Christie Yu

As Yale prepares to host Harvard and Dartmouth at the John J. Lee Amphitheater this Friday and Saturday, James Jones — the winningest head coach in Yale men’s basketball history — enters the weekend with 326 career victories, a count that ranks second all-time in the Ivy League.

Twenty seasons ago, when the Elis started the Ivy League season with a Harvard and Dartmouth back-to-back at home, he only had two.

On April 26, 1999, then-Director of Athletics Tom Beckett named James Jones the 22nd head coach in a program history that now stretches back 124 years. The Long Island native was not completely new to New Haven. From 1995 to 1997, Jones served as an assistant coach under Dick Kuchen, who resigned in March 1999 after 13 years at Yale and the Elis’ worst season in nearly 25 years.

From the outset of the 1999–2000 season, Jones — who spent two seasons as an assistant at Ohio University before returning to the Elm City — established a new culture around the program. Practices were intense. Workouts were strenuous. Wins were always the expectation, and although they initially came slowly, a sweep to start Ivy League play offered a glimpse of what could — and would — come for Yale basketball.

The Bulldogs finished nonconference play that season with a 2–10 record, but the start of league play offered a fresh slate. As a snowstorm seethed outside, the Friday night opener against Harvard started an hour late and ended with a 69–61 Yale win. Less than 24 hours later, the Bulldogs pulled off a double overtime victory against Dartmouth, winning 71–69. Another win the next weekend against Brown secured Yale its best start to Ancient Eight play since 1979 and three straight conference wins to tip off Jones’ head coaching career.

As the first-place Elis host Harvard and Dartmouth this weekend, reflecting back on that opening weekend and the 20 years since feels timely. So much has changed for Yale, games won and records broken. The once unimaginable March Madness berth became a reality not once, but twice, these last twenty years.

Through it all, Jones has been a constant, pacing along the sideline and crouching by the scorer’s table, just as he has for two decades.

As told by Jones and his players, this is the story of that first 1999–2000 season.

 

Neil Yanke ’01, junior center: [James Jones] was actually the main person recruiting me to come to Yale, and he was an assistant coach at that time. I really just hit it off with him and was excited to come to Yale. He was a big reason for that.

Tom Kritzer ’01, junior center: Part of what he was selling as assistant coach was that the class coming in was going to be different. Neil and I, when we came in, were two of the biggest guys in the league. Isaiah Cavaco [’01] [was] this guard that was also highly recruited out of California, and you believe you’re gonna turn things around. It’s going to be different.

Isaiah Cavaco, junior guard: We [upperclassmen] all knew him from him being an assistant or [for] my class, he recruited my class before he left.

Yanke: Sometime before that [1997] school year was going to start, he called me and told me he was leaving to go to Ohio U. to be the assistant there. I was pretty disappointed with him leaving because I thought he was going to be a big part of our success with the program.

Kritzer: That wasn’t a good day when I got the call that James was leaving.

Dick Kuchen resigned in March 1999, opening up a coaching vacancy at Yale.

Yanke: I was part of a player panel who was interviewing potential head coaches, and coach Jones was one of those people. [Then-Princeton assistant and later head coach at Princeton and Georgetown] John Thompson III was one of those people too.

Kritzer: There were a couple other guys that had NBA experience, another guy that was a former Yale assistant, and one of the assistants by the name of Greg Herenda, [who was] from the old [Kuchen] administration. We liked a lot of the guys, James was just different.

Yanke: Meanwhile, Jones comes in, and each player had prepared a question that we were going to ask each coach to see how they were going to answer, and my question was around how are you going to manage a practice schedule because we had no plan, no discipline. We would just show up and run sprints and it was basically a mess.

Kritzer: James just … there was an intensity and toughness to what he was going to demand. We were going to work harder, be tougher.

Yanke: And Jones shows up with a piece of paper with a simulated practice agenda, broken out down to the minute with every drill, everything we’re going to practice, his word of the day … He just had a plan for how we were going to become perennial Ivy League champion contenders, and that’s exactly what we were missing and exactly what we needed … It was almost as if he knew the questions ahead of time.

Kritzer: We had been through this interview process, and the players had decided that James was the one that we wanted. And we’re talking to [then-Director of Athletics] Tom Beckett about this … We expressed that to him, and he said, ‘Ok, I understand, but there’s other parts of this process’ … But Beckett was great. He didn’t give me a hard time. He said, ‘I get it. Trust the process. It’ll work out.’

 

With a press conference in the Lanman Center on April 26, 1999, Yale announced the hiring of two new basketball coaches: James Jones for men and Amy Backus for women.

Yanke: I’m standing in the back, and Jones is on the podium, and he’s saying we’re going to beat Penn and Princeton every year, we’re going to win the championship every year. To hear that now, well yeah, that’s what we basically do. But at the time we were coming off the worst season in Yale history. We were just a really bad team, last in RPI in the nation for Division I.

Ime Archibong ’03, freshman guard: I was more excited about Yale and the program, to be honest with you, than I was about coming to play for a coach, [but] with that said, I will preach to holy hell these days, representation matters. Someone who looks like me is now the head coach. I think a lot of the reasons why I matured as a young man was in large part because coach Jones was able to connect with me and talk with me and push me in ways that other adults or mature figures wouldn’t have been able to just because I wouldn’t have felt as connected to them as a black man.

Yanke: The first two years I was there, we were just utterly awful. My sophomore year we had three Division I wins, [and] we beat one other DIII team.

Rob Senderoff, assistant coach 1999–2001: It was our first year, and I thought James did a great, great job changing the culture just from the start.

The first piece of that culture change was the infamous “five at 5:00,” a punishing five-mile run to East Rock at five in the morning.

Kritzer: If there’s one thing you can point to that’s going to say things are different, it’s when you show up on campus and the second day, Coach has got you up at 4:45 in the morning to go out on a run where he leads the way.

James Jones, head coach 1999–present: I remember that vividly. I’m sure the players remember, too.

Yanke: Jones had a rule that at the end of that season, the locker room had to be spotless. It was going to be down to whoever was on campus last.

Jones: We had a locker room that was disgusting [when I was an assistant at Yale]. It was old, and it was gross. And you’d have recruits come on campus, and you’d never show ’em a locker room it was so bad. They’d say, ‘Coach, can we get to the locker room?’ ‘Yeah, we’ll get there,’ but we’d never get there. So now we had this brand-new locker room and new lockers, carpet, and the guys were not treating it respectfully. So when I came [in] as a head coach, at the meeting I had prior to the press conference, I said, ‘Listen, guys, this is not acceptable. There is not a champion that’s unkempt that I know of. So let’s make sure we straighten this place up.’

Yanke: Much to our chagrin, we found out we were going to have to be running the “five at 5:00” up to East Rock, which was really a six at 4:30. Jones ran the whole thing with us.

Chris Leanza ’03, freshman guard: It’s as dreadful as it sounds. Five miles at five in the morning. Having not been part of the team that left the locker room in disarray, that obviously rubbed me the wrong way.

Kritzer: I know James Jones well enough to know that that was premeditated. He’d probably been running all summer just to prove to us that he could keep up with us and lead us out there.

Archibong: The goal was you just had to finish before coach finished, which that in itself, given that he has found the fountain of youth, is not necessarily an easy task.

Kritzer: He was running a pretty good clip up the hill for the first three miles. He still beat half the guys on the team, so that set the tone. He’s not just going to demand a lot of us — he demands a lot of himself.

Archibong: We stayed with him all the way up, and then we’d just have to go back, just run hard and try to get back to campus before him. It started at Payne Whitney out in front of the gym, up to East Rock, and then back to the gym.

Jones: And what was amazing, there was a movie called ‘The Blair Witch Project.’ So we’re running up East Rock, and we get there, and the trees are covering the road, so there’s no moonlight, so you can’t see a damn thing.

Archibong: Completely dark. You have no idea where you’re going.

Jones: Pittchhhh black. You can’t see three feet in front of you, and somebody ran by us … It was just some guy out for his morning run, but he just ran by us. It was a little scary, and then I started thinking that, ‘Oh, god, this may not be such a good idea. Maybe somebody steps in a pothole they can’t see, they get hurt.’

Kritzer: I didn’t think much about that. I thought I was invincible at 19. We were all in a pack, I remember, just trusting that James knew where we were going.

Jones: So I was like the rabbit going out, and everybody had to follow me. And the next time we [ran it], I had my assistant coach follow the team in my car behind us and shine the light so we could see where we were going.

Leanza: To me, that just really set the tone of what we should expect from him and what he expects from us. When I think of the culture he was trying to instill, that was a piece of it. You never wanted to run another five at 5:00, right? That was the threat, and he wasn’t bluffing.

 

Under coach Jones, practices took on a new structure, one marked by rigor and intensity.

Jones: [I was] trying to change the culture, one from losing to one of winning, just trying to get the guys to buy into what we were trying to do and the importance of hard work and effort and what that meant.

Joe Truhe ’03, freshman forward: The first team meeting, he sits everybody down and says, ‘Ok guys, we were 4–22 last year. We have 27 games on the schedule. What’s an acceptable record for us? What are your expectations?’ And guys first start out saying, win 10 games, go .500. He said, ‘Guys, we got 27 games on the schedule, the only acceptable expectation is 27–0. If you’re not expecting to win the games, tell me which games you plan on losing, and we’ll just save the money, spare the travel, you guys can stay in class. We won’t waste our time, we’ll just call them up and say you guys win this game.’

Jones: We used to watch DVDs on the way back and forth from games, but only if you won, and I remember being on a bus on that first year. One of the seniors came up to me and said, ‘Hey coach, the guys want to know if they can watch a movie on the bus. And we just lost the game. And I’m like, ‘What?!’ I couldn’t get the words out I was so angry. What do you want to watch? Comedy now? Wanna laugh?

Leanza: That year, not to say anything bad about myself or others, we just weren’t the most talented team out there, and we were going to have to outwork people to win. It was about rebounding, hustling, diving for loose balls.

Jones: We did this thing called Bulldogs where we would sprint. We would use the Lanman Center. We sprint two full courts in the Lanman Center. On one end, we’d do pushups, 10, on the other end, we’d do sit ups and then just try to again push the hard work ethic and what needed to go in to be successful … I think that the guys that we had here were starving to be successful.

Kritzer: Before [Jones], the weight room had been optional. There was a sign-up sheet you had to go put your name on, but it wasn’t unusual for half the guys to go sign up and then leave.

Senderoff: James is such a competitive guy that every day in practice was ultra-competitive. I think the guys believed in it and really enjoyed getting coached, and he was coaching them hard.

Cavaco: I just remember the intensity that whole year. He is so detail-oriented, something I’ve always just really been impressed with. You can ask him a question, and he’s already thought about it, he’s already come up with two or three options.

Kritzer: Everything more structured, everything more focused, everything done as a team — even the roommates thing. You travel on the road, and you’d stay with a roommate, and we all kind of had a person. Isaiah Cavaco was who I stayed with, and it had always been that way for two years. James was mixing it up in terms of upperclassmen, underclassmen, different people who weren’t necessarily best friends.

Jones: I remember Jason Williams [’00], who was starting for us some games. He told me, he said, ‘Coach, I’m tired every day after practice.’ And I go, ‘Well, how often were you tired last year?’ He goes, ‘I was never tired after practice.’

Kritzer: We’d be in that [Lanman Center] practice facility, and he’d get angry at somebody, and you’d just get banished to the track upstairs. You’d just have to start. Run laps. There were guys that got forgotten up there, they’d be running for 40 minutes before he remembered they’re up there.

Jones: I do remember that I was half crazy my first few years, my first year especially because we were not as good, and it was difficult dealing with that.

Leanza: I think he actually moved [to New Haven] by himself. If that doesn’t sum it up, anyone willing to spend some time separated from their family to take over a program shows you how much it meant to him.

In a 1999 interview with the New York Times, Jones said, “I have already told the returning players that if they walk past this building late at night, they are going to see my office lights on.”

Kritzer: It’s 1:30 a.m., and Cross Campus [Library] is closing, and I’m walking back, and I see coach’s car. I don’t know if he can’t sleep, and he’s just up driving around looking for us, or he’s thinking, or he’s been at the office. We were living our own lives, but through every interaction, whether it was stuff going on on the court, practice, a film session, even a play or a drill, the intensity with which James feels things, you could see it.

Archibong: Coach was hard on me my first year. We talk about it, we joke about it these days. He probably was frustrated with me every single practice. Looking back, I don’t blame him.

Kritzer: I routinely won the sprints. That’s 260 pounds. I shouldn’t have been winning the sprints. I was fast, but not as fast as Ime or Chris. It used to make James crazy. A couple of times, he’d say to everybody, ‘Alright, here’s the deal: Kritzer, if you win this, you’re getting the chair, and [everyone else] is running sprints the rest of practice … Without fail, Ime would flip the switch … He’d beat me, and we’d stop running, but James would get so mad. To him, every single interaction, every sprint, every lift should be with a singular focus to a goal, towards winning.

Leanza: I don’t ever recall coach getting on somebody for missing a shot — those things happen, they’re going to happen every game, but there is no excuse for not blocking out your man, not diving after a ball. Those are the things he preached from day one.

Jones: I tell people all the time, I had no buttons on my jacket because … I would throw my jacket because I was so upset, and I broke the buttons on most of my jackets because of it.

Archibong: That’s what I remember the most about that first year, just the amount of conversation that coach would have with me on the court … That’s what you want from a coach, right? They’re going to tell you what you’re doing good, and they’re going to tell you the areas you don’t want to hear about but need to hear about.

Kritzer: He’d get so angry. That vein in his neck would just bulge. Like I said, we weren’t very good, and he was still figuring out who he was going to be as a coach … James was tough, but he’d put [his] arm around you, he’d pick you up when you were down.

Jones: Then you realize that none of that helps you win, so I have more of a calmer persona now than I did back in 1999 … I don’t know how that’s gonna help me win, me throwing my jacket. And all it does is gives your players carte blanche to be the same way.

 

Jones earned his first career win during Yale’s second game of the season against Vermont, but the Elis struggled in nonconference play, entering the Ivy slate against Harvard and Dartmouth with a 2–10 record.

Senderoff: Starting the conference season there at home with Harvard, that’s a big game. It was an exciting game for everyone.

Yanke: When you got a leader like coach Jones who’s relentless in creating the belief you can win, you can overcome the wear and tear of the road, the emotional challenges of just losing and losing and losing after so many years of that.

Cavaco: Everyone was really fired up about it, super locked in. You want to believe, but you’re also a little upset you lost to High Point. I think the familiarity of Harvard and Dartmouth probably made us play a little better because obviously we knew the opponent and had played them so many times before.

On Friday, Jan. 14, 2000, a snowstorm in New Haven delayed the start of Ivy play, making tip off an hour and five minutes late as Harvard trekked down from Boston.

Kritzer: I had this old pickup truck, and I had driven up Science Hill to turn in a paper that I had been working on between when we ate at three o’clock and when we had to be at the gym. I was turning around, and I got rear-ended from behind because it was snowing. There was ice. She slid into me, and the truck was okay, but I was just a little shaken up.

Cavaco: Back in those days, there was a little convenience store on Broadway. I remember coming out of there, and it had gone from a light snow to big flakes in the five minutes I was in there. There was basically no one on the street. If you saw somebody, it was probably your teammate.

Despite the snow, Yale got off to a hot start, leading Harvard 32–26 during a half in which the Bulldogs shot 13 of 26 from the field. Eli sophomore guard Onaje Woodbine ’02 led the way, scoring a career-high 28 points in a 69–61 Yale win.

Senderoff: Onaje was a tremendous player. Coach Jones really gave him a ton of confidence, a ton of freedom within how he played.

Archibong: I remember he was the reason why I didn’t play [freshman year], and I was okay with that for a couple reasons. He was the one that taught me how to play hard — him busting me hard every single practice.

Truhe: He was a lightning quick, undersized guard, but just really crafty.

Leanza: Smooth, good pull-up jumper, but could also take you off the dribble, so kind of a dual threat that you had to respect.

Cavaco: There was a stretch mid-second half where Onaje just didn’t miss anything. It was like watching a video game.

Kritzer: We’d run our offense for a while, and if we couldn’t get a good shot or get the shot we wanted, Onaje would get the ball, and we’d just go one high, four low on the baseline. And it’s one-on-one. Onaje was great off the dribble of getting to the free throw line with some space, and he had this high release, and he’d get fouled, or some guys would come up to help, and he’d drop it down to us. He was our offense in the second half of that game.

Forward Jason Williams ’00, who scored 14 points, and Leanza, who had 11 points and five assists, also played well. Yanke grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds.

Leanza: But I think I was less than 30 percent from the three-point line that weekend, so that was depressing.

Kritzer: [Chris was] super quick, a winner, put his head down, got to the basket, and would finish.

Archibong: He was a special player. He came in super confident as a point guard, and [him] being able to shoot the ball the way that he did, control the floor the way that he did, play with the heart the way that he did was always admirable.

Kritzer: Chris was the guy that if you hadn’t seen him play before and you saw him walk on the court, you’d think I got this guy. And then the game starts and he’s going to kick your ass.

The excitement grew the next night, as Yale battled Dartmouth in a double overtime 71–69 win. Onaje Woodbine shot nine for 21, scoring a game-high 26 points, while Leanza and Yanke finished with 12 each.

Leanza: I was spent. I was spent after Friday night let alone Saturday … That’s grueling. I think I logged 46 minutes on Saturday. Wow, I look at that today and say how did that happen? How did I survive?

Ted Smith ’00, senior forward: After the Harvard-Dartmouth weekend, we felt really confident as a team, and that continued on the following week leading up [to] the Brown game. We were looking forward with hope and excitement that we could still have a great season, despite an up and down start.

Yanke: We were getting better, we were starting to click, we were getting more time together on the floor. It was starting to pay off, and that was really the first evidence of it.

Despite jumping to a 3–0 start in conference play after defeating Brown, 67–53, the next weekend, Yale dropped its final six league games and finished Ivy play with a 5–9 record. The 3–0 start marked Yale’s best since the 1978–79 season.

Cavaco: There were all these little individual flashes that we knew the future had the potential to be right, but we just couldn’t quite put it together … Now that I’m a [head] coach [at Oberlin], I have some perspective on things. I think we just had put so much into it at the beginning, there was maybe … some emotional energy that we lost.

Senderoff: Starting out the way that he did in league was really a sign of what was to come during his tenure there at the school. I think James changed the sense of the program from the moment he got there. I don’t know that those two wins [over Harvard and Dartmouth] did it. But I do know that after that season, he said we’re never going to finish out of the top four. And from that point on, they haven’t.

Archibong: He did kind of an exit interview with every individual player before they took off for the summer, and he sits me down in his office and says, ‘Hey, interesting season for you’ … but he goes, ‘Look, going into next year, I’ve gone, and I’ve recruited seven guys.’ He literally goes, ‘Some dribble better than you, some shoot better than you, some jump higher than you, some have more on-court expertise than you.’ And the parting words that he had for me before he sent me off for that summer was given all that, ‘I don’t know where exactly you fit in on this team next year. Have a good summer’ … But those words and that statement were then things that fueled me to work really, really hard.

Archibong: When a new leader comes in and sets a different bar, a different expectation for what performance looks like, what culture looks like in an organization, some people are going to opt in, some people are going to opt out, and that’s exactly what happened … We didn’t have any seniors my junior year, and that’s because that whole entire sophomore class, including Onaje, decided to opt out of the basketball team for a number of different reasons.

Yale has come a long way in 20 years. The Bulldogs enter the 2020 Harvard-Dartmouth weekend with a 16–4 record and ranked 46th among all 353 DI teams in the country.

Kritzer: I’m just proud to see them, where they are, they’re a perennial powerhouse now. It’s fun to see.

Yanke: Well, Jones hasn’t aged a day, but I truly look at him as a living legend. He’s a role model and a leader in every sense of the word, and it’d be great if more people were aware of his greatness outside the Ivy League basketball circle.

Leanza: He cared for you as a person, how you were doing academically, always asked about your family. To me, that’s what you want to be part of when you’re a player.

Yanke: He’ll probably be in the College Basketball Hall of Fame someday, I don’t know. He deserves it.

Jones: Having an opportunity to be a Division I coach at the age of 36 — I got there four years sooner than I had given myself. To think about [it], trying to be a coach by the time you’re 40, that’s still pretty young. But I had given myself that goal … I was very lucky and very fortunate to have an opportunity to come to work here, and I’m still very fortunate and lucky to have this opportunity.

Yanke: His greatness will speak for itself at some point. I’m sure his goal is not to be known. It’s to be recognized, and I think that’s coming.

William McCormack | william.mccormack@yale.edu