New coach wants LSU back on top
During his four seasons as an LSU guard, Johnny Jones could count on seeing his parents in the Assembly Center every home game.
John Sr. and Delores Jones would leave their jobs back in DeRidder at 4 p.m. on LSU game days and make the three-hour drive to Baton Rouge. When the game ended, they’d enjoy a short conversation with their son, then get back in the car and head home.
The nights were long, but LSU was close enough.
Had their son chosen to attend Georgia, Maryland or one of the many other far-flung powers that recruited him out of DeRidder High School in the late 1970s, the star prospect’s parents would have needed plane tickets and time off work to see him play.
“Those are fond memories,” Johnny Jones said. “I would have hated not having my parents to be part of my growth and what I was doing basketball-wise. They wouldn’t have had that opportunity had I gone elsewhere.”
It’s not hard to imagine Jones sharing that story with the next big prospect his home state produces.
Jones arrived back at LSU last month as the school’s 21st men’s basketball coach, leaving the North Texas program he had built into a perennial Sun Belt Conference contender and jumping at the chance to come home.
Not since the 1940s has LSU had an alumnus coach the team.
Jones played in the same building as the players he will mentor. He attended the same school he will sell when he sits in the living rooms of high-school recruits.
“You have everything that you need here,” Jones said. “I look at all the successful people who’ve come through. Some of them may have not ever played in the championship game or ever won a conference championship, but they’re very successful business people because they’re connected to LSU.”
Jones is LSU through and through, a guard for the legendary Dale Brown from 1980-84 and an assistant under him for the 13 years that followed.
But he says being away made him stronger.
Jones became his own man — no longer Brown’s right hand — as he coached North Texas to a 190-146 record and two NCAA berths in 11 seasons.
“Now, he’s come full circle,” Delores Jones said.
A man of the people
When he first arrived at LSU more than three decades ago, Jones figured he would be on his way soon enough.
He laughs when asked if he had visions of becoming a coach one day. He says the only vision he had was starring for a couple of years in college and leaving school early for an NBA career.
But Brown saw something special in Jones, an attribute as obvious as his fast first step.
“The older players really gravitated to him,” Brown said. “They liked his personality. He had a good sense of humor. He was smart as heck. He never, ever seemed like a freshman to me.”
The charisma he showed as an LSU newcomer remains as much a part of Jones as the purple and gold running through his veins.
Back at North Texas, Jones was known affectionately as the unofficial mayor of Denton.
Attendance increased 121 percent at North Texas over the past 11 seasons. Four of the top 11 single-game crowds in the history of the school came over the past five.
“I don’t think that we could have asked for anyone any better than Johnny from the community side, public relations-wise. He interacts great with a fan base and great with the donors. He’s always available. He’ll be able to bring a lot of new people in, people who otherwise may have no interest in basketball,” said C. Dan Smith, former chairman of UNT’s Board of Regents.
Jones replaces the West Coast-bred Trent Johnson, whose struggles in connecting with the fan base were as obvious as his struggles on the court. It remains to be seen whether Jones will win more games, but he has already gone a long way in winning the support of the community.
The day he was introduced as LSU’s new coach, Jones began recruiting the fans back.
He referred to his relationship with them as a partnership.
“It’s all I’ve known coming up through a small town,” Jones said. “People always have worked together for a common cause.”
The average paid crowd at LSU last season was 8,661, but the actual attendance averaged more seats empty than full.
The Tigers haven’t routinely drawn well since Brown’s heyday.
“I think the big deal is you have to go out there and see, feel and touch people so you can reconnect yourself with that fan base and get them back involved,” Jones said. “I’m a huge sports fan. You’ll see me at baseball games and football games and trying to reach out to people there so they will look forward to coming over and pulling for our program as well.”
There’s a good chance the fans who come out will like what they see.
“They’ll see an athletic team that’s up-tempo. It will be fast — but with a purpose. They’ll see something they can enjoy. Something they can bring to somebody who’s never been to an LSU basketball game, and they can tell them it’s worth their time to come check out,” said LSU assistant Shawn Forrest, who spent the past four seasons with Jones at North Texas.
Given the nickname he wore during his days as an LSU player, it’s little wonder “The Bullet” prefers the kind of style that challenges opponents to keep pace.
North Texas ranked first or second in the Sun Belt in scoring seven of the past eight seasons, fueling runs to the NCAA tournament in 2007 and 2010 and to the championship game of the conference tournament four times in six years.
Jones said he will continue to recruit players who are rangy and athletic. Players who like to run the floor.
“We will rebound the ball and go off to the races,” he said. “When it happens to go in, we’re off to the races as well.”
Back to the future
There was a time when LSU basketball was a hot ticket in a football town, a time when All-Americans like Rudy Macklin and Shaquille O’Neal captured the imagination of the fans.
Jones lived it from all angles, beginning his playing career on a team that reached the Final Four in 1981 and serving as Brown’s assistant as the Tigers made it back five years later.
When former LSU great Ricky Blanton was just breaking in, he and the youngest member of the coaching staff would go head-to-head in post-practice games of one-on-one.
Dozens of faces from LSU’s glory years were back on campus last month for Jones’ introductory news conference.
“I think we’re all excited for him, like anyone would be when your friend has an opportunity of this magnitude,” Blanton said.
Jones must feel right at home.
Pictures of LSU legends like Bob Pettit and Pete Maravich dot the walls of his office on the third floor of the Athletic Administration building.
Looking out the window, he can see the old Deaf Dome right across the street.
No one would be happier for him than the late John Sr., who proudly wore his son’s 1985 SEC championship ring long after Jones had left Louisiana.
“His father always said he was coming back,” Delores Jones said. “He said, ‘He’s going to wind up back at LSU.’”
A constant reminder of that sentiment serves as the screensaver in the coach’s cell phone.
It’s a picture of Delores Jones placing purple and gold flowers on her husband’s tombstone, a picture taken soon after Johnny Jones got his dream job.