By Jonathan Lemire ’01
Their rivalry was born on an asphalt basketball court in a park
near their parents’ home on Long Island.
Sometimes the other kids from their Dix Hills, N.Y., neighborhood
would play, and occasionally other siblings were involved. But most
of the time, it was one-on-one, brother vs. brother.
"I knew early on that I wanted to work
with young people."
PHOTO: GENE BOYARS
Even now, decades later, both participants clearly remember that
in their games, jump shots usually would fall, lay-ups often would
be blocked — and trash always would be talked.
Their recollections of who won the majority of these pick-up contests,
however, are a little hazier.
“I’d usually win,” claims Joe Jones, 37.
“Come on, man, that’s a silly question. I’d always
kick butt,” counters James Jones, 38.
And while the inherent competitiveness of any sibling rivalry
can sometimes distort nostalgic memories of long-ago sporting events,
this particular blood rivalry is about to be renewed in the Ivy
James Jones is the men’s basketball coach at Yale. His brother,
Joe, was hired in April to resurrect the Columbia program.
Despite the playful disagreements with his younger brother over
who won those one-on-one games from their youth, James Jones knows
that the Lions landed a good one.
“He’s a great choice and he’s going to do wonderfully,”
says James Jones, who, in just four years as the top man in New
Haven, has directed the Bulldogs to a co-Ivy title (in 2001–02,
Yale’s first in 40 years) and their first postseason tournament
victory in the program’s 107-year-history. “That’s
because he’s enthusiastic and passionate, the same recipe
for success that I have.
“As proof,” the obviously proud older brother continues,
“look at how Joe’s already made super strides, in terms
of recruiting and fundamentals. And he’s only been on the
job for a few months.”
Joe Jones landed on Morningside Heights following a nationwide
search for a successor to Armond Hill in the aftermath of a 2–25
season that included an 0–14 mark in the Ivy League.
To secure the post with the Light Blue, Jones had to beat out an
impressive slate of approximately 80 coaching candidates, some of
whom had considerably larger national profiles, including Iona assistant
Tony Chiles ’89, Knicks coaching associate Mike Malone, former
Duke star Bobby Hurley and even Hall-of-Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
But while Abdul-Jabbar’s unparalleled name recognition stirred
excitement on campus and in the media, Athletic Director John Reeves
knew that none of the other candidates could quite keep up with
“When [President] Lee Bollinger arrived from Michigan, he
promised a new era in athletics,” says Reeves, who dismisses
concerns about Jones’ lack of previous head coaching experience.
“I was astounded by the quality of the pool of people who
applied, but Jones’ enthusiasm, his honesty and his track
record for recruiting while he was an assistant at Hofstra and Villanova
gave him the advantage.”
Jones grew up surrounded by basketball. The son of a dry cleaning
store owner and a nurse, he picked up the game in the third and
fourth grades. With an older brother and two younger siblings, he
had plenty of potential teammates and opponents under the same roof.
Though he claims to have been a better football player while growing
up, Jones took to the hardwood in college and played four years
on the varsity squad at SUNY-Oswego, where he majored in communications.
But it was a summer job as a camp counselor that enabled him to
discover his love of coaching.
“I knew early on that I wanted to work with young people
and get involved in sports,” says Jones, who worked at the
renowned Kutsher’s Sports Academy. “It was there that
I caught the coaching bug.”
After graduation, Jones took a job as a guidance counselor at Comsewogue
H.S. in Port Jefferson Station and began his scholastic coaching
career by helming the boys basketball team for five years. It was
there, during what would be his final year at the school, that Jones
received a phone call that presented him with what would turn out
to be a life-changing opportunity — an opportunity that he
almost turned down.
On the phone was Jay Wright, currently the head coach at Villanova,
who was then an assistant at the Philadelphia-based school. Wright
had just been offered the head job at Hofstra in Jones’ backyard
on Long Island.
Wright and Jones met in 1989 at a Villanova basketball camp where
Jones, then 23, had been a middle school counselor. When Wright
accepted the Hofstra job, he thought of his old friend as an ideal
addition to his coaching staff.
Jones, however, wasn’t quite sure.
“At first, I thought that I was too happy at the high school
to leave and I was reluctant to make the change, which I think piqued
his interest even more,” recalls Jones with a chuckle. “But
he persisted and got me to visit him in his office at Hofstra, and
within five minutes, I was completely sold.
“I knew this could be the start of something special.”
Impressed by Wright, whom Jones calls “a terrific role model,”
and the opportunity to coach at the collegiate level, Jones immersed
himself in his new job. During his three years at Hofstra, he became
the program’s top recruiter (he brought in Speedy Claxton,
now with the NBA’s Golden State Warriors), a skill that he
expects to use in rebuilding the Columbia program.
“My experience as a guidance counselor helps. Recruiting
is all about being able to deal with people — students, parents,
coaches, and administrators,” says Jones, who vowed not to
shy away from prospects who might be eyeing schools from powerhouse
conferences like the Big East or the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“Being an effective communicator — getting through to
people — may even be the most important part of the job.”
Jones moved up the college coaching ladder when he was hired away
from Hofstra to become an assistant at Villanova, aiding head man
Steve Lappas. When Lappas left Villanova for UCLA, Wright returned
to Villanova as head coach, reuniting Jones with his long-time friend
“Joe Jones is the most enthusiastic and positive person I’ve
ever been around,” says Wright, who is entering his third
season as Villanova’s head coach. “I’m very fortunate
to have had him at Hofstra and Villanova, and Columbia is fortunate
to have him now.”
“Players want to play hard for him, and people want to root
for him. Everyone at Villanova is a Columbia fan now, and I think
he’s going to be very successful.”
Jones is a hands-on
coach who enjoys teaching young players the fundamentals of
the game, and his
enthusiasm has revived
interest in basketball across the Morningside Heights campus.
PHOTOS: GENE BOYARS
Jones’ time in the City of Brotherly Love not only instilled
in him a desire to coach his own team someday, but it also showed
him the effort needed to field a successful program. He’s
brought that work ethic to the Big Apple. It’s what drives
him to burn up the phone lines — and the highways —
to lure recruits, and it’s what keeps him in his office in
the Dodge Physical Fitness Center until 11 p.m. or later most nights,
reviewing game film and plotting strategy.
“My time at Villanova gave me the opportunity to be involved
with the Big East, the highest level of collegiate basketball,”
says Jones. “I wanted the challenge of every night having
to lace them up against the best teams in college basketball.”
He also wanted the challenge of his first head coaching job. With
encouraging words from his New Haven-based brother ringing in his
ears, Jones arrived on Morningside Heights in March to interview
for the Columbia job and promptly fell in love with the school.
“I remember walking onto campus from Broadway and seeing
the students — some of them were studying, some playing football,
some playing music,” says Jones, who recalled being equally
as impressed with Reeves’ goals for Columbia’s struggling
“When I learned that I got the job — I remember exactly
when, it was April 18 at 9:30 in the morning — I was ecstatic.
It was one of the great moments of my life,” he says with
obvious joy as he talks of settling into his new Big Apple home
with his wife, Kristin, and their 1-year-old daughter, Sydney. “I
felt lucky to be here.”
And then he got to work. The recruiting phone calls began, followed
by trips up and down the East Coast and beyond, with particular
attention paid to wooing stellar student-athletes from the basketball
mecca that is New York City. He quickly landed a number of promising
players who will join the Columbia program next year. Meanwhile,
he met with the Lions’ returning players — “the
most important persons in this program” — and grew optimistic
about the 2003–04 edition of the Light Blue, which is returning
11 players from last season’s squad. While the Lions’
top two scorers, forward Marco McCottry ’03 and center Chris
Wiedemann ’03, have graduated, Jones expects that players
like guards Maurice Murphy ’04, Tito Hill ’04 and Dalen
Cuff ’05 and forward Matt Preston ’05 will carry the
load for his up-and-coming squad.
“We’re a quick team and we’re going to take
advantage of as many fast breaks and transition breakdowns as we
can,” says Jones, who has scrapped the methodical Princeton
offense used in recent years. “We’re going to attack
and play pressure defense, and while I have nothing against the
old system, it’s simply not what I teach.”
Jones filled out his coaching staff by enlisting Jim Engels from
Rider, Mike Bramucci from Manhattan and Chris Parsons from the New
Hampton School to help mold this year’s team into a competitor
and build for the future.
“We’re focusing on the present and not focusing on
the past,” says Jones, who shied away from setting a timetable
for capturing an Ivy League crown. “We’re going to surprise
some people with our success. If we play hard, smart and together
and take care of the little things, we’re going to win our
share of games.”
And while the Jones brothers deny that there will be any friendly
wagers on the season’s two Yale-Columbia matchups, the Lions’
new head coach admits that the two games in which his older brother
will be on the opposing bench have been circled on his calendar
since the day he accepted the job.
“Oh, the games will be for bragging rights, just like the
old pick-up games,” Jones says. “We’ll be too
competitive to savor it now, but in the years to come, it’ll
be a special thing for us.
“Well,” he adds with a laugh, “it’ll be
special if we win.”
Jonathan Lemire '01 is a frequent contributor
to Columbia College Today and a staff writer for The
New York Daily News.