Wil Jones, flamboyant UDC basketball coach, dies at 75

March 15

Wil Jones, an undersized star in the big man’s game of basketball who set scoring records at Dunbar High School and American University and who, as the flamboyant coach at the University of the District of Columbia, led his team to a national championship, died March 12 at a hospital in Virginia Beach. He was 75.

The cause was cancer, his son, William Jones II, said.

Known as Willie Jones when he played in high school and college, Mr. Jones was a 5-foot-9 dynamo on the court and on D.C. playgrounds, where he gleefully took on anyone with the audacity to challenge him.

In the mid-1950s, he was one of the first players in Washington to make regular use of the jump shot, and he is considered one of the finest pure shooters in the city’s storied basketball history. He was a trash talker before anyone invented the term, backing up his taunts with an unstoppable array of hook shots, jump shots and lightning-fast drives to the basket.

“When I went to a tournament,” he told The Washington Post in 1982, “the first thing I asked was, ‘Where’s the MVP trophy? Because that’s gonna be in my case tomorrow.’ ”


UDC head coach Wil Jones reacts during a game in 1982. (Gary Cameron/The Washington Post)

A showman with a flair for the dramatic, Mr. Jones once deliberately fouled out of a game in college just so he could hear the crowd’s cheers as he walked off the court.

“He was the Muhammad Ali of basketball,” former Georgetown University coach John Thompson told Sports Illustrated in 1980. “He was an extremely confident person on the court, and he could be very aggravating, but I like him.”

At Dunbar, from which he graduated in 1956, Mr. Jones led the city in scoring and was named to the all-city team. He then won a scholarship to AU, where he broke every scoring record in school history.

In 1959, Mr. Jones’s “all-around court wizardry,” according to a Post article, “provided American University with its greatest athletic hour” as he scored 30 points to lead the Eagles to their first victory over Georgetown, 94-67.

He was a first-team “Little All-American” — the small-college equivalent of today’s Division II in the NCAA — and repeatedly broke his own school record for points in a game, scoring 39, 41 and 44. In his final collegiate game in 1960, he scored 54 points, which is still the AU record.

During the summers, Mr. Jones held his own on the District’s competitive playgrounds against such future NBA Hall of Famers as Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor.

“He thought the best player to come out of D.C. was Elgin Baylor,” Edward Meyers, a former assistant coach to Mr. Jones at UDC and later to Thompson at Georgetown, said Saturday. “But the most entertaining player was Wil. He could start a riot and never blink an eye. He had a charisma about him.”

Mr. Jones later took his charisma to coaching, first at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax County, where he led his boys’ teams to a 95-21 record in the 1970s, and later as an assistant coach to Lefty Driesell at the University of Maryland.

In 1979, Mr. Jones took over the men’s basketball program at UDC, the District’s only public university, which had been formed in a merger of other institutions only two years earlier. He hired Cheryl Roberts, one of the country’s first female assistant coaches for a men’s team.

Mr. Jones hung a size-18 sneaker on his wall, saying, “For us to be successful, we have to get the guy who can fill that shoe.”

Within a year, he had recruited 7-foot Earl Jones (no relation), who, along with 6-foot-7 Michael Britt, formed the nucleus of a UDC team that didn’t have its own gym until midway through the 1981-82 season. Mr. Jones spent his own money for a van to drive players to games and often washed their uniforms himself.

“We’re still incubating,” Mr. Jones said in January 1982, “but the kids and the fans around here realize now that we’re not Podunk U. anymore.”

Playing perhaps the most exciting basketball in Washington in the 1980s, the Firebirds were flashy and high-scoring, just like their coach. Mr. Jones wore stylish suits and sparkling jewelry as he stomped the sideline, pleading with his players and the referees, showing every emotion from anger to joy to tears.

“I know what I’m doing at all times,” he told The Post in 1983. “I play the crowds, whether they’re negative or positive. I play my kids’ moods. I know when to get on them, when to leave them alone.”

Led by Earl Jones’s 24 points and Britt’s 20, UDC swept past Florida Southern to win the 1982 Division II title, 73-63. A year later, UDC was ranked first in the nation for most of the year but lost the championship game to Ohio’s Wright State University, 92-73.

The UDC team was honored at the mayor’s office and greeted by cheers. The only voice that seemed to fall silent was that of Mr. Jones, who knew his players might never have another moment like this in their lives.

“He had the kind of rapport with these young men that was like that of a father,” Roberts, his onetime assistant coach, said. “And a lot of these young men didn’t have fathers. He really cared about them.”

William Stigler Jones was born Oct. 26, 1938, in Washington, and grew up in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. His father was a railroad waiter.

After his college career at AU, he tried out for the 1960 Olympic basketball team and played in various professional leagues for a few years before turning to teaching and coaching in Northern Virginia.

At UDC, Mr. Jones sometimes clashed with university officials, who dismissed him in 1988, citing low graduation rates among his players. Mr. Jones started an SAT tutorial program for D.C. high school students. He won complete vindication in 1993, when an administrative law judge declared the dismissal “arbitrary and capricious” and “a sham” and ordered UDC to reinstate Mr. Jones as coach.

He left UDC in 1999 with career record of 234-145 and coached three years at Norfolk State University before retiring in 2002. He lived in Virginia Beach, but returned to Washington when American University retired his No. 11 jersey in 2007 and when UDC named him and his championship team to its athletic hall of fame in 2012.

His first marriage, to Frances Jones, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife, Gail Dawes Jones of Virginia Beach; a son from his first marriage, William Jones II of Los Angeles; a brother, Frank Jones of Forestville, Md.; a half-sister; and two grandchildren.

For the final home game of the 1983 season, the last time members of his championship team would ever play together in Washington, Mr. Jones wore a tuxedo.

“The tuxedo wasn’t show,” he said at the time. “You wear formal dress to special occasions, and to me, that was a special occasion for those four kids and their parents. I go top of the line for my kids.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.