Donnie Jones held his three-year-old son in his arms as he took one last look around the Stephen C. O’Connell Center as the last fans were filing out Friday night after Florida’s championship celebration. As his six-year-old daughter, Madisyn, tugged at his leg, he thought about his last full day as a Florida Gator.
“What a run it’s been,” said Jones, who will be announced as the new head basketball coach at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia Saturday morning. “I’ve got such memories of this place, this university, the teams, the kids we’ve coached here …”
His voice trailed off and he broke into a smile. Not one of those ear-to-ear grins, the kind that Corey Brewer has turned into his calling card the last three years, but the confident smile of a coach that is ready to move on to the next level. He’s had several other chances to be a head coach but he’s always turned them down, waiting instead for the right situation rather than take the first opportunity that came his way.
“I feel like I’m ready for this,” he said.
He has prepared for this moment ever since he became one of the Three Amigos that formed Coach Billy Donovan’s first coaching staff at, of all places, Marshall University. That was back in 1994. Donovan, the ace recruiter for Coach Rick Pitino just a couple of hours down the road in Lexington, Kentucky, was embarking on his first head coaching job at the age of 28.
Jones, who had come to Marshall in 1990 as a graduate assistant and became a restricted earnings coach (under an old NCAA rule, every staff could have one assistant coach who could earn no more than $12,000 a year) in 1992, was uncertain of his future when Donovan got the job. For six weeks he worked with Donovan every day, arriving 5:30 a.m. just ahead of Donovan and leaving 18-20 hours later for a few precious hours of sleep.
The day before the 1994 Final Four began, Jones was packed and ready to drive down to Charlotte where the University of Florida would play Duke the next day in the semifinals. He stopped by Donovan’s office and was asked to close the door.
“I knew that was it, that I was gone,” said Jones.
Instead of the bad news he expected, Jones was offered a place on Donovan’s staff. It was the beginning of a 13-year relationship, the last 11 years spent in Gainesville at the University of Florida. Jones, John Pelphrey and Anthony Grant were The Three Amigos — Donovan’s assistants at Marshall — and all three came to Gainesville with Donovan. Pelphrey has gone on to become the head coach at the University of South Alabama where he’s had an NCAA and NIT team the last two seasons. He’s interviewing Saturday for the vacant head coaching position at Arkansas and there are some sources saying he’ll be offered the job. Grant just finished his first year at VCU where he made the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament with a shocking win over Duke.
And now Jones becomes the last of the original Donovan assistants to leave the nest, ready to fly on his own.
“I’ve had some other opportunities but they just didn’t seem right,” said Jones Friday night. “This one feels right. There’s tremendous support at Marshall and they’re hungry for a winner. It’s a good situation for a coach that’s willing to work hard and build something.”
He knows about the hard work that it takes to build something special. In the 11 years he’s spent with Donovan in Gainesville, he’s proven to be a great teacher and a lock down recruiter that can bring in the big ones.
“You have to feel good for Donnie,” said Bill Koss, a former Gator player who works as a basketball analyst for Florida games with Sun Sports. “He’s never gotten the recognition that he deserves but he’s a great teacher of the game, a super recruiter and he relates so well to the kids on this team. Believe me, they love him and trust him completely. There’s no question in my mind that he’s going to succeed at Marshall. I think they are fortunate to have him as their new coach.”
Jones is a West Virginia native who grew up in Point Pleasant. He played college basketball at Pikeville (KY) where he remains the career assist leader. When he was a senior at Pikeville, Jones was the setup man for Todd May, a University of Kentucky transfer who led the NAIA in scoring with a 40.1 average. Jones averaged 10.7 assists per game, still the best single season mark in school history.
“I’m going home,” said Jones. “I’m from West Virginia and I have a degree from Marshall so in a lot of ways, this is full-circle.”
Going home means leaving the home that he and his wife Michelle have loved so much the last 11 years but he leaves on the best of terms, under the best of circumstances. He had a part in all of Florida’s success the last 11 years but the last two years have been once-in-a-lifetime special with back-to-back NCAA championships.
“It’s been an incredible run, hasn’t it?” he said. “To be a part of these last two years goes beyond anything I ever dreamed of. You know, we always dreamed of winning championships and I always felt we would do it here, but to be a part of a team like this that was so unique and so unselfish and so caring — that’s something special, something to remember for a lifetime.”
He hasn’t gotten a staff together yet although he has a couple of assistants in mind, one that has some head coaching experience and another that is familiar with West Virginia and the surrounding territory.
“It’s all going so fast that I haven’t had a chance to catch my breath,” Jones said. “I’ve talked to a couple of guys and I think we’ll be able to move quickly. We’ve got a lot of work to do, a lot of catching up to do when it comes to recruiting, especially, but I feel confident that with the right assistants, we can make this [Marshall] a very good situation. We’ve got good facilities, we’re in Conference USA and the people want to win. That’s a good place to begin right there.”
While he will go about things his own way, he won’t stray too far from the Billy Donovan model of building a program. That starts with relationship building. Jones has often said that the secret of Florida’s success is Donovan’s ability to build relationships with the players he coaches, the assistant coaches that work with him and the support staff that’s in place to get the team through each day.
In Donovan’s model, you have to have players and you have to coach them up, but you also have to go beyond the basketball court to establish interpersonal relationships in the right way. At the Final Four in Atlanta and again Thursday at the press conference when the 0-Fours announced they would be leaving Florida for the NBA, Joakim Noah talked about the relationship he has with Donovan.
“I love him to death,” said Noah, the charismatic 6-11 center who is likely to be chosen in the first eight selections in the NBA draft in June. “He’s someone who has never lied to me. I feel like we are so different in so many ways, but so similar, especially when it comes to this basketball stuff. He’s just so passionate and what I love about him the most is that he’s always been real with me when things were tough and when things were great. He is somebody I’ll be able to talk to for the rest of my life. I don’t consider him just a coach. I look at him like another father figure.”
It is that kind of model that Jones wants to emulate. He wants to be a relationship-builder at Marshall and he wants to be involved in the lives of his players in a positive way.
“All the things I’ve learned and experienced here will help me be the kind of head coach that I want to be,” he said. “I don’t just want to coach basketball. I want to coach people. It’s not just about coaching basketball. There is a responsibility to the kids you coach, to make them better people, to graduate them with a degree. If you’re not committed to making the kid a better kid when he leaves than when he got here, then you didn’t do your job.”
That Jones would be the next coach at Marshall was thought to be a slam dunk these past couple of weeks. When Donovan put his seal of approval on Jones in Huntington on Wednesday night when he spoke at the Marshall athletic banquet, it became one of the worst-kept secrets in college basketball that Jones would be named the new coach.
Friday night, Donovan told the crowd at the O-Dome, “When I first got to Marshall, Donnie was on my first staff and he’s been with me ever since. I’m so happy for him and his family. I think Marshall made a great decision. No question that he’s going to do a terrific job.”
As he turned to leave the O-Dome for one last time Friday night, Jones scanned the rafters at the two NCAA championship banners. He grinned again. It took great players to make those banners possible. It took a great coach in Billy Donovan.
It also took a great assistant coach like Donnie Jones.
“I’m going to miss it here,” he said, “but the time is right. It’s time for a new challenge and a new opportunity. I think this is the right thing to do, but what a run it’s been here. What a great run it’s been.”