Cincinnati's Jones Tackling Familiar Role
Alright so maybe the task isn't that significant, but it is essentially a no-win challenge that Jones is unusually well-suited for. This actually happens to be his second go-round taking over programs washed, buffed and waxed by Notre Dame's new coach, Brian Kelly. Many years before, Jones was even the graduate assistant hired at Rutgers to replace a young Greg Schiano.
If his track record at Central Michigan -- where he took over for Kelly the first time around -- is any indication, this unenviable task is already an old hat. He directed the Chippewas to a trio of Motor City Bowls and a pair of Mid-American Conference championships in three seasons. Now, it's onto Cincinnati. And UC is fresh off an undefeated regular season -- but let's not talk about the Sugar Bowl thrashing at the hands of the Florida Gators -- a program gradually weaned onto success after decades of mediocrity. This is an ugly brew for most coaches to step into, catering to the newly rich after the departure of a charismatic, perhaps once-in-every-couple-decades type coach.
From the outside it almost looks like a task of managing the impossible, but Jones doesn't flinch. A reporter asked him at Tuesday's Big East Media Day what can be done to improve upon a 12-0 season and his rapid, simple response was: "bowl game."
In some ways, Jones sounds just like every other coach. Discussing the task ahead of him, he repeatedly emphasized that "we're not building a team, we're building a program." He spoke about consistency, and fighting human nature in redirecting his players' focus from the previous regime's accomplishments to his own mission. "We've been extremely successful in the past, so as a coach you don't just go in and change everything. But it's building on the standard of excellence."
In other ways -- perhaps quite subtle -- he gives off the vibe of college football's recently departed king, Pete Carroll, circa 2001. Not the overexposed, hyper-caffeinated, Tony Robbins-esque Carroll, who at his peak gutted his coaching staff and weighted down a once-great offense, but rather the guy who in 2001 was open and amenable to whatever might make his program better. A man who built a player-friendly, family-like atmosphere that was the envy of college football.
After completing a handful of practices on campus this fall, Jones will take his team to "Camp Higher Ground" in Indiana for about 10 days to connect and bond ahead of a new season.
"It helps your team come together, there's absolutely no distractions. For our camp there's one way in and one way out and it's truly an NFL-style training camp. It's more time for your kids to share together, to bond, to go through all those things. You have total concentration. It brings everyone closer together, not only player-to-player but player-to-coach as well."
Kumbaya? Yes, but there is little hesitation as Jones discusses the topic, the subject an obvious focus of his.
And then the Carroll-esque moment of truth. In 2001 Carroll gave life to a skeptical USC team, ditching practice to engage in games of tug-of-war, taking his players to a beach volleyball tournament, showing them flashy motivational sports videos; anything to make a connection.
"We try to spend an extraordinary amount of quality time with our players and building those relationships because to me relationships are the foundation of success. When everyone's bonded by the same goals, the same work ethic, in everything that they do -- the same belief system -- they're going to give a little bit more to each other. When they know more about each other and their backgrounds and they understand their personalities, because when you're dealing with 105 different personalities it can be very challenging at times. The more that they understand each other, the more that they know each other that just lends itself to being more successful on the field."
Jones even mentioned making sure the terminology and system he's installing is "as player-friendly as possible." The offense he'll run demands much of the quarterback in particular, but Jones is also flexible and realistic in a way that perhaps eluded Carroll toward the end of his tenure at USC.
"I think the mark of a great football coach is he molds his schemes -- offense, defense, special teams -- around the talent that he has. I always tell our offensive staff: 'don't think plays, think players.' I think molding your systems to fit the capabilities of your players is probably more important than anything."
And in those players, he inherits a powerful multi-skilled offense backed by a weary defense.
Junior quarterback Zach Collaros is one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in college football, capable of deadly accuracy (75 percent completions) in the passing game and speedy, powerful, awe-inspiring long touchdown runs when plays break down. Jones said part of that coaching flexibility means perhaps changing what happens with his quarterback.
"Zach's talents are a little bit different from Tony Pike's, so maybe you'll see a little bit different quarterback run game, doing some different-type throws, maybe moving the pocket a little bit more." It's a discouraging revelation for opposing defensive coordinators who had trouble enough slowing down the departed, mostly pocket-confined Pike.
Surrounding him is the Big East's leading returning rusher in terms of yards per carry in junior Isaiah Pead (right), senior second-team All Big East receiver Armon Binns, senior second-team All Big East tight end Ben Giudugli, junior receiver D.J. Woods and senior USC-transfer receiver Vidal Hazelton. The skill talent on offense is clearly there to dominate throughout much of Big East play, but there are lingering questions about a defense that wore down in the second half of 2009.
From November onward, the Bearcats' defense surrendered 45 points to Connecticut, 36 to Illinois, 44 to Pittsburgh and 51 to Florida. Despite Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt's repeated insistence his team is chasing Cincinnati, that kind of defensive performance simply won't be good enough for another Big East championship, something Jones is eager to remedy. He's changing the Bearcats' defense back from last year's 3-4 alignment to a more traditional 4-3 to stop the bleeding.
Less discussed is the strain the Bearcats' wildly successful up-tempo offense placed on the defense in 2009. Said junior linebacker JK Schaffer, "The biggest detriment to our defense was how good our offense was because our offense scored so fast that we'd be on the field the whole game. If you looked at the Fresno State game they only scored 20 points but they were on the field for 45 minutes and our offense on the field for 15."
Not that he's complaining, as Schaffer was enamored with his teammates' offensive performance. But there are limits to football played on the extremes with either too much offense or too much defense and the program certainly showed signs of duress once November arrived.
To their benefit, more than any program right now in the Big East, the Bearcats are aware of what it takes to remain elite -- having captured consecutive conference crowns. "One thing about our kids is they know how to win, and they expect to win. We're not going in there selling them on the belief of winning. They've been through it," Jones said.
"What they have to understand is the expectations increase, your work work ethic has to increase, your commitment has to increase. If it stays the same, if you become indifferent to all the little things that got you there and it's going to be taken from you."
Battling those demons, the satisfaction that success brings, of having seen the mountaintop at a place usually happy in the valleys, is Cincinnati's challenge. And it is once again Jones' challenge. He's done it at least once. Here's saying he may just be able to do it again.