“It’s one of those things where leaving is tough but the challenge at a great basketball school like ODU was too good to say no to,” said Jeff Jones, who was hired away from American by Old Dominion this week. “I am excited about it. But I know I’ll miss AU. (John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Jeff Jones was introduced on Thursday as the new basketball coach at Old Dominion. When he met with his new players soon after the formalities were over, his message was direct: “Let’s look forward, not backward.”

Given that ODU suffered through a nightmare season in which it went 5-25 and saw longtime Coach Blaine Taylor fired with eight games left in the season, that notion makes perfect sense.

But for those Jones leaves behind at American after 13 seasons as coach, there is good reason to look back. There are all sorts of numbers that illustrate the job Jones did after arriving in Northwest D.C. in the spring of 2000. But the numbers aren’t adequate in explaining what Jones accomplished at the school.

He did what many thought impossible: He coached the Eagles into the NCAA tournament — twice — and in the process he brought those who love the school to tears, most notably on that memorable March afternoon five years ago when AU beat Colgate to win the Patriot League title and become an NCAA tournament team for the first time.

Jones, who will be 53 in June, is a man who rarely shows any emotion at all. When he was a senior at Virginia and his parents were going through a divorce, his coach, Terry Holland, was asked how his point guard was handling what was going on in his personal life.

“You know JJ,” Holland said. “He’s a rock.”

In truth, JJ was a wreck. He just didn’t show it because that’s not his way.

“People keep telling me I should be excited about this,” he said Thursday afternoon while en route from Norfolk to Atlanta for the Final Four. “I am excited — really excited. It’s just not my way to look excited.”

On that afternoon in 2008, though, Jones held nothing back. He sat on the bench while his players were cutting the nets down and wept, burying his head in a towel to try and get a handle on his emotions before giving up and — for once — letting everyone see that he was not, in fact, a rock.

“This is the best moment I’ve had in basketball,” he said softly. “I’ve had other good ones but nothing like this.”

What made the moment special was the unique combination of what he had been through to get there and what American had been through, too. AU was a school that had a wonderful basketball history: It had been an outstanding Division II program; it had produced Kermit Washington, who averaged 20 points and 20 rebounds a game as a senior and was also an academic all-American. Under Gary Williams, the Eagles came within a missed Robin Hoey jump shot of making the NCAA tournament in 1981. There had been close calls under Jones, too — losses in the Patriot League championship game in 2002, 2003 and 2004.

Jones had been a superb guard at Virginia, playing with Ralph Sampson for three years and helping the Cavaliers reach the Final Four in 1981. He was 29 when he replaced Holland as Virginia’s coach in 1990, and his team earned NCAA tournament berths in five of his first seven seasons (winning an NIT title in 1992 in one of the two years that it didn’t) and reached the Elite Eight in 1995, even though star guard Cory Alexander was hurt.

But Jones went through a divorce, and in a small town like Charlottesville, Virginia’s basketball coach getting a divorce becomes, if not big news, big gossip. When the Cavaliers went 11-19 in 1998, Jones was fired — not for getting a divorce but for getting a divorce and then failing to win. Divorce is allowable in college basketball — Dean Smith and Bob Knight, just to name two Hall of Fame coaches, went through divorces at the peak of their coaching careers — but divorce and losing are not allowed.

Jones had to wait two years before the chance to restart his career when he got the AU job. After going 7-20 his first season, Jones took his team from the Colonial Athletic Association to the Patriot League, where the Eagles became consistent winners. But they couldn’t crack the NCAA tournament code, and there were many connected to the school who honestly believed it would never happen.

An hour before the championship game in 2008, Jones sat in a hallway outside his locker room. Thirteen years earlier, he had coached Virginia in a game against defending national champion Arkansas for the chance to go to the Final Four.

“This is more important for me,” he said that day. “Virginia had been to the Final Four before that day. As much as I wanted to win, we wouldn’t have been making history at our school. Today we have a chance to make history.”

That’s what they did that day, and they backed it up with a second title a year later.

Jones’s move to Old Dominion happened quickly. He had received a preliminary call from Athletic Director Wood Selig when the job opened up, but hadn’t heard anything further until last Wednesday, when Todd Turner, the head of the search firm hired to help ODU find a coach, called and asked if he could fly to Norfolk for an interview on Friday.

Turner was Virginia’s sports information director when Jones was a player there. Selig had headed up corporate marketing at U-Va. when Jones was an assistant coach and head coach. Familiarity, in this case, bred respect. Jones spent 90 minutes with Turner, Selig and ODU President John R. Broderick on Friday. On Tuesday, Selig called to offer him the job. The money will be considerably more than Jones was getting paid at AU and he will get a long-term contract, probably between five and seven years in length.

Even so, leaving is bittersweet. Jones’s wife, Danielle, is the deputy editor-in-chief at
Politico, which means there will be a lot of commuting — at least for a while. They enjoy living in the D.C. area and Jones had become, arguably, AU’s most recognizable and popular figure — even after a very disappointing winter in 2013.

“It’s one of those things where leaving is tough but the challenge at a great basketball school like ODU was too good to say no to,” he said. “I am excited about it. But I know I’ll miss AU.

And, without question, AU will miss him.

For more by John Feinstein, go to www.washingtonpost.com/feinstein