Jeff Jones was in an almost buoyant mood on Friday afternoon, especially for someone who was about to get on a bus for a five-hour trip in dicey weather to West Point, N.Y.
“We had a really good practice this morning,” he said. “A week ago today we had a terrible practice. I was almost certain we weren’t ready to play the next day. Right now I feel as if we’re going to be ready to play up there tomorrow.”
When you have been a head basketball coach for 21 years, you tend to have a pretty good feel for your team. Jones is now in his 13th season at American — he previously spent eight years at Virginia, his alma mater — and his gut feelings about his team are correct more often than not.
Which was why he wasn’t stunned when the Eagles came out absolutely flat eight days ago at Holy Cross and were never in the game, losing 79-60. Jones tried all the coaching tricks he’s learned through the years. He called three timeouts in the first 10 minutes of the game. He screamed. He cajoled. He soothed.
“Nothing was going to work that day,” he said. “It’s a cliche but most of the time you do play like you practice. That’s exactly what we did.”
The loss at Holy Cross dropped the Eagles to 6-12 on the season. Jones isn’t accustomed to that sort of record. AU has won at least 20 games in four of the past five seasons. That wasn’t the worst of it, though, according to Jones. What really bothered him was the notion that his team had stopped getting better.
“Every season is about convincing your players that they need to get better individually and as a team,” he said. “We lost some games early on that we would have won if we’d done some little things well — but we didn’t. That’s basketball. Sometimes you play teams [like Georgetown and Kansas this year] where you can do everything right and you’re still not going to win.
“I don’t ever like to lose. But you can live with losses if you feel like your team is going forward. It’s when you don’t feel that way that you get discouraged or frustrated. You have some of those every year. But some years you have them more than others.”
For Jones, the Holy Cross game was one of those where a coach has to make his team understand that what happened isn’t acceptable. “It’s not the loss itself,” he said. “It’s the way you lost.”
Jones was a superb player under Terry Holland at Virginia, graduating in 1982 as the school’s all-time assists leader. He can remember his old coach getting angry but it was almost always calculated, designed to make a specific point to his players.
“The times he got maddest, at least that I remember, were at halftimes. He would challenge us, ask us if we thought playing the way were was okay.” He laughed. “I do remember one time when he kicked over a water cooler. It wasn’t until later that the managers told me he had told them exactly where to put the cooler before we came into the locker room.”
Jones has lost his temper in the past. When he was at Virginia, he punched a blackboard attached to a wall during a game at Maryland and — not surprisingly — broke his hand.
“I may have made my point,” he said Friday, “but I won’t do that again. It hurt too much.”
A lot of coaches believe that the best way to deal with a poor performance is to pretend it never happened. Burn the tape. Put it behind you. Jones isn’t like that.
“It’s funny when I watch the Redskins after a loss they all say the same thing: ‘We’re going to put this behind us and move on.’ Well no, I don’t feel that way. Yes, we absolutely have to move on. But I don’t want anyone to forget. I want them to remember how it felt and to be aware of what they have to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. You can’t learn from mistakes if you pretend they never happened.”
At Virginia, Jones went to five NCAA tournaments in eight years and reached the Elite Eight in 1995. But he’s found a sense of peace and comfort at AU that wasn’t there when he coached under the white-hot spotlight of the ACC.
He has often said that no moment in his career meant more than the afternoon five years ago when he and his players cut down the nets at Bender Arena after beating Colgate to win the Patriot League title to put AU in the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. He wept for joy that afternoon and it is a memory he quietly cherishes.
AU did bounce back after the Holy Cross debacle, beating Navy easily on Wednesday. But in keeping with the frustrating nature of this season, they followed it up with a disappointing 13-point loss at Army on Saturday. So Jones knows this season isn’t likely to end as 2008 or 2009 did — with NCAA tournament appearances. But he keeps pushing his players, believing if they can keep getting better, winning three conference tournament games in March is never out of the question.
“That’s the carrot,” he said. “I don’t have to say it or pull a [Mike] Shanahan and say the [regular] season’s over. They know. That’s the beauty of college basketball.”
Which is why Jones could walk onto the bus for the ride to West Point on Friday afternoon with spring in his step — that, and the fact that he’s lost 43 pounds since the fall. “Diet and losing,” he said, laughing. “Perfect combination.”
The in-trip entertainment was “Friday Night Lights,” the TV series. Jeff Jones was looking forward to the ride — on the bus and on the court.
For more by John Feinstein, visit www.washingtonpost.com.