Friday, November 27, 2020

Ben Jones: A Mississippi Coaching Icon

There are names that are known throughout the culture of football: Bear Bryant, Barry Switzer, Jimmy Johnson, Joe Paterno and the great Johnny Vaught. They are synonymous with winning, and most who follow football can recite these names and their accomplishments like verses learned in Sunday school. But for each sports legend, there are countless others — little known except to those whose lives were touched by great and caring men who coached them in their youth.

BenJones_Sept_1983-1-740x1024Ben Jones is one such name. Born to a disabled logger, Ben David Jones came from a meager home. On Saturday, Ben and his dad would take a one-horse wagon to Amory, Mississippi, to sell vegetables. Jones wanted to attend college, but having no money and little athletic ability to earn a scholarship, he had to find another way.

“I went and worked a wheat harvest. In 1948, that was a chance for you to make some money. I went out and worked all summer and saved my money and went to Ole Miss,” Jones said.

Jones had fallen in love with Ole Miss when he attended a high school football game matching Amory against Oxford in the first game of the season.

“I talked my coach into letting me stay overnight because Charlie Conerly was playing the next day. I stayed over and Ole Miss beat Kentucky, and then I had the idea I would like to go to Ole Miss,” Jones said.

The coaching break

Jones had attended Ole Miss for three years prior to the onset of the Korean War, which set the wheels of fate in motion for the future Coach Jones. The head coach at Hatley High School had been drafted, and with their classes starting prior to Ole Miss, Jones got word that a substitute coach was needed; the first taste of coaching, the humble beginning of a future Mississippi Hall of Fame Coach.

“I went out there and worked for about two weeks, coaching basketball and teaching social studies, which was my major at the time. I loved it so much that I stayed the entire year coaching basketball,” said Jones.

Never having coached basketball before, Jones needed to learn more about the sport. He checked out books from the library to hone his knowledge on how to run a basketball program. He showed he had a knack for coaching, leading his first team to a 26-7 record and winning the Monroe County Championship.

Military service was not to be avoided and in 1952 Coach Jones was drafted into the US Navy. Wanting to be a pilot, Jones was unable to pass the sight test. Not to be deterred, Jones pursued further knowledge through Naval training in electronics and survival skills. Applying his coaching expertise and using his survival training, Jones taught pilots how to survive a downed plane. Completing two years in the Navy, Jones returned to Ole Miss to pursue a Master’s in Physical Education. A return to coaching was on the horizon.

Coach Ben Jones and Archie Manning visited in April at an event at Ole Miss honoring Manning’s son, Eli. Coach Jones was an assistant coach for the North Squad in the Mississippi High School All Star game in the summer of 1967. Archie didn’t start the game, but when starting quarterback Bob White got hurt, Archie came in and had a spectacular night.

Ben Jones would get his second chance at coaching in 1955, when he accepted a physical education teaching assignment at West Junior High in Gulfport, Mississippi, also becoming the coach for the football team. The following school year, he was promoted to the high school where he coached B-team basketball, the golf team and helped with the football team.

The success at coaching

Three years later, in 1958, Coach Jones took the reigns as head coach for the Gulfport basketball program. His first team posted a respectable 13-13 season. The second season as head coach, Gulfport went 26-6. The third season Gulfport played for the Big 8 Conference Title against Jackson-Murrah.

One of Jones’ first major accomplishments was a victory over the vaunted program at then Jackson-Murrah. When asked about the game, he remembered it quite well and still laughs at how the victory came about. The rules at the time allowed one shot for each of the first five fouls committed. Coupled with the fact that there was no shot clock to keep the game moving, and that meant whoever got ahead usually stayed ahead. Jones came up with a simple plan.

“I was walking across the court at the half and it was like lightning struck me in the head. It said, ‘Hey, foul them the first five shots, then you get possession of the ball, and you can make some shots,’” Jones said.

Gulfport came out and executed the coach’s plan. Gulfport fouled Jackson-Murrah, and they missed the first shot. Gulfport rebounded and scored. On the next foul, Jackson-Murrah again missed their free throw, allowing Gulfport to rebound and score once again. Gulfport came out on top by a score of 40-35, claiming the Big 8 title, the equivalent of a state championship.

After his stop in Gulfport, Coach Jones traveled to Tupelo where he coached the boys’ basketball team and was assistant football coach. This only lasted a year. With two children, a wife, and no job, Jones took a break from job hunting one day for an ice cream at the Dairy Kream in East Tupelo. While he went in for an ice cream cone, Jones left with both the cone and the store. Coach had used his unsold home in Gulfport to barter for the Dairy Kream store with the owner.

Coaching in North Mississippi

A return to coaching was in the cards, and those cards were played by then owner and editor of The Itawamba County Times, Delmus Harden. Harden knew the football coach in Fulton had been injured before the season was to start and would be unable to fulfill his job. Upon learning that the owner-operator of the Dairy Kream was a former coach, and was in need of a job, Harden advised Itawamba Junior College and high school president John Crubaugh to hire Jones on an interim basis. Jones became the permanent coach and stayed at Itawamba Agricultural High School for 10 years.

It was the season in which Coach Jones began to cement himself as a coaching legend in North Mississippi. Winning the first game at Fulton and tying the second, Jones was offered the opportunity to coach the remainder of the season. Fulton went on to lose only one game that season, winning the Tombigbee Conference Championship. Jones was also the basketball coach at Fulton.

During his tenure in Fulton, Jones was a part of what he calls his most important achievement as a coach — the integration of the Fulton football team. In 1967, Fulton was the first to integrate, as a result of a mandate by the state, ahead of all other towns by two years. This would also mean that the black kids would finally be able to play football, as East High did not have a football team. The Itawamba Agriculture High School Indians would become the first totally integrated football team in the state of Mississippi, and Coach Ben Jones would be at the helm.

To accomplish this coaching feat, Jones used what he called the “fairness rule” to help make it a level playing field for all of the players, to counter the angst of integration. Under this rule, any kid could come up to Coach Jones during practice and tell him that they could play better than the person currently starting in that position. Jones would then have the two players compete, and if the challenger outperformed the starter, then he would take over.

“We did that fairness rule, and I think that was very important. I did not want a kid going home and telling his mom and dad that he didn’t get a chance to play,” said Jones.

The fairness rule was also a way for Jones to get around the racial barrier. If the kid was good enough to play, he would play, regardless of skin color.

Many young men had the opportunity to play under the watchful eye of Coach Jones during his career at Itawamba; one of those was current Chief Judge Michael P. Mills of Oxford. Judge Mills learned much while playing for Jones and is still very close to him.

“He was a very good disciplinarian, but he had a sense of humor, so it was always fun to be around Coach Jones,” Mills said. “Our goal was not to win the conference championship each year, but to go undefeated.”

Jones’ final season with the high school in Fulton was in 1972. The following year he became the head football coach at Itawamba Junior College. Itawamba did not have a very good football program. “At Itawamba Junior College in the 1970s and for 25 years, they had not done very well. They were at the bottom of the totem pole,” Jones said.

After the experience and the success Jones had at Fulton, folks at Itawamba began to feel the program, which had been spinning its wheels for decades, could finally become a winner. The results would come, slowly, as the first season saw Itawamba go 4-6. In the second season, fans could witness the transformation begin to happen, as Jones led Itawamba to the North title, though losing to Gulf Coast in the state championship after an 8-3 year.

The third season was indeed the charm, as Itawamba posted an undefeated season and won the state championship. The 1975 squad holds a place in the history books as the first and only team to record an undefeated season and a state championship to go along with it at the junior college level. Just another feather added in the great cap of Ben Jones. Jones considers that to be one of his highlight moments as a coach.

“Nobody expected us to win and (Itawamba) hasn’t been undefeated since then. I think that is an important point to make in the coaching profession,” Jones said.

Coach Jones strategizes with quarterback Danny Traylor during a New Albany (W.P. Daniel High School) football game.

Playing For Coach Jones

Players also felt Jones was ahead of his time as he used a more psychological approach, which in fact Jones taught during his time at Itawamba Junior College. Motivation was one of his techniques. Jones used a “Masters of Motivation” set of cassette tapes which featured several big name, successful coaches from around the NCAA: Bo Schembechler, Barry Switzer and Joe Paterno. Jones has the tape set to this day.

While psychology was a big part of Coach Jones’ methodology, he was no stranger to the X’s and O’s of the game of football. In 1969, Jones commanded the first offense in Mississippi to run the Wishbone formation. Seemingly, with a Midas touch, Jones turned athletic programs around wherever he went, which continued when he became the head coach at Meridian High School. He again turned around a losing program in just two years — going 8 and 3 in 1977, winning the Red Carpet Bowl against Warren Central in Vicksburg.

The fact that Jones could fix a program, basketball or football, in no more than three years time is a testament to his talents. It would happen again, since after his time at Meridian, Jones would return to North Mississippi where he became the head coach for New Albany.

The New Albany football team had posted a dismal 0-10 record in 1978; however, Coach Ben Jones led the young men to a 10-2 season, winning the Little Ten Championship in his first year there.

Dr. Adam Martin, quarterback under Jones at New Albany, remembers him as an interesting guy. “He shows up at our first practice and tells us we are gong to beat Saltillo, which had won 27 straight and we just thought he was crazy,” says Martin, laughing.

Jones’ confidence was evident when he would tell Martin and his teammates that they could “drop him in any town and he would win.”

“We all thought he was crazy but after sitting back and looking at everything, he knew exactly what he was doing,” Martin said.

Compiling a 60-23-1 record, Jones retired from coaching in 1987, after eight seasons at New Albany.

Over the years, Jones has received many awards and honors. He was selected as Football Coach of the Year several times in the Tombigbee and Little Ten Conferences and again received that honor in 1975 as Mississippi Junior College Coach of the Year. Jones was also the State of Mississippi and Southeastern United States High School Football Coach of the Year in 1972 and 1987 respectively, and is a member of the Mississippi High School Coaches Hall of Fame, which coincidentally, Jones was a catalyst in establishing.

“One of the things I am proudest of is establishing a High School Coaches Hall of Fame when I was President of the Mississippi Coaches Association,” Jones said.

Playing under Jones earns you a place in a sacred brotherhood, according to Mills. “There is a special kinship between players at Itawamba and New Albany. That is like being in a fraternity or something for the people who played for Coach Jones. New Albany people want you to know that they also had played for Coach Jones,” Mills said.

Coach Ben Jones now resides in Tupelo with his wife Bobbye. He is still active in his American Legion chapter and is involved with the Lee and Pontotoc chapters of the Mississippi County Forestry Association.

Jones has not limited his coaching abilities to young men. Just last year, Coach Jones taught a Football 101 class to women in the Tupelo area in order to help them understand better the minds of their husbands, boyfriends and brothers during the wonderful season of the year called fall.

Though Ben David Jones has not coached in 25 years, he still has a sharp mind for the game. His love of the game is passionately evident. To the players he led on gridiron campaigns those many fall seasons, he will always be “Coach Jones”.

Coach Jones received a lot of trophies during his career.
Coach Jones received a lot of trophies during his career.

Here are just some of Coach Jones’ most often used quotations and writings.

“A winner never quits, and a quitter seldom wins.”

“First is first and second is not very much.”

“It’s not what you say, but how hard you hit.”

“For a coach, there is no greater moment in all of life than when a football team gets in a huddle just before kick off and with heads bowed and helmets off and with hands together repeat the Lord’s Prayer.”

“I do not rely upon phony morale because it will most certainly crumble under adversity.”