Longtime Wave coach Rick Jones still hungry

I would never, ever want to feel like I was taking advantage of this program. I worked for 18 years to get this job, and now I’ve invested 19 in it.” RICK JONES, Tulane coach

NEW ORLEANS — Ten days from beginning his 20th season as Tulane’s baseball coach, Rick Jones admits he doesn’t have all of the answers.

Even with an experienced roster returning, uncertainty is abundant. Jones has only pared a potential starting pitching rotation to six, hasn’t named a closer and is still tinkering to find out where younger players best fit in.

But there was one question Jones had no problem answering during his annual media day on Tuesday afternoon: After 37 years in the business, four consecutive seasons without a postseason berth and a myriad of NCAA rules changes, does he still want to coach?

“I would never, ever want to feel like I was taking advantage of this program,” Jones said. “I worked for 18 years to get this job, and now I’ve invested 19 in it. It’s because I love this place, I love the type of kids I get to coach, and I love New Orleans. The last thing I would ever want to do is feel like I was cheating them, honestly.

“I can tell you, I wear a loss the same way I did before. I also get excited about practice and I get excited about practice plans and if I didn’t, then you’d know. I’ve talked to other coaches (about retirement) and ask ‘When do you know?’ and they say, ‘You know when you know.’

“I don’t have any of those feelings.”

Many of Tulane’s 10 seniors can attest to Jones’ commitment to not only the university, but to them.

Alex Byo of Catholic High School and Brennan Middleton of Parkview Baptist lauded Jones for opening new lines of communication to players this offseason, hosting weekly meetings with team leaders and allowing them to take control in certain team policies and routines which had previously been unavailable to them. The result is improved locker room chemistry and togetherness across the roster.

“I think a lot of our success is going to be because of his coaching job,” Byo said. “He has kind of changed the way he coaches to adjust to this team, and I heard it’s the first time he’s ever done that. We have a great relationship with him and we have a lot of trust between players and coaches right now, which is something we haven’t felt the past three years.

“He’s just done a phenomenal job thus far, and we are going to feed off of his fire and competitiveness a lot this year.”

But it’s easier to get excited about those daily duties when wins are piling up, as they did between 1994-2008 when Tulane reached the NCAA tournament 12 times, including College World Series appearances in 2001 and 2005. Yet, despite the recent dip in success, Jones insists his program is headed in the right direction as he eagerly anticipates the season opener against Sam Houston State on Feb. 15 in San Marcos, Texas.

Not only does the Green Wave return seven position players and all but one pitcher from last year’s 38-20 team, Jones said he sees several areas for improvement as well.

The addition of outfielder Richard Carthon, who also plays defensive back on Tulane’s football team, provides a burst of speed the Wave hasn’t had in nearly a decade. Football coach Curtis Johnson is letting Carthon to focus entirely on baseball as well, allowing the freshman to skip spring practice, which opens Feb. 13.

Although the starting rotation is still in flux, Jones said he expects junior college transfer Tony Rizzotti to earn a spot on opening weekend, along with redshirt junior Kyle McKenzie who finished strong last year (2.73 ERA in Conference USA play) and has pro potential.

But, according to players, the tone of preseason practice has nothing to do with filling in holes on a lineup card or bullpen sheet. It’s been about communication and competitiveness, something many credit to Jones and his approach with the seniors.

“He’s been available to us more than ever this year,” Middleton said. “He’s open to any suggestions we have as players and as leaders about things that need to be changed from the program’s standpoint. It’s been crucial to the atmosphere we’ve created, and it feels great to be around this program right now.

“That intensity never goes away but there’s less controlling and micro-managing, and to us it feels like the perfect position to be in between our coaching staff and players.”