Low Plaza

New Head Coach Joseph Jones Seeks to Redefine 'What it Means to Be a Columbia Basketball Player'

By Jason Hollander

Joseph Jones

As a child on Long Island, Joseph Jones would wake at the crack of dawn on Saturday mornings and file sleepy-eyed into the car with his brothers. Their father would drive them to the factory where he worked pressing and ironing for a dry-cleaning service, six days a week. The three boys would sit and listen to their father tell stories about his life as they watched him smooth each article of clothing to perfection, working relentlessly until the last minute of his shift.

"He had a real pride and confidence in his ability," says Jones of his father. "He took his time. He did it right."

Those ethics will be instilled on the court next fall when Jones -- recently anointed Columbia's 21st basketball coach in the 103-year-old program's history -- begins regular practice with his players. Intent on creating a new definition of "what it means to be a Columbia basketball player," Jones believes the formula for success will equally depend on having his athletes play "hard, smart, cohesively, and with a strong sense of pride."

That combination of essentials has worked for Jones in the past. He has spent the last six seasons as an assistant at Villanova, where he was responsible for recruiting, on-court instruction and game scouting. During this time, the Wildcats, competing in the Big East Conference, compiled a 105-83 record and advanced to postseason play in each of the last five seasons. That experience will be important for Jones, who is inheriting a team that went 2-25 (0-14 in the Ivy League) last year under former coach, Armond Hill.

"It's not an overnight thing to build a great program," Jones admits, adding, "But I like that kind of a challenge."

Perhaps the greatest expectation among Columbians is that Jones will attract more high caliber players to Morningside Heights. A 1999 article in Eastern Basketball magazine recognized Jones as one of the top recruiters in the nation. At Columbia, he believes it will not be difficult to sell what this University has to offer.

"You have to build up a trust," says Jones, who has a one-year-old daughter with his wife, Kristin Justvig. "[Athletes and their parents] want to know that they can trust what you're saying, that you have substance behind your words. I happen to have an unbelievable University behind me, I have the administration behind me and I have the City of New York behind me."

Prior to arriving at Villanova, Jones got his intercollegiate coaching start when Jay Wright hired him as an assistant at Hofstra in 1994. Having worked with Jones for years at summer basketball camps, Wright saw something in his work habits and interpersonal skills that inspired him to give Jones -- then head coach of an unspectacular Comsewogue High School team -- his first big break.

It proved a smart decision. Within a few years of his hiring, Jones would help Wright recruit heralded local players like Speedy Claxton (now a guard for the San Antonio Spurs) and guide the Hofstra team to national prominence. The Dutchmen went 72-22 from 1995-97, during which they consistently ruled the America East Conference.

In 1997, Jones headed down to the Philadelphia area to join Head Coach Steve Lappas at Villanova. After two productive years, Jones was then reunited with Wright, who took over there as head coach when Lappas left to take the helm at Massachusetts.

Working with both head coaches has given Jones the confidence and skills he believes will help him create a new, more visible program at Columbia. He wants his team to "get out and be involved," which includes volunteering at children's hospitals and doing other community service activities. He intends to conduct more basketball youth camps at Columbia, attracting young local players and coaches as an investment in the future. The goal, says Jones, is to increase Columbia's presence in the New York basketball community, to forge lasting relationships.

"People in this business want to work with people who're not only talented, but with whom they feel a connection as well," notes Jones.

Jones, who has an M.A. in guidance counseling from S.U.N.Y. Oswego, also takes pride in building a strong personal relationship with each player. "I want them to be part of a family, committed to each other," he says. The coaching staff will schedule regular team meals and intends to make sure every player feels comfortable voicing his feelings about issues affecting the team.

The recent addition of longtime friend Jim Engles to his coaching staff will help him enforce a close and competitive spirit on the team, Jones says. Engles comes to Columbia having spent five seasons as an assistant at Division I Rider under Coach Don Harnum. He brings a wealth of experience recruiting in the Tri-State area and has experience in game and practice preparation, scouting opponents, and providing academic support for players.

Becoming an Ivy League head coach was not a pioneering effort for Jones within his family. His brother, James, has been head coach at Yale for four years, leading the Bulldogs to an Ivy League title in the 2001-02 season. Though Columbia-Yale games will certainly take on new meaning next season, Jones insists he will treat the match-ups like he does every other game: seriously. Regardless of which team wins, one fan will surely go home happy.

"I want to be known as a guy who works hard. I learned that from my dad," says Jones. "I think he's very proud of my brother and I. He's the reason we've been able to do everything we've done."

Published: May 30, 2003
Last modified: May 29, 2003


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