Jeff Jones sat comfortably in an armchair yesterday afternoon, watching the snow fall outside his office window with a relaxed smile. A few feet away, three of his assistants were breaking down tape in preparation for tonight's game at Bender Arena against Army.
"I knew, just knew, we were going to have trouble at Colgate," Jones said. "That was the part of the trip I dreaded going in." He shook his head. "I didn't quite know just how much I should have dreaded it."
According to the Patriot League media guide, it is 400 miles from American to Holy Cross; another 250 miles from Holy Cross to Colgate and 355 miles from Colgate to American. None of those numbers take into account snow or ice or accidents along the way. Nowhere in the Virginia media guide will you find driving distances between the nine schools in the ACC, because they simply don't matter.
Once, Jones played and coached at Virginia, where the airplanes are chartered, the hotels are four-star and there are no games played in front of crowds of 568 -- the throng the Eagles and Colgate drew this past Sunday in snowy (a redundancy if there ever was one) Hamilton, N.Y.
The weekend didn't start all that badly. The weather Thursday was reasonable, the snow had been cleared and the trip was without incident. The game on Friday night was superb. Playing in front of a sellout house at the Hart Center, the Eagles led the league's first-place team by as many as 12, fell behind, came back to lead and finally lost, 68-66, when Matej Cresnik's three-point attempt rolled off the back rim as time expired. The loss was disappointing, the evening was not.
"That was fun," Jones said a few minutes after the game ended. "It was a terrific game, played in a great atmosphere with both teams raising their level of play down the stretch. I enjoyed everything about it except the result."
Once upon a time it would have been virtually impossible for Jones to view any loss that way. At Virginia, every defeat was dissected: by fans, by the media and, no doubt, by the coaches.
"There's more room to breathe in this league," Jones said. "It isn't that any of us are any less competitive or get any less upset about losing. It just has a different feel."
Of course after that evening in Worcester, Mass., Jones and his players found themselves looking at a four-hour bus ride through sleet and freezing rain the next day to Hamilton. If you look on a map, the best way to get to Hamilton, especially in February is this: Drive to the end of the earth, turn left and then drive about 60 more miles. When it starts to snow, you know you are close.
There is one good thing about a trip to Hamilton: the Colgate Inn, which sits at the end of Main Street. The rooms are comfortable, the food good and there is always a fire going in the lobby. Except it was booked: Patriot League track and field championships were in town. No rooms at the inn. So, the Eagles stayed at the White Eagle Lodge. "Which was okay," Jones said.
Except for the lack of hot water.
Through it all, Jones worried about an inevitable letdown from Friday's emotional game. Sure enough, AU went from up 10 early in the second half to down 10. "We were just a little bit short on everything," he said. "We'd get to a shooter a split second late; rotate just a tad too slow. It wasn't like we were way off, but we were off just enough to be in trouble."
They rallied from 10 down to take a 59-57 lead on Glenn Stokes's jumper from the corner with 1.5 seconds to go. Colgate called time. Jones told his players to be certain no one got behind them, to stay man-to-man and not switch on anything. He put Jason Thomas, his best leaper, on Tim Sullivan, the inbounder.
Sullivan's pass barely got over Thomas's leap and somehow got to Mark Linebaugh one step across midcourt. He caught the ball in one motion, turned and fired. The ball swished as the buzzer sounded. "It felt as if my whole body went numb," Jones said. "I'd never been through one of those -- win or lose. There's a feeling of disbelief. You plan as if they can make a shot to beat you, but you aren't really expecting it to happen."
Still in semi-shock, Jones went to find Colgate Coach Emmett Davis to offer congratulations. "A blur went by me," he said, laughing. "It was Emmett heading for Linebaugh. I didn't blame him. Coaches always remember losses a lot longer than wins. You get one like that, you should celebrate."
Shortly after he finished talking to his team in the locker room, Jones looked up to see Davis. "I felt bad because I kind of went crazy at the end," Davis said. "All I could think was to get to Linebaugh and give him a hug. I told Jeff I was sorry."
To which Jones replied there was no need to be even a little bit sorry. "It shows you, though, what kind of guy Emmett is that he thought to come down," he said.
Thomas insisted to the coaches that he had grazed Sullivan's pass. If so, the clock should have started, meaning the buzzer would have sounded before the ball got to Linebaugh. Sure enough, when Jones looked at the tape, he could see Thomas just graze the ball. "He got it, but just barely," he said. "There's no way you can blame the officials or the clock operator for not seeing it. I could barely see it in slow motion."
There was still the matter of the six-hour bus trip home. Jones was just starting to put the vision of Linebaugh out of his head and close his eyes when assistant coach Kieran Donahue tapped him on the shoulder. The bus carrying the women's team, which had left Hamilton soon after its game had concluded, had broken down somewhere in Pennsylvania. They needed a ride home.
Jones stood up, filled the players in on what was going on and told his coaches they would all get out and help the women move their equipment from one bus to another when they arrived, so they could get going as quickly as possible. "We made the best of it," he said, forcing a smile.
The very full bus arrived back at AU shortly after midnight. Jones drove home and fell into bed at around 1 a.m. His wife, Danielle, was already asleep, having been away visiting family for the weekend. When Jones woke up in the morning she listened to him talk about his trip for a few minutes, concluding, not surprisingly, by saying how glad he was to finally be home.
That was when she told him about the flooded basement.
There was one silver lining in all the clouds: hearing about his travails of the weekend, a producer at Channel 4, who happens to be an AU grad, called Jones to ask if he could bring a crew to the house that afternoon. Come on over, Jones said. That night, the station 4 aired a piece on the weekend, concluding with shots of Jones in his basement mopping up water.
"It was, in the end, an empty weekend," Jones said.
He could only wish his basement had been so empty. But -- at least now -- he can laugh about it.
And, he can breathe.