By René Reyes/DFP Staff
At a Tuesday practice in mid-November, two days after the University of Texas battered his Boston University men’s basketball team by 36 points, Joe Jones approaches a group of players gathered around the Gatorade cooler, his bald head and sweaty forehead glistening under the lights of Case Gymnasium.
As he draws nearer, his 6-foot-2 slender frame comes into focus and his bulging calf muscles are a little more noticeable, reminiscent of his playing days at State University of New York at Oswego.
By his scowling facial expression, Jones doesn’t look too pleased.
“I’m not watching us play tough! We’re supposed to be tough!” he yells, yanking his right ear in the process, as his players slowly make their way back to the left baseline in preparation for the next exercise.
His dissatisfaction with the Terriers’ execution is evident as the three-hour practice drags on. "Attack the basket," "Go hard to the basket," "Make layups," and "Get a better shot" are some of the key points he reiterates to his players.
He’s not like that every day though. Seeing that his squad was not performing at a high level on that particular Tuesday, Jones ripped into it at the first practice since the embarrassing 82-46 loss to Texas. “If you came to nine out of 10 practices, you probably wouldn’t see me that irate,” Jones insists when reminded of his intense practice session.
But the 46-year-old Jones is much more than a fiery coach and the new face of BU basketball. Off the court, he’s just as passionate for the game of life, serving as a father figure and positive mentor for his players in hopes of guiding them toward becoming educated members of society.
Nearly two weeks into Jones’ first season at BU, his players have already begun to embody their new head coach’s sense of toughness. “Next time, elbow him in his nose,” senior co-captain Matt Griffin says to freshman guard Zach Chionuma after he enabled senior guard Darryl Partin to grab a rebound and score over him.
Jones’ “working-hard-and-never-giving-up” attitude stems from his father, Herman, whom he saw go bankrupt and rebuild his whole life from scratch, endure a divorce from his wife, Edna, and battle cancer.
“I saw him in the lowest of times, and he never allowed us to see him down,” Jones says, his eyes wandering to the wall across from him as he speaks about the person who’s had the greatest influence on his life. “He was always positive, upbeat, even in the toughest of times. That has definitely given me strength.”
In the dead heat of summer on Long Island, N.Y., Jones’ father would occasionally bring him and his older brother, James, to observe him at his job as a presser in a cleaners’ shop.
There, seeing his father press and iron clothes while standing on his feet all day long, Jones got a glimpse of what work ethic was and learned not only to get the most out of himself in future endeavors but also out of the people around him.
Those life lessons, and his ability to communicate effectively with his players – being one himself at Oswego – and have them buy into his philosophy, define the self-proclaimed players’ coach.
“I pride myself on having relationships with my guys,” Jones says. “I like talking to them. I like being around them, that’s why I love coaching.”
He describes himself as someone who’s compassionate, hardworking, and trustworthy, but he does admit that he can be very demanding at times.
One minute at practice, Jones is telling senior forward Patrick Hazel that he needs to “be more vocal” as the captain of the team; the next minute, he’s instructing freshman forward James Kennedy to "yell, post up and demand the ball" when he's on the low block.
His commitment to the coaching profession is undeniable. Jones deems it imperative to mention that he doesn’t golf and considers himself “pretty simplistic” when it comes to what he does on a daily basis. He loves every facet of his job, from studying game film to recruiting high school players who fit into his college system to the actual coaching itself.
For assistant coach Curtis Wilson, Jones, whom he’s known for 20 years now, is the definition of a basketball guy.
“He knows a lot about the game. He knows how to keep things in perspective. That’s the one thing that I love about him. He keeps things in …” Wilson raves, before being interrupted in mid-sentence by none other than Jones, who asks loudly enough for Wilson to hear him through the closed office door if he’s watching game film of Cornell University, BU’s next opponent on its schedule.
“He puts all into whatever he’s doing,” Wilson continues. “It’s in. There’s no sugarcoating things. He’s in. He’s committed to wanting to be good. He’s committed to this team wanting to be successful.”
From the moment he steps onto the court at Case Gym, Jones, dressed in a white long-sleeved BU athletic shirt and his playbook tucked neatly into the back of his red shorts, lets a slight smile come across his face. It’s almost 2 p.m. Practice time.
The way he carries himself in practice is contagious and speaks volumes of who Jones is as a person.
He sprints the length of the floor and back with his new team during drills. He claps his hands in excitement and shouts, “Great effort, baby!” when he’s encouraged by an offensive sequence. He slaps his players on their butts when they stand tall under the basket and take defensive charges. Before his team runs suicides, he even gives his players chest pats as a form of endearment.
“The kids on this team are getting to see that energetic side of him, of how hard he works and only wants the best for them,” Wilson says. “He’s never going to ask them to work harder than he works.
“He’s going to put his two feet in to make sure they understand, ‘My two feet are in the boat. For us to be successful and row in the same direction, your two feet have to be in, and I’m going to show you how that works.’”
Former coach Patrick Chambers’ unexpected departure from the program in early June to coach at Penn State University left BU Director of Athletics Mike Lynch scrambling for an adequate replacement to run the team. The Terriers were coming off a 21-win season and an appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
Soon enough, Lynch found his man in Jones, an associate head coach at Boston College at the time, and officially introduced him as the 25th head coach in BU basketball history on June 27, 2011.
“Joe is very approachable, energetic, passionate and knowledgeable, both about basketball and young people,” Lynch said in an email interview. “As we went through the hiring process for the ‘ideal BU basketball coach,’ he stood out as the one candidate who hit the mark in every category.
“He can recruit, coach, mentor, has high expectations for his players on the court, in the classroom and the community. He presents a great image for our department and university.”
In the beginning of his interview with Lynch, Jones stressed that he cared for young people. Having been a guidance counselor in the Comsewoque School District in Port Jefferson Station, N.Y., and worked on the coaching staffs at Hofstra University, Villanova University, Columbia University and BC, Jones has an exceptional grasp of the term student-athlete, Lynch said.
Each of his assistants at BU is responsible for four players who they check up on once a week. Jones collects his players’ syllabi and course descriptions, so he has an idea of what classes they’re taking. He also stays in constant contact with the team’s academic advisors.
In the wake of the recent scandal that has plagued Penn State, Jones truly personifies the model for what’s right with college sports. He’s a loyal and compassionate coach who has found the perfect balance in holding his players to high standards on the court, but especially off the court and in the real world.
Jones’ job isn’t just to win basketball games but also to prepare young men for the next stage in their lives as ideal students and citizens.
“He does a great job of making sure our guys work their butts off, on the court and in the classroom,” Wilson says. “He’s adamant about their studies. He’s on them all the time about the big picture. For myself, knowing him as long as I have, that’s one of the things that I love about him. He’s not just about the basketball. He understands that there’s more to this.”
“He’s like a role model to me,” Kennedy says. “He is a great person and really cares about what is going on in his players’ lives and that is key to me as a player, [having] a coach who cares more about his player than just the basketball aspect.”
Many of Jones’ former players from Columbia have come to visit him at BU, a testament to the impact that he has had on their lives. He’s much prouder of his players walking across the stage at graduation and receiving their degrees than he is about them lighting up the scoreboard on a given night.
Due to his counseling background, Jones is “one of the most likeable people on the planet,” according to his brother, James, who’s the head basketball coach at Yale University. His charisma, energy and usage of positive reinforcement are reasons why Jones still regards himself as “an educator at heart.”
“If you didn’t like being around young student-athletes and helping the guys out, you wouldn’t make a good coach,” James remarks. “The fact that Joe wants to learn more about his student-athletes and the players on his team and help them through situations and mentor them is very important to him.”
As practice comes to a close, Jones forms a tight circle with his players and staff near midcourt. At the count of three, they all say “family” in unison and break the huddle.
Family is what Jones and his team are all about.
“My relationship with them has to grow over a period of time,” Jones says. “It’s not going to be something you can push and force. But we’re all part of the same family now, whether we like it or not. This is what we have, and we have to look out for each other. When you say family, that encompasses so much. We have to support each other at a high level. We have to do the best we can to get better, so we’re all successful.
“It’s not about me. It’s about us.”