(First published in Basketball Times)
From all indications, there aren’t a whole heck of a lot of tense moments between Johnny and Kelli Jones.
But boy was there some palpable tension at the Jones’ home back in April one Friday afternoon when the family’s basketball future was hovering in some uncertainty as Johnny waited for a decision on a job he had just interviewed for.
Of course, the fact that it was the LSU job – the one job, the dream job that Johnny Jones had coveted for as long as he could remember – generated most of that tension.
“About noon I had to come home from work because I had knots in my stomach,” Kelli Jones said. “I was excited about Johnny Getting the job, but I was also thinking ‘What are we going to do if he doesn’t get it this time?’ His hopes were really high that this was his time.
“When we had talked earlier in the day, he was a little short with me and he’s never like that. He called me back and told me he was sorry and that he was feeling edgy. I came home that afternoon and he was there, but we stayed in separate rooms and couldn’t even talk because we were both so anxious. That’s as tense as I’ve seen Johnny off the court in a long time.”
Finally, when LSU athletic director Joe Alleva called and offered Jones the job – the chance to finally come home – the tension evaporated and was replaced by a wave of emotion.
There were plenty of tears of happiness as Jones was speechless for several moments, struggling to get words out because “there was big lump in (his) throat.” Jones’ raw and real happiness prompted Alleva to choke up on the other end, so the initial phone call took a while to wrap up.
Once Jones hung up, a happy husband delivered the news to his wife in the next room.
|Johnny Jones: 'It's something I've been looking forward to for a long time, really my entire professional career.'|
“I was able to walk into the front after I had gotten off the phone and my wife is sitting on the couch and she looked at me and I threw my arms in the air and looked like Muhammad Ali had just knocked someone out,” Jones said.
“She gave me a hug like it was our wedding night.”
To understand why the emotions were so sky high that requires a look back at why and how LSU is so woven into the fabric of the 51-year-old Jones, who left North Texas after an 11-year tenure to replace Trent Johnson.
Jones grew up in DeRidder, La., a town of about 10,000 near the Fort Polk Army base, 3 hours away from Baton Rouge close to the Texas-Louisiana border.
His parents were LSU fans – especially his father, the late John Henry Jones. A week after her youngest child got the job an entire family had long craved for him, Delorise Jones placed a bouquet of purple-and-gold flowers on her husband’s grave in symbolic celebration.
Johnny was coming home.
“From the first day I was hired, it’s just been a great feeling to be connected to the LSU family again and especially to the LSU basketball program,” Jones said. “It’s something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, really my entire professional career. And there’s a lot of people in my family just as excited so that makes it that much more special to me.”
That family extends to the man who became like a second father to Jones way back in the late 1970s.
When former LSU coach Dale Brown went to recruit Jones in DeRidder, the skinny and talented guard was quickly smitten with the man who was part P.T. Barnum, part basketball genius and all bundle of energy. The relationship took off quickly and Jones committed to LSU as soon as he could.
The excitement was mutual.
|Dale Brown: 'What Johnny needs to do is just continue to be Johnny Jones and he'll win here and soon.'|
“The first time I saw him as freshman in high school, I saw something special about him,” said Brown, now 76 and still living in Baton Rouge. “Not that he was the best player I’d ever seen, although he was a darn good one.
“It was just something he radiated. I wanted to talk to him and spend time with him and that’s how he is with everybody he meets to this day. This is a special man.”
Jones was a Tigers point guard from 1980-84 and then stayed around as a student assistant and eventually Brown’s right-hand man.
Whether he wanted to or not, coaching emerged as a future and Brown made sure he groomed his protégé.
“When I got to LSU, I thought I was going to be the next great point guard in the NBA,” Jones said with a chuckle. “That didn’t happen and when I got finished, I was thinking about going overseas but Coach Brown offered me a chance to stay in school and get my career started and that’s when the coaching bug first bit me.
“When (former LSU assistant coach) Tex Winter took a job with the Chicago Bulls a full-time job opened up and Coach Brown hired me. I’ve been very fortunate to be at the right place at the right time and work for the right people.”
For 14 years that place was LSU as Jones learned the ropes under Brown and was instrumental in the Tigers remaining a fixture on the national level until the early 1990s.
Trouble struck late in Brown’s tenure when the program hit a swoon on the court, and ran into controversy off of it.
Highly recruited Baton Rouge prep star Lester Earl began his career at LSU but transferred halfway through the season and left a trail of accusations that directly implicated Jones. Brown retired at the end of the 1996-97 season and Jones departed for an assistant job at Memphis.
Jones spoke to then LSU athletic director Joe Dean Sr. about replacing Brown, but he wasn’t offered the job. The NCAA investigated Earl’s claims and Jones was cleared. A few years ago, Earl later sent a letter of apology, with a portion directed specifically at his claims against Jones, to The Baton Rouge Advocate.
|Johnny Jones: 'It's been a tremendous journey so far. This is a great new chapter of my life and I'm excited about it.'|
After Jones left LSU, there was never a hint of NCAA impropriety as his career wound from Memphis, where he spent one season as the interim head coach, to Alabama for a season and then to North Texas in 2001.
At the press conference when Jones was hired, Alleva emphatically said Jones was given a clean bill of health by the NCAA.
Four years earlier, Jones had interviewed for the LSU job with Alleva but Johnson got the job then.
As disappointed as Jones was in 2008 to not land the Tigers’ gig, impressions were made that remained important when Johnson abruptly left for TCU shortly after the 2012 Final Four.
Alleva said he had followed Jones’ career the last four years because he knew if the LSU job was open again, he wanted to reach out.
Jones was encouraged by the relationship he established with Alleva and others he rekindled with other members of the LSU administration. Enough so that when other jobs popped onto his radar, including a few in the SEC, Jones declined interviews and stayed at UNT.
Intuition that his dream coming true, perhaps? Maybe so. The lure of LSU certainly wasn’t going to fizzle out.
“I’ve always worked as hard as I could and given everything I’ve had to every job I’ve had, but this job has always been special to me,” Jones said.
“I didn’t sit around putting a lot of thought into whether it was going to happen when I was at UNT because I was focused on the job I was doing and my family loved being in Denton, Texas. When Joe called this time and said he wanted to talk about the job with me, there were some thoughts if it didn’t happen this time maybe it’s not going to happen.
“But if I would’ve stayed at UNT to finish my career I would’ve been extremely satisfied. I built it from the ground up and there’s a lot of value in that. LSU is a special place to me and was always going to be, but if I would’ve retired at UNT I would’ve been fine because of the progress we made and things we accomplished there. I truly believe that the best job in the world is the one you have.”
The job Jones has now is the one in charge of a program that he believes isn’t far away from being relevant quickly in the SEC and on the national stage.
Since Brown guided the Tigers to Final Fours in 1981 and 1986, the last 26 seasons have been erratic. Brown’s replacement John Brady steered teams to the Sweet 16 in 2000 and the Final Four in 2006 and Johnson’s initial team rolled to the SEC regular-season championship in 2009 and pushed eventual national champion North Carolina to the edge in the second round before falling.
Consistency has been elusive, but Jones – the only man to have played and coached for LSU in a Final Four – says the Tigers program isn’t a sleeping giant, just one that needs to be activated on a regular basis and can be for good.
“I’ve seen our football team lift that crystal trophy up twice, and I’ve seen our baseball team go to Omaha and win national championships and I’ve witnessed those programs go through some tough times and find a way to bounce back,” Jones said.
|Johnny Jones: 'I think we can compete on a national level year in and year out and eventually win a national championship.'|
“We’ve shown that we can get there and get close in different eras. I think we can compete on a national level year in and year out and eventually win a national championship. With the facilities and support here and the amount of talent we have around the state we have a chance to do that just like our football and baseball teams have done.
“We’ve been so close. Coach Brown was in the Elite Eight in 1980 and then the Final Four the next year. We went to the Final Four in 1986 and then to the Elite Right in 1987. That’s how close we were and how much consistency we had at one time. We need to find that again.”
Jones is finally in charge of that search.
He said the day he was introduced that when he left in 1997, he wondered if the road would ever bring him back to LSU as the head coach.
Even now, it’s still a bit surreal.
Kelli Jones said a few weeks after he landed the job, she was in his LSU office – the same one Brown occupied – and Johnny Jones, sitting at his new desk, looked at his wife and said “Can you believe this is my office?”
“It’s something he had wanted for so long and it finally happened,” Kelli Jones said. “He had built a program he was proud of at UNT, but I knew in his heart and in my heart that if there was ever a chance for him to get to the LSU job that would take it because that’s always been his dream job.”
The transition has been smooth so far as Jones reconnects with high school coaches around Louisiana and also gets comfortable casting a wider recruiting net than he could at North Texas.
The Tigers have gotten five commitments this spring to add to a returning roster of five scholarship players after two transferred out.
“He’s got a big job ahead of him, but Johnny is a unifier,” Brown said. “He knows the people of Louisiana and the culture in our state better than anybody else Joe Alleva could’ve hired. What Johnny needs to do is just continue to be Johnny Jones and he’ll win here and soon.”
From all indications, planting the early seeds for success has gone well.
“The reception I’ve gotten since I got this job has been great – even better than I expected,” Jones said. “I’ve seen a lot of high interest from kids and we’re starting to see a lot of the high profile kids at our camps. They recognize they have a chance to compete at the highest level against some of the top programs in the country. And now they’re seeing guys they can play with here and they start thinking about a collection of guys who can play for a national championship.
“LSU is a national brand. People know the name coast-to-coast. You have resources in terms of public relations and being on TV and those things. We can do great thing here.”
For Jones, the opportunity to do those things took a while. But there’s no question it was worth the wait.
“It’s been a tremendous journey so far,” he said. “This is a great new chapter of my life and I’m excited about it.”