In his 15 seasons as head coach of Yale men’s basketball, James Jones has led the Elis to an Ivy League title, two postseason tournaments and top-half finishes in the Ivy League every year. In 2002, Jones was named Ivy League Coach of the Year. But it was a quiet win against Dartmouth on Feb. 7, possibly eclipsed by the Elis’ triumph at Harvard the next day, that put his contributions to Yale in context.
Jones became the second Yale men’s basketball coach, and just the fourth in Ivy League history, to win 200 career games for the Bulldogs. For the calm and collected Jones, the win against Dartmouth was a poetic way to cross the finish line. Rather than a blood-boiling contest to commemorate the milestone, the Elis thrashed their opponents 67–54, never trailing by a single point in the entire game.
“I try to be calm during the course of games,” Jones said, “because if I’m irate and crazed and emphatic about stuff, how are my players going to react? If they see a calm face, a steady face, hopefully they’ll be more calm and steady because calm and steady is going to win the race.”
His collected demeanor has served the coach well in his time at Yale, but Jones deflected most of the praise for his achievement.
Since Jones took over in 1999, a dozen of his players have gone on to play professionally overseas or compete for opportunities in the country.
“It’s just a reminder of all the quality young men I’ve had an opportunity to coach,” Jones said. “That’s what makes what I do special: the kids winning the games.”
After wins against Penn and Princeton last week, Jones is now just two wins behind legendary coach Joe Vancisin for all-time wins in Yale men’s basketball history. Vancisin amassed 204 wins in his 19 seasons as head coach between 1956 and 1975. Jones has a chance to break that record in the coming weeks despite coaching for four fewer seasons.
For Jones, a personal friend of Vancisin’s, the mere comparison means a lot.
“It’s nice to be put in the same sentence as Joe Vancisin,” Jones said. “To be part of history at a historical university like Yale means a lot. It’s nice to know that when I leave here we will have accomplished something.”
Center Jeremiah Kreisberg ’14, who has played for Jones for three years, noted Jones’ strong connection to his players.
Despite a back injury that has sidelined him from competing all season, Kreisberg has been able to play an integral role in Jones’ locker room.
“I would say that every year he grows as a coach,” Kreisberg said. “[Jones] can definitely get in your face as a coach and is not afraid to yell, but generally he is very fair. He is especially good at understanding the other commitments of Yale students and I think this makes the players trust him more.”
The bond of trust that Jones has been able to build with his players has elevated the squad to new heights this season. According to Jones, what sets the current team apart is not just its ability on the court, but the mindset that accompanies its talent.
“This team really has a great belief in each other,” Jones said. “I think that when they take the court they expect to win and they feel like they have a good chance at doing that every night. I think that makes a huge difference.”
In contrast to past years, the current team is constructed around younger players, giving it the opportunity for growth in the coming seasons. The quick development of players like Armani Cotton ’15, Javier Duren ’15 and Justin Sears ’16 has the Elis tied for first in the Ivy League. The team has won seven of its last eight games, including the last six in a row. The Elis are the first Yale basketball team since the 2008-’09 squad to get a win in Cambridge against perennial contender Harvard.
But plenty of games remain. With the next four games coming on the road and a target now firmly on Yale’s back, it is possible this stretch will be the most challenging of the season for the Bulldogs.
Nonetheless, Jones insists on taking the challenges one game at a time.
“It hadn’t even crossed my mind,” Jones said when asked about the prospects of a slump. “I’m not thinking about a 4-game roadtrip; I’m thinking about Cornell. After I’m done with Cornell, we’ll think about Columbia. We want to focus on the here and now and be in the moment and do what’s necessary to be better for our next ballgame. I don’t anticipate pain. I won’t worry about if I get hurt before I get hurt.”
The Elis will face their next challenge when they take on Cornell this Friday at 7 p.m.