Bittersweet goodbye to June Jones

Around 4 o’clock Monday afternoon, Coach Jones announced to the team that he was stepping down. I first heard the news in the football locker room from a teammate. I missed the initial reaction of my team, but I was quickly met with the reaction from the school through conversation and social media.

The tenor of my classmates was one of joy and relief from some burden; a glib, “Finally” or “About time,” for example. Some have even gained notoriety almost entirely on writing opportunistic articles and tweets about Coach Jones. I, on the other hand, am disappointed to see him go.

In football, there is an inherent disconnect from fandom and participation. Fans expect the team to give up everything for victory. In the narrative of football, the means almost always justify the ends.

But the lives of players and coaches continue even as the crowds fade or turn against you.

Many fans and administrators are even willing to bargain with inexcusable behavior in the name of football. One can look to at the back and forth of the NFL with Ray Rice or the NCAA’s recent leniency towards Penn State as proof. In his time at SMU, Coach Jones has pushed us towards success without compromising our development as young adults into men.

For as long as I have known Coach Jones, he has been a proponent of player safety. He emphasized this in practice through rarely going full pads, and never tackling to the ground. This is based in the idea that most injuries are occurred in the unpredictable motion of hitting the ground. These style practices have been used in the NFL for some time due to the NFL’s investment in the player’s health, but it’s rarely implemented in college. And with the increasingly worrisome trends of suicide and degeneration of brain function among football players due to concussions, a difference in practice over a career could certainly mean life and death. Every year Coach Jones has found new ways to make us safer in practice—most recently the addition of Kevlar to our helmets and shoulder pads and the emphasis on shoulder tackling.

Coach Jones expected us to know the difference between being hurt and being injured. But to the unfortunate who do suffer from injury, Coach Jones put a premium on a lifetime of health. Many great contributors to the program were given their leave from playing football due to injury on the sole word of Coach Jones. But no one ever lost their scholarship due to injury. No one ever lost a scholarship due to poor play on the field. Anyone accepted into school who made a serious effort at gaining an SMU degree had the support system to work towards and get that degree. In fact, Coach Jones was instrumental in getting the 3rd floor tutors and academic advisors for all student athletes.

Every player has a couple notebooks filled with the language we spoke as a family passed down from Frank Gansz Sr.: one snap and clear; working towards ongoing skill and technique development—either getting better or worse, never stay the same; stick with the play longer than the opponent; excellence is not a single act, but a habit; finding victory through lagniappe or small advantages; being weary of your presence in social media and even traditional media. These are timeless lessons for success in football and life after. Coach Jones brought in Judges, Navy SEALs, ministers, self-help professionals, former players, etc. almost weekly during designated football time to make us better men.

This year, on the field everyone is disappointed with our play, so far. Many, now, speculate our methods to be the cause of our poor performance. But Coach Jones and the staff always made it clear that we do things differently than other programs. Thus, we had to work that much harder because we had higher standards requiring more discipline.

We speak a different language; “we do what we do.” In my time here, some players and coaches fell short of our standards and were let go. Undoubtedly some would have contributed positively on the field in the past and this year. Others needed to step up in their place.

But as a team, we didn’t do what we had to do to meet our standards and win. That’s apparent in our results. However, I have no reservations in sharing the man he has demanded me and others to become.

Every year, Coach Jones let us know that one day everyone in the team would be expected to be the man of a household. And in his six years at SMU, Coach Jones has left an indelible mark on countless individuals that will pay dividends for generations going forward. His calm temperament found room for improvement in victory and hope through small victories in defeat.

In fact, his last speech Monday morning was on solidarity and perseverance. He said explicitly to remember these skills, because sometimes in life it will feel like you just got blown out by North Texas. Take the lesson now and your families will thank you later. That lesson is worth more than any sum of TV contracts, conference payouts or other trappings from the big business of college football. Playing football in college has given me a rare set of fond memories. But playing football for June Jones has made me a better man.

Riley-Ayers is majoring in political science.

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