Old Dominion's American-made man

After firing at UVA, Jeff Jones revitalized his career and now has a new challenge

Originally Published: May 16, 2013
By Myron Medcalf | ESPN.com

After he'd lost his dream job, Jeff Jones threw a party.

It was easier that way.

The festivities seemed to lessen the blow of a fall that started with Jones guiding Virginia, his alma mater, to the Elite Eight and ended with drama and bundles of losses that his bosses would not accept.

The final outcome seemed simple to him. He just hadn't won enough, the ultimate sin at any major program. He was fired in 1998.

But he had trouble explaining that to his young children.

"My son, he was still real young, so he didn't understand," Jones, the new coach at Old Dominion, told ESPN.com. "We were having a 'Dad got fired' party. He wanted to know if we were going to use the fireplace. He didn't know what fired meant. Those personal things were probably the most difficult."

[+] EnlargeJeff Jones
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesJeff Jones takes over Old Dominion after a 13-year stint at American.

Jones had tasted the pleasures of success early in his career. The former Virginia point guard earned the head-coaching gig in 1990 after Rick Barnes agreed to take the job but eventually changed his mind. Jones was just 29.

Five years later, he led the Cavaliers to the 1995 Elite Eight, upsetting Kansas along the way. It was a rapid ascent that ended with the bliss all coaches covet. He'd led his team to five NCAA tournament appearances and an NIT title.

But when the program began to stumble in the late '90s, Jones anticipated the ultimate consequence.

"We weren't particularly good and in this business, you win or go home," he said. "That was difficult. For any coach, it's not fun when you lose your job. It is part of the business. I completely understood the nature of the business."

But he was unprepared for life without coaching.

Jones became a television commentator after he'd left Virginia. He enjoyed the break -- initially.

"The thing that I realized particularly in that year out was that was the first time I'd ever, I want to say since sixth grade … that I wasn't part of a team," Jones said. "It wasn't just coaching, it was the sense of being a part of something that was bigger than you. Those first few months, that wasn't too bad. I was able to spend more time with the kids and do things as a coach you can't do. I didn't miss recruiting in July. But when it got around to October, I was starting to get itchy."

That turbulent period molded Jones and prepped him for his new task.

He eventually took an assistant job with Rhode Island before taking over American's program in 2000. Jones won seven games his first season and 18 in his second with the Eagles. He stayed there for 13 seasons.

Last month, Jones was tabbed by Old Dominion to restore a program that reached the NCAA tournament in 2010 and 2011 as an anchor in the CAA but won just three conference games during the 2012-13 season.

Jones worked with Dr. Camden Wood Selig, Old Dominion's athletic director, at Virginia. That connection, combined with the program's past success, magnified Jones' intrigue in the position.

He said there's promise in the fact most of the players on the roster were underclassmen. Those players have a new coach who's not intimidated by the circumstances. Jones pushed American to its first NCAA tourney appearances in 2008 and 2009. That squad went 11-18 the season before he arrived.

"I don't know how to quantify it, but there's no question in my mind that I'm a smarter, better coach and hopefully, I'm a smarter, better person having gone through both the good times and the bad," Jones said.

Jones spoke about Old Dominion by phone during a break at the Conference USA meetings in Florida. The league is undergoing an upheaval prompted by the realignment tsunami that has restructured college basketball and football in recent years. By 2014, seven current Conference USA members will be members of other leagues. Old Dominion is one of eight programs that the conference will add next season. Western Kentucky will join Conference USA in 2014.

"It's been interesting trying to memorize the schools that are going to be in Conference USA," Jones said.

He's confident that he's equipped to stitch the tattered program he now commands into his school's new league.

Jones' 20-plus years in coaching suggest as much. He's been involved in a multitude of difficult scenarios. He's been high, and he's obviously been low.

But the latter position is not one he intends to occupy for long.

"I think there are high expectations -- I've heard that loud and clear," Jones said. "The folks aren't really interested in some long, gradual rebuilding process and to be honest, I'm not the most patient guy, either. It's not like any of us are looking three, four years down the road. We want to try to be competitive as quickly as possible without taking shortcuts. I don't want to do anything that's a quick fix."