Fresh off an Ivy League championship and an NCAA tournament berth in 2019, the Yale men’s basketball team — for all intents and purposes — seemed destined to take a step back.

The Bulldogs lost first team All-Ivy guard Alex Copeland ’19, lockdown defender Trey Phills ’19 and captain Blake Reynolds ’19 to graduation while Miye Oni, originally in the class of 2020 — the Ancient Eight player of the year — declared early before being taken in the second round of the 2019 NBA Draft.

But through the first 18 games of the 2019–20 season, one could argue that the Bulldogs have only gotten better since losing their top three scorers. Yale is 14–4 overall, undefeated in two weeks of conference play. The Elis lay claim to a top-60 NET ranking among the 353 teams in Division I college basketball. The Bulldogs won outright at Clemson and lost to Oklahoma State, Penn State and North Carolina by a combined 12 points (three games that all could have played out differently had they not been on the road).

The impetus behind this sustained success can be credited to the same man who’s been patrolling the Bulldog sidelines in every season since 1999: head coach James Jones. Even in what many pundits would call a rebuilding year (see: Yale being picked third in the Ivy preseason poll and receiving zero first-place votes), the program has continued to elevate its national profile and exceed outside expectations once again under the steady leadership of Jones.

The all-time winning coach in Bulldog history, Jones played his collegiate ball at Albany before serving as an assistant coach at his alma mater, and then at Yale and Ohio. Nearly 21 years ago, he was named the 22nd head coach of Yale and hasn’t left New Haven since.

Under his tutelage, the program has enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top of the Ivy League — a conference historically dominated by traditional powers Princeton and Penn. His list of accomplishments reads like a fairy tale for fans of the Blue and White, a program that won zero conference championships between 1964 and 2001.

Since Jones’ arrival at the dawn of the new millennium, he has won 322 games (the second most in Ancient Eight history), captured four regular season championships and one Ivy tournament title, led Yale to two appearances in March Madness and, of course, coached the Bulldogs to their first-ever NCAA tournament victory in school history with the 2016 win over Baylor.

In a conference that’s seen its fair share of coaching greats, such as Pete Carril and Fran Dunphy, Jones has firmly etched himself onto the Mount Rushmore of Ivy basketball coaches at the relatively young age of 56. A brilliant tactician, developer and recruiter, Jones is also highly respected as a mentor for every player that walks through the doors of the John J. Lee Amphitheater.

Last season, Copeland described Jones as “someone to go to for guidance, whether it’s on the courts [or] off the court, to talk about life, my girlfriend, whatever it is. Being able to grind for him and help him accomplish something cool means a lot.”

The relationships forged with his players and Jones’ run of unprecedented success haven’t gone unnoticed by the Power Six. Last season, Big East member St. John’s interviewed Jones for its head coaching position before eventually tabbing Mike Anderson to helm the Red Storm.

Striking while the iron while was hot, Jones subsequently inked a contract extension through 2026 in May after it was announced that the longest-tenured coach in the Ancient Eight would indeed be coming back to Yale. CBS Sports college basketball insider Jon Rothstein called Yale’s hot start to the season “the best mid-major coaching job thus far” in December and also pontificated, “Is there a less appreciated mid-major head coach in the last 10 years than James Jones?”

Fortunately for Yale, Jones’ low national profile despite his remarkable success has stymied outside suitors from poaching him away with the added money, prestige and national media coverage that high-major programs can offer.

It’s never been about the money for Jones, a former sales executive, but he could make the case to be highest paid coach at Yale. His remarkable loyalty to the Bulldogs, in addition to his unparalleled success on the hardcourt, deserves more appreciation from everyone in the college basketball world and especially those in New Haven.

 

Joey Kamm | joey.kamm@yale.edu