After several stops, Jones has found a perfect fit at Boston University
BOSTON -- Joe Jones' office at Boston University sits on a block between the Charles River and the Green Line T train on Commonwealth Avenue, the city's contrasting symbols of tranquility and commotion. It's a fitting place for Jones to be at the second act of his basketball career, in the mix but away from the fray.
Jones' BU basketball team has emerged as the projected top seed in the Patriot League this season, as the 21-9 Terriers have compiled a 14-3 league record and won a game at Maryland earlier this season.
But the most compelling story at BU transcends its first-place basketball team. BU's first season in the Patriot League offers a window into a harmonious marriage between a coach and school that have both found comfort in their identity after staring into basketball's bright lights.
Jones, 48, has gone from hot assistant to cold head coach to a revived career. He's danced with the AAU dons, coached as an assistant in the NCAA tournament and seen every slice of basketball life from America East to Big East. Along the way, he's realized that a bigger contract doesn't always come with more happiness.
"What's this all about?" Jones asked over breakfast at T. Anthony's, BU's quintessential eatery, this week. "Is this about going to the next place? Or is it about trying to win? I've realized it's about my family being happy and us being stable and me feeling like I'm at a place where I can play for championships."
Jones fittingly landed at a place with a pragmatic perspective. BU's administrators resisted the siren song of conference realignment, eschewing sexier leagues by prioritizing -- gasp -- academics and athlete welfare over money and athletic prestige.
In June 2012, after mutual flirtations with the higher profile Atlantic-10 and Colonial Athletic Association, BU stunned local college officials by picking the Patriot League.
Officials decided the admissions headaches, budget upgrades and increased travel -- BU field hockey at Saint Louis? -- weren't worth the occasional home basketball game against VCU or Saint Joseph's. They aligned themselves with Holy Cross, Bucknell and Army, choosing academic profile over a higher athletic profile.
"We looked hard at a number of options," said BU Athletic Director Mike Lynch. "At the end of the day, we were much more comfortable being in a position where everyone else was committed."
A year-and-a half later, the decision looks sound. Lynch forecasts more realignment, while the Patriot League sits as a beacon of stability.
But for Jones, at least initially, the move proved a shock. The America East neutered BU's 2012-13 team, which was favored to win the league, by banning them from the postseason tournament.
BU's best player, 6-foot-9-inch forward Jake O'Brien, transferred to Temple, where he averaged 9.3 points per game. And 6-10 Florida International transfer Brandon Moore de-committed from BU after the news.
Jones watched his team fall apart, but his skepticism waned once he removed the emotion from the lost season. Now Jones commends BU president Robert A. Brown, vice president Todd Klipp, Lynch and deputy AD Drew Marrochello for their foresight. Jones has arguably the best job in the Patriot League instead of, perhaps, one of the worst in the A-10. Look no further than Butler's 2-14 Big East record, George Mason's 3-10 Atlantic-10 record or even College of Charleston's 6-9 CAA record to see the perils of league upgrades, especially for the coaches tasked with navigating them.
"It would have really taken a much bigger commitment from everyone for us to have the same success that we could have in the America East or the Patriot League," Jones said. "I think our administration understood that. President Brown absolutely made the right decision."
In his third year at BU and 10th season as a head coach, Jones has his best shot to reach the NCAA tournament. Senior guard D.J. Irving (12.1 ppg) and sophomore guard Maurice Watson Jr. (13.6 ppg) make up the league's top backcourt. But Jones' best play call to position himself on the cusp of the NCAA tournament didn't come during a time out. It came through shrewd career maneuvering.
Jones began his college coaching career at Hofstra at 28 when Jay Wright plucked him on his initial staff there from Comsewogue (Long Island, N.Y.) High. Wright knew Jones from working Villanova camps, where his energy and enthusiasm stood out among an employment subset where excitable extroverts are the norm.
"There was no doubt in my mind," Wright said. "When I became a head coach, I wanted that energy and enthusiasm on my staff."
In Wright's first year at Hofstra, he recalls getting his first career home win and his athletic director spending more time in the postgame telling him to control his assistant coach than congratulating him. Wright hadn't noticed, but once the staff put on the video, they saw Jones on his feet waving a towel for the entire game.
Jones moved on to Villanova as an assistant and built a reputation as an elite recruiter and one of college coaching's rising stars. Jones grew up on Long Island and retains that New York edge, right down to a vocabulary that could buttress the school's endowment if there were a swear jar in BU's basketball office. Jones is loud without being abrasive, energetic without being annoying and outgoing without being phony.
Penn State coach Pat Chambers jokes that Jones can use swears as "adverbs, gerunds, adjectives and prepositions," but insists it's not Bobby Knight-like ranting.
"If there's anyone that can cuss in an endearing way, it's Joe," said Fordham coach Tom Pecora, who worked with Jones at Hofstra. "That's his art form."
Jones jumped from Villanova to become Columbia's head coach in 2003, reviving a program that went 2-25 the year before he arrived. Jones led Columbia to a 16-12 record in 2006-07, but that proved the peak. After his seventh season in 2010, his progress sputtered. Jones essentially beat the posse by leaving for Boston College to become Steve Donahue's top assistant.
"I know when it's time to leave," Jones said. "I'm not stupid. There was no hard feelings or bad feelings. You just know when it's time to go. These jobs aren't forever."
The move from head coach back to assistant is usually an uncomfortable lifestyle change. It entails more recruiting trips, more grunt work, more pandering AAU coaches. But Jones attacked being an assistant at BC with the same verve he showed as a towel-waving 28-year-old, and fellow BC assistant Nat Graham noted how his bench celebration evolved into an Arsenio Hall-like arm whoop. Jones paced the cozy BC basketball office daily in stocking feet, holding his cell phone on speaker directly in front of his mouth. He'd close his office door, but that didn't dull the daily backdrop of belly laughs.
Jones' leap to BC was rewarded with a second head coaching chance when his friend Chambers left BU for Penn State in 2011.
It's not lost on Jones' friends that if he'd stayed another year at Columbia and been fired, he'd likely never have gotten the chance.
"He's egoless," Donahue said. "He was incredible that year and to have it work out the way it did, and he doesn't even have to move his family. He ends up with a great job. It happened to a great person."
These days, Jones finds himself comfortable on BU's campus in the thicket of Boston. He runs four miles along the Charles River every day -- or at least days when Boston isn't engulfed in the Polar Vortex -- admiring the brownstones and soaking in the city's energy. Jones' office at BU is just five Green Line stops from Fenway Park, which even a diehard Yankees fan can value as good real estate.
"Joe's seen it all, and I think he's really comfortable in appreciating everything that's great about being at BU and in the Patriot League instead of looking at any of the negatives," Wright said. "He knows there are negatives at every other level, too."
On Saturday at Holy Cross, BU can clinch the regular-season title and homecourt advantage for the entirety of the Patriot League tournament. Hosting a title game on campus would be a tangible sign of what's become obvious for a school and coach: Chasing dollars and prestige is far less enjoyable than chasing championships.