Wes Miller and Mike Jones were hired for their first college basketball head coaching jobs only a few months apart in 2011. Both took over programs in disrepair and turned them into consistent winners.
So when Miller decided to leave UNC Greensboro for a higher-profile job at Cincinnati on April 14, it was somehow fitting that Jones was hired to replace him.
The 55-year-old Jones — who grew up as the son of an ABA and NBA player and played his college ball at Howard — went 174-150 in his 10 seasons at Radford, twice winning Big South Conference Coach of the Year honors while leading the Highlanders to the NCAA Tournament in 2018 and winning the league’s regular season title twice in the past three years.
His reason for leaving a successful program for a new challenge was similar to those of Miller — the opportunity was just too good to pass up.
As Jones hits the ground running putting together a staff and recruiting players, the new Spartans’ leader sat down with the North State Journal to discuss his move along with a few other subjects, including how he still uses his degree in zoology.
What made you decide it was time to leave Radford, and what was it about the UNCG job that made it so attractive?
The second part of that question is easy. The success Coach Miller has had over a long haul was good and it just went up a notch over the past five years. So anytime somebody has that kind of success in a tough league like the Southern Conference, you think, “OK, this is a pretty good job.” Then when you look a little closer, you see a lot of good players that played here, it’s in a metropolitan area that’s a basketball hotbed. It was obviously attractive for a lot of reasons.
With the first part, there was no ideal time to leave Radford and I wasn’t ever thinking that I had to leave at this time or that time. Some opportunities came up in the last few years because of the success we had, and I looked at some of those and tried to figure out which one might be good for me. But it just happened to be the one this year.
You’ve talked about establishing a culture for your program. What exactly do you mean by that?
It starts with relationships and those take time, but we talk about having a brotherhood. A lot of teams talk about it. We try to go a step beyond that and to really build it from the ground up, starting from the first day we’re on the job, getting to know people, letting them get to know us, having meaningful conversations so you feel like you know who that person is. Things are taken less personal when you really know someone. When you build those relationships, they help everything else.
From there, we talk about having fun because we’re fortunate. We get to work in a profession where we get to work with 17-to-24-year-olds, and that’s supposed to be the most fun time of your life. You’re in college and you’re just trying to figure things out, but you want to enjoy life.
And we want them to enjoy life even though there’s a lot of hard work to do. We try to incorporate that into our culture, and it’s worked out well for us.
The third part of it is getting better every day. We call it fighting for inches. We want to use all three of those components to create our program. Obviously, they’ve already had success doing things one way, so we’re not going to come in here and reinvent the wheel. But there are certain things we emphasize we think can be effective.
How do you describe your preferred style of play?
We’re a defense- and rebounding-oriented team, just as they were previously. That led to a lot of success at both programs, so we’re certainly going to continue that. We do things a little differently in that they used a really good 1-2-2 zone that was problematic for everyone they played against. We’re more man-to-man-oriented in our press, but within our halfcourt we’re trying to keep people from scoring easily and contesting shots.
Offensively, we like to play up-tempo. We like being in attack mode as much as possible, and we really just share the ball, get everybody involved and try to get the best shot we can every time down the floor.
Who are some of your influences in coaching?
I’ve worked for some great coaches. I learned a lot from (former Richmond, West Virginia, Michigan and Cleveland Cavaliers coach) John Beilein, a future Hall of Famer in my opinion. I worked with him for three years, and he’s still a big mentor of mine. I met Shaka (Smart) later in my career and had two unbelievable years with him at VCU. But then also (former Georgia coach) Dennis Felton, who I played college basketball with. He was and continues to be a big influence on me. I’ve been real fortunate.
How much, if any, pressure is there to follow Coach Miller and continue the success he achieved with the program?
This job, having the experience of 10 years, helps coming in the door. But it is a different job than the one I just left. So I have to learn how to sustain the success they’ve had here and try to build on the foundation that’s already been laid.
You have a culture of guys that already know how to win and work hard. That’s a big thing. A couple of the guys I’ve talked to say they know what’s expected of them and how hard you have to work. They live in the gym and that’s good. But certainly, there are expectations that are placed on our program to win because they have won and enjoyed it, so we have to continue to win.
I’ve grown to respect Wes over the years. He and I both got the jobs at the same time 10 years ago. We’re slightly different in age, but we got the job 10 years ago, and the job that he has done along with his staff, particularly over the last five (years), has been remarkable. It’s a reason why I’m here, because he’s built something that I admire, that is admired around the country, is respected around the country.
So how did a guy with a degree in zoology end up coaching basketball?
I went to school to be a doctor, and at Howard University we had three majors if you wanted to be a doctor. One of them was zoology. So I majored in zoology.
I’ve always loved basketball and I’ve always been around it. Even though I went to school for one thing, basketball was never far away. And when I got an opportunity to become a coach, I jumped on it. And the rest is history. We name some of our plays after animal families, so that’s the only way I use my zoology degree right now. That was a long time ago. I’m glad I remembered something.