasons, the program’s worst stretch since a 9-39 run covering the first two hamstrung seasons under Brady and Brown’s final team.
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Sunday was the first day Jones was on campus and part of his day was spent with the players, as a group and individually. He had his own family in on meetings to show his new players how important a family atmosphere will be.
“They are a great group of young men who I look forward to working with,” he said, casting a glance toward the players and holding it there as he spoke. “I told them (Sunday) night this is not about a transition period where a coach is going to come in and say ‘Wait until I get my guys.’ You are my guys. I am coming in here and I will embrace you. I’m glad that you guys welcomed me with open arms last night when we had a great visit and I look forward to moving forward. We’re going to have some success together, and it is going to happen right away.”
That includes freshman point guard Anthony Hickey, who as recently as Saturday was weighing the option of transferring, his father, Anthony Hickey Sr. said.
Hickey Jr. and freshman forward Johnny O’Bryant – the highest profile recruit in Johnson’s tenure – are the two biggest cornerstones Jones has to work with. Hickey was voted to the All-SEC Freshmen team after averaging 8.9 points a game and leading the Tigers with 125 assists and 69 steals in a 2011-12 season when LSU showed some moderate improvement to 18-15 with an NIT berth.
Jones said he and Hickey, a player he tried to recruit to UNT, got to know each other vetter on Sunday. Hickey said Monday
“I shared with him that I’m a former point guard and I understand how he plays,” Jones said. “I had an opportunity to watch him play (last season when LSU won in Denton), so I know what he can do and how much he can mean to us.
“Our style of basketball will be very beneficial for him.”
That style seems to be an abrupt change from the system Johnson had in place.
Most of his tenure at North Texas includes teams playing an up-tempo style, and the Mean Green boasted the Sun Belt Conference’s leading scorer the last two seasons.
“We’re going to play a fast brand of basketball,” Jones said. “We’re going to push it, but it is going to be organized and not just chaos. We’re going to make sure that we take good shots, and be under control, but we will play fast and we will do that with a passion.
“On the other end, we will defend the rim. We will make sure that we are guarding people, making them play over the top of us and forcing them to shoot low-percentage shots. We will rebound the ball and go off to the races.”
Part of the reasoning for that style is because it’s what Jones is comfortable coaching.
But there’s also an element of making basketball more fun to watch, something that wasn’t always the case under Johnson and only sporadically in Brady’s 11-year tenure.
“I want to make sure that we put the type of product on the floor that our fans really want to buy into,” Jones said. “They want to come and have that passion again in terms of pulling for that basketball team.
“We will get after it and it will be a style that my players enjoy playing, the fans will embrace because they enjoy watching it and I can assure you that is the style of play and the way I enjoy coaching.
“We will play extremely hard. We will be one of the hardest playing teams in college basketball. We’re going to play intelligent and we’re going to play together.”
Which all ties into bringing the fans back to the Peter Maravich Assembly Center and rebuilding some bridges that have either been broken or empty because attendance and support has dwindled.
Jones spoke nostalgically about walking out of the tunnel at the PMAC and seeing the arena packed to the gills – about fans who showed up to watch LSU and not whoever the opponent might be.
Those are the snapshots from the past Jones wants to recapture and make part of the Tigers’ new fabric.
“I want to make sure our fans understand how important they are,” he said. “We want them to come back out and be a part of what we are doing. I want you to understand that I can’t do this alone. I want you to understand that the biggest deal for me is that the best potential for me, is ‘we.’
“We will be able to do this together. Thank you very much. I am excited to be back here as an LSU Tiger.”
The one reservation some portion of LSU fans harbor with Jones is his connection to the player that led to the harshest NCAA penalties any program has been tagged with in the athletic department’s long history.
Lester Earl was at the heart of a controversy that marred Brown’s final season. When he abruptly left to transfer to Kansas, Earl accused Jones of giving him a $5,000 payment – a glaring violation of NCAA rules.
Jones was never implicated by the NCAA and several years ago, Earl sent a mea culpa letter to The Baton Rouge Advocate that, in part, said he had lied about the payment coming from Jones.
“We checked with the NCAA and Johnny has a clean bill of health,” Alleva said.