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Joe Jones, Coach of Columbia Lions Leads Team to New Era
By Richard Kagan

During a recent Columbia Lions men’s basketball game, head coach Joe Jones met his team during a timeout.  He kneeled down and fleshed out the assignments for his team on a small board. Jones was animated. His players, some sitting in chairs, others standing, were concentrating intently on his every word. For coach Jones, and his staff, playing the game is a culmination of hours of practice, combining player meetings, film work, and practice on the court. The game is Literally decision-time, how will the hard work pay off?  After 40 minutes of action, the coach will have an answer.

In his sixth season as head coach of the men’s varsity Columbia Lions basketball team, the answers have been improvingly positive. Jones has won 53 games in a four span, more than any other Columbia men’s coach, since the 1980-81 season. Two years ago, The Lions won 16 games and finished a respectable 7-7 in the Ivy League.  The 4th place finish was a step in the right direction. Last season, Columbia again, finished 7-7 in the Ivy League, solidifying the fact that the Lions were to be taken seriously.

Jones coached one of the top players to play for Columbia in recent years. Power forward John Baumann earned first-team All Ivy League honors two consecutive years. Last season, in his senior year, he was selected to the first team All Metropolitan team, the first Lions’ players to be named since Hall of Famer Buck Jenkins, in 1993.

Jones, in his early 40’s, exudes, passion, positive energy, and a “can do” attitude. This spirit has spread to the Lions basketball program, making the home games an event.

In the world of college basketball, coaches come and go. There seems to be a revolving door of coaches who land jobs, get fired, and are re-hired at another school. Seth Greenberg, a head coach in college for 18 seasons, knows all the ins and outs of coaching. He got his start as an assistant for the Columbia Lions, almost 30 years ago. Currently he is the head coach at Virginia Tech, a team to watch out for in the ACC. He knows the complex job requirements for a coach in athletics at Columbia and comes out with a ringing endorsement of Jones’ work. “Joe Jones is the perfect fit for Columbia University,” said Greenberg. “He’s a terrific ambassador for Columbia University. He is a magnificent coach, his team is well-prepared and plays to their strengths. He is a great role model. He is a great mentor. If I was the Athletic Director I would be proud to have him represent the university.”

This season has been a challenge for the young coach. The Lions need to fill the void of their star Baumann who graduated last year. The injury bug has hit the team knocking out two key starters for part of the early season. While the Lions are currently 4-9, they have consistently competed and have been in most of the games they’ve played.

Jones knew he wanted to become a coach in his early adulthood. He was guided by Warren Isaacs and Art Kindelman, two of his coaches at Half Hollow Hills West H.S. in Dix Hills, Long Island. He speaks of his college (SUNY, Oswego) coach, Paul Callahan with affection, calling him “a great college coach.” Jones later assisted under Frank Romeo, varsity high school coach who made a great impact on the young man. “I wouldn’t be coaching college basketball if it wasn’t for him,” said Jones.  Romeo took the Comsewogue (L.I.) H.S. basketball team to the Villanova summer basketball camps led by former head coach Rollie Massomino.  There he met Jay Wright, who took the job as head coach at Hofstra. Jones was a 23-year-old middle-school coach at Comsewogue, and would later take over the varsity job when Romeo retired. But Jones made important connections. An opening occurred at Hofstra and Wright asked him to join the team as an assistant coach. He coached three seasons at Hofstra. The team rose in the ranks of the America East Conference, and Jones landed a job at Villanova with coach Steve Lappas. Jones was responsible for recruiting, and on-court preparation. “I learned from him how to keep your better players involved in the offense,” said Jones. When Lappas was fired, Wright landed the head coaching job at Villanova and asked Jones to stay on. “I owe most of my knowledge and understanding to Jay,” said coach Jones. Jones says he has learned how to handle losses from observing coach Wright. “I don’t even know if the guy is for real,” Jones said. Wright says he has been amazed how even-keeled Wright is after a tough loss. “I think that’s part of why he’s so successful.” 

Wins and losses are important. It is ultimately how one is judged as a coach. But Jones says he gets great satisfaction seeing young men face obstacles and grow through them.

He cites the example of K.J. Matsui, a key senior on the team. “K.J. comes in as a freshman, he’s quiet, he’s tentative and I kind of watch his development; now he’s out there,” Jones observes. “Now he’s telling everyone what to do… it’s tremendous to see kids really develop into men.”

Jones stresses the importance of teamwork. “That’s everything. That’s why you coach,” he says. He sees the players gradually recognizing their role and what they can do to contribute to the team. “To get them all to understand what their roles need to be and go out there and play collectively is a great part of coaching,” Jones acknowledges.

After a victory against Wagner College, Jones says that Columbia put in hours of pre-game preparation. “We had meetings after meetings, individual meetings, watching film with guys, doing extra shooting, breaking down the offense, talk about what (Wagner) is gonna do,” Jones said.  “It’s a lot of time that goes into just winning the game,” he says. That’s why you’re so crushed when you lose because you put so much time into it.”

Playing is the fun part of being a student-athlete. Jones describes in details how his team prepares a player for his academic work. He said his assistants are assigned four players and they monitor their classwork, scout out who would be a good teacher in the subject, and, are aware of upcoming papers and exams for each student. “We don’t wait till a guy fails a test,” Jones admits. “We try to figure out where the potholes are going to be before they start.” Columbia has study hall five days a week for freshman players. A tutor is available for students at that time. Jones says the teams average G.P.A is 3.2 for this past semester.#



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