Yale men’s basketball head coach James Jones still can’t forget the first time his younger brother Joe beat him in a footrace. Egged on by their older brother Lionell, James and Joe decided to run four laps of their 50-yard long backyard.
“I, being the intellectual one at the time, wanted to pace myself and let him tire himself out,” James Jones recalled. “But he took off like a bat out of hell and before I could even catch my breath, he was done. You don’t ever want your little brother to beat you at anything and that was a big, big thing for us back then.”
The sibling rivalry will go from the backyard to the hardwood this upcoming season, now that James Jones’ younger brother is the head coach of the Columbia men’s basketball team. Last Friday, John Reeves, Columbia’s athletics director, appointed Joe Jones as the 20th head coach of the Lions’ squad.
“It was an unbelievable feeling when I got the phone call,” Joe Jones said. “As for my brother, we’ve always thought that we would have the chance to work with each other, but I don’t think we ever thought that we’d be coaching against each other in the same league.”
Friday’s announcement followed a month-long search during which Columbia interviewed a number of high-profile candidates. Among the celebrity candidates were NBA Hall-of-Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, former Duke star Bobby Hurley, New York Knicks coaching associate Mike Malone, Iona assistant coach Tony Chiles and former North Carolina assistant Bob MacKinnon.
In the end, the selection committee passed over the better known candidates for Joe Jones because he had a reputation for being a highly-successful recruiter.
“[Joe Jones'] skill as a recruiter is his biggest asset,” Reeves said. “He has demonstrated ability to recruit and knows the New York area. He has been a key cog in the success at both Villanova and Hofstra.”
Joe Jones had worked for the past six seasons as an assistant coach at Villanova, first under Steve Lappas and subsequently under Jay Wright. In 1999, Eastern Basketball recognized him as one of the top recruiters in the nation and this past season’s Wildcat recruiting class was ranked among the nation’s best.
Joe Jones’ history as a talented and energetic recruiter is a rich one. Prior to arriving at Villanova in 1997, he worked for three seasons as an assistant under Wright, then-head coach at Hofstra. In the 1994-1995 season, Hofstra was ranked first in the America East Conference.
Even after his departure, Joe Jones’ recruiting efforts could still be felt on Long Island. Joe Jones laid the foundations for the Pride’s three-year dominance of the America East, during which Hofstra went 72-22.
Villanova assistant coach Brett Gunning, who has worked with Joe Jones for five years, first at Hofstra and then at Villanova, sees his former colleague’s personable nature as the key to his recruiting success.
“[Joe Jones] is an unbelievably caring person,” Gunning said. “Before he became an assistant coach, he was a high school guidance counselor and that experience really shows. When he picks up the phone, he’s not calling as a recruiter, he’s calling as a person that cares about the kids, and word of that gets around. Over the last nine years he’s developed a trust that when you send your kid to Hofstra or Villanova, they will be taken care of.”
But Joe Jones will need more than just recruiting prowess to turn Columbia around. Under the eight-year tenure of former head coach Armond Hill, the Lions compiled a dismal 72-141, 33-79 Ivy record. More disturbingly, Columbia finished 2-25 last season without a single win in the Ancient Eight.
There is a silver lining, however, for Columbia. The newly appointed Lions coach helped Villanova reach postseason play in each of the last five seasons, during which the Wildcats went 105-83. Jones has served as an assistant college coach for the last nine years and his experience with almost every aspect of college coaching makes him the ideal candidate to lead a Lions rally.
“Joe did a lot of scouting, made a lot of decisions on the floor and helped put together the game plans,” Gunning said. “He’s also dealt a lot with academics and public relations. He’s had a lot of different responsibilities and knows what it takes to build a program, not just get a couple of kids on your team that can play. Without a doubt, that’s one of his strongest qualities right now.”
Despite expressing excitement about his younger brother’s appointment, James Jones is adamant about not letting personal ties affect his professional obligations. Maintaining a separation of interests is especially critical when it comes to recruiting, where the potential for conflict between the two coaches is high.
Coincidentally, James Jones already has some experience dividing the personal and the professional — former Lions coach Hill is a very good friend of Jones. In 1999, both coaches courted Chris Leanza ’03 who eventually came to Yale and was the Bulldogs’ captain this past season. James Jones said that the competition both on the floor and in recruiting has not affected his relationship with Hill.
And the elder Jones feels no different about Joe at Columbia.
“He’s my brother and I have a lot of love and admiration for him, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop doing my job,” James Jones said. “This is my livelihood we’re talking about and the honor of the Yale program and I’m not about to give that up for anyone. There are no animosities between myself and any of the other coaches in the league; why should there be between me and him [Joe Jones].”
On the opposite bench, Joe Jones is equally confident that having two J. Joneses in the league will have no impact.
“I don’t think [playing against my brother] will be something I focus on much at all,” Joe Jones said. “The media will make a bigger deal out of it than it has to be, but it will only be two games a year.”