Donnie Jones Migrates South, One More Time
Donnie Jones grew up in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, though he was born on the other side of the Ohio River in Gallispolis, Ohio. He came from a middle-class background, his father working as a supervisor for Goodyear and his mother employed at a local grocer. And with Huntington located not even an hours-drive from his hometown, Marshall hoops was always on his mind.
Basketball was an important part of his youth life, and that continued into college. Jones went to Pikeville College, now the University of Pikeville, in Pikeville, Kentucky, from 1984 to 1988. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business education in 1988, but first he made an imprint on the basketball program.
Jones set a handful of school records, including most assists in a game (21), in a season (276) and in a career (513). As a senior, the captain finished second in NAIA in assists per game (10.7) and helped Pikeville achieve its first 20-win season in 11 years. He was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2004.
The guard knew he wanted to coach, and so did his head coach, Greg White. He worked summer camps while he was a student and was constantly doing what he could to absorb from his coach. A spot on staff came open soon after Jones graduated, and White offered him the position.
“I knew I wanted to coach at whatever level it had to be,” Jones said. “It was great to have a chance to work for the guy I respected most.”
Jones had a lot of responsibilities, especially as a young assistant. He was tasked with scouting, recruiting, pre-season conditioning, on-floor coaching and handling the school’s summer basketball camps, not to mention some administrative work in the admissions office. It was a lot to ask of the recent grad, but it gave him invaluable experience.
“I was an admissions counselor during the day. I went around and sold the school, so that gave me great experience as a recruiter,” Jones explained. “Then, I had an opportunity in the afternoon to coach, and in the evenings to recruit and break down film.
When you’re in those positions at that level, you get an opportunity to really get thrown to the fire. I got a chance to be a master of a lot of different trades, which was priceless for me.”
He remained in that role until 1990. Donnie Jones knew he wanted to pursue his masters, and he also knew he wanted to get to the Division I level. White left Pikeville to take an assistant job at Marshall, and after being accepted academically into the school, Jones followed him, taking a grad assistant position with the men’s basketball team he grew up adoring.
White ended up leaving for an assistant job at UCLA before Jones arrived, but Jones stayed, studying his books and the game. Two years later, Marshall head coach Dwight Freeman elevated him to a full-time assistant.
But in 1994, change came. Freeman was removed from the position, and Marshall brought in flesh blood: a young Billy Donovan.
Donovan kept Jones on and brought in some outside help, too, like Anthony Grant, who at the time had spent only one season as a college coach, acting as an assistant for Stetson in the 1993-94 season. It didn’t take much time around Donovan for Jones to be sold.
“Billy was really equipped to be a high-level coach,” Jones said. “Great mind, great teacher, great energy, great ability to communicate, to sell, recruit. He had all the facets. It was very noticeable. Could I look in a crystal ball and say, ‘Hey, we’ll go down to Florida, turn around a football school, play for three national championships and win back-to-back?’ No, I didn’t predict that. But the way he thought and the way he worked, I knew there would be another level for him.”
Jones spent two years with Donovan at Marshall until the head coach accepted the same position at Florida in 1996. When Donovan left to go south, he brought Jones and Grant with him.
It was a change for Donnie Jones, who had been in the Appalachian area all his life, and he was preparing to marry his now-wife. But the chance to coach at a high-major school was exciting enough to keep him more in anticipation than anxiety.
“It was seven days a week, 14, 15 hours a day work, so I didn’t have a lot of time to be homesick and miss everybody. We were in the trenches. We were building a program,” he explained. “I spent every day with the guys I worked with, so those were unbelievable relationships. We all became the best of friends. We were very similar in age. Our lives were very similar. A lot of us didn’t have children yet, so were like college guys in a college job.”
It was his first taste of Florida, and he loved it.
“There were times you missed your family, sure, but one thing you learn when you go to Florida: you don’t have a hard time having people come down to visit you,” Jones said. “Everybody wants to come to the sunshine and stay at your house. We had a guest room that was full all the time, and we loved it. There was a new excitement about it.
Having a chance to come down this way to a place that so many people come and vacation to and leave, but we got to stay here and live, it was pretty cool.”
The job Donovan, Jones, Grant and company did at Florida is now well-known in the college basketball zeitgeist. The Gators went to nine NCAA Tournaments, four Sweet 16s, three Final Fours and won two national championships between 1996 and 2007, a stark contrast to the four 20-win seasons Florida experienced between 1967 and when they arrived.
Florida was the top program in the country by 2007, sitting atop the college basketball world with back-to-back national titles. It took a lot to get the program there, and Donnie Jones was there for the entire process, digging in the trenches with the rest of the coaching staff and players who came through Gainesville from the mid-90s on into the 2000s.
Now years later, Jones can look back on his time at Florida and understand how unbelievable his work and the work of those around him was. He said that while living through it, though, it was difficult to truly appreciate it for what it was.
“I think sometimes you took a breath and said, ‘Wow, this is incredible,’ but there was so much coming at you,” he said. “The speed was so fast. There were so many things living in the moment that you had to take care of that you were on such alert and awareness. It was hard to take a step back and enjoy it.”
But it never left him, and he said those championships still drive him now.
“That whole journey helped make me feel validated as a coach, and it also gave me confidence as a coach,” Donnie Jones said. “The goal is to get back there at some point in my career, as a head coach this time.”
Even if Jones wasn’t counting his lucky stars every night before closing his eyes while working in Gainesville, he knew at the time that what he was experiencing would be immensely valuable once his time to take over a program came. Not long after Florida successfully defended its title in 2007 did that chance come.
Three days after winning the ultimate game, Jones became the head men’s basketball coach at Marshall.
It was the same team he grew up admiring and the same program that offered him his Division I coaching start 17 years prior. It was a homecoming for Donnie Jones.
“My wife is from Huntington. My parents are 45 minutes away. I grew up being a Marshall fan,” he explained. “To me, that was one of the jobs that I had on my checklist that I would love to be the head coach. They’d had seven-straight losing seasons, I was at the top of my career as an assistant.
I spent 13 years with one of the best coaches in the country and learned so much. I was excited to see what we could build and do, to put my energy in from what I’d learned, and to do it at a place I respected and loved.”
Shortly after he was hired, Donovan came to Huntington to appear at a fundraiser for the school. This was only a handful of days after he had led the Gators to their second national championship in two years and was the hottest commodity in basketball. But he’d given his word, and it opened a chance to talk up his long-time cohort.
“Billy had made a prior commitment to be there for a fundraiser for the school to give back, and obviously when he made that commitment, he didn’t know we would be playing in the national championship,” Jones said. “He followed through with his commitment, and as there were a lot of boosters around, he was validating me to those people.”
Although Jones had well over a decade of an experience as an assistant, this was his first time as a head coach. There are plenty of overlaps between the two positions, but there are plenty of unique aspects to running the show that he had to learn.
“(You make) a lot of decisions on a daily basis when you become a head coach,” he said. “You make a lot of suggestions as an assistant coach, but as a head coach, you have to make the decisions, and you could make 30 or 40 of those in a day some days. It can be very small ones and very big ones. You hope you can get most of them right, because you’re trying to make decisions on little information. I think that’s the first thing that overwhelms you when you take those spots.
“The second hardest thing to do is hire staff,” Donnie Jones continued. “Who fits, who can you afford based on pay, who fits the environment, and finding the right guys to work with every day. That’s a challenge.”
In 2007-08, his first season, Jones immediately had the Thundering Herd on the right side of .500, the first time the program did that since Jones’ college head coach Greg White was in charge in 2000-01. In his third recruiting class, Jones brought in Hassan Whiteside from Gastonia, North Carolina, and within weeks of the season starting, the freshman was making headlines.
His impact helped Marshall reach a 24-10 record, the program’s most wins in a season in 22 years.
“It was an incredible learning experience,” Jones said of his three years as the Marshall head coach. “Leading and energizing that community, that great fan base, and doing it with my friends and family around was really cool. My daughter was born there as well, my youngest. So, a lot of great memories.”
Following that season, though, Jones left Marshall to take on a new challenge: UCF.
Jones said one of the biggest factors in his decision was UCF’s plan to enter the Big East.
“UCF was still in the same conference, but they had made a pretty much visionary commitment that we would move to the Big East during that time,” the coach said. “I thought it was an opportunity for this job to be Big East.”
Ultimately, that didn’t pan out, though not through any fault from UCF. A few years after Donnie Jones joined the Knights in 2010, the Big East experienced a schism, and UCF found itself in the AAC instead in 2013.
“We did sign to move on to the Big East, and then that blew up three, four months later and became the American,” he said. “So, what we envisioned was the plan. It’s just the way it ended up working out at the time.”
Still, there were other aspects that worked out, namely Jones and his family going back to Florida, a state that came to mean so much to them when he was an assistant in Gainesville.
“We had the opportunity to go back to Florida, which we really loved,” Jones explained. “I’d live here longer than I lived in West Virginia as a coach. We had two kids who were born here. We felt Orlando and the whole opportunity here was a fit for us. That’s why we took the move.”
Jones would spend six seasons at the helm in Orlando, piloting the Knights to multiple 20-win seasons in that time. But there would some turmoil, with sanctions levied early in his tenure and five different athletic directors coming through UCF during his six years.
He remained in the job through the sanctions and was provided an extension, too, as he continued to build the Knights as best he could.
“Some times things are out of your control in life. There were a lot of things happening around that we couldn’t control, but we were accountable for,” he explained. “When you’re in a leadership position, you have to stand up for the situation. With that, we continued to rebuild, moved into a new conference, and we did a great job with the kids we recruited.”
Jones was relieved in 2016 and couldn’t finish what he had started, but he left behind an important foundation that Johnny Dawkins built and expanded on. Three of the most important players on the 2018-19 Knights team that won the program’s first tournament game and gave No. 1 seed Duke everything it could handle in the second round – Tacko Fall, B.J. Taylor and Chad Brown – were brought to Orlando by Donnie Jones.
“I was happy for the kids, happy for the school,” Jones said. “We had that vision. We thought we were close. Johnny has done a great job, great respect for him. It was great to see those kids have their moment. Well deserved, that’s what they came there to do, and it was great to see that happen for them.”
After departing from UCF, Jones focused on himself. He turned down high-profile assistant jobs and didn’t opt to take a scouting position with the Los Angeles Clippers until September 2016. Through that year and the subsequent ones spent as an assistant at Wichita State and Dayton, he refocused himself to get ready for the next shot at being a head coach.
In 2019, that came, and with it another opportunity to anchor in Florida. Stetson’s location was one of the most attractive features to Jones and his family, he said, and it was a major reason why it was the only opening he pursued that year.
Stetson offers Donnie Jones his third head coaching shot and brings him back to his home away from home in Florida. But first and foremost, it gives him the chance to continue to do what he loves, and he knows it.
“I’m thankful and grateful for another opportunity to build a program, build kids, to do what I love to do and have a passion for: coaching, and most importantly, leading young people and helping them grow,” Jones explained. “I’m just happy for that platform after all these years and what I’ve been through. It’s another opportunity I don’t take for granted. I cherish every moment I’m here.”