Cavalier basketball fans tend to look on former Virginia coach Jeff Jones with mixed feelings. On the one hand, he led Virginia to five NCAA Tournament berths and the 1992 NIT title. But on the other, he is held responsible for the fiascoes that surround former Virginia recruit Melvin Whitaker and former players Scott Johnson, Darryl Presley and Courtney Alexander and the NCAA infractions that current coach Pete Gillen is still dealing with.
While this dichotomy of opinions still exists, the debate does not usually surface unless Jones makes the news, as he did Monday, when he was named the new coach at American University.
The debate resurfaced immediately following the announcement. Critics argued the sanctions should follow Jones, since he has become a head coach and is the one responsible for Virginia's problems in the first place. I've heard Cavalier fans say he won't last long at American because of the "dirty program" he runs. I've even heard people say that Jones, who coached the Cavaliers from 1990-1998, wasn't a good coach in the first place and just inherited the talent he had.
While Jones did have problems as Virginia's coach, most of the negative situations he is remembered for can't be blamed completely on him. And although he's remembered most for his 11-19 record in 1998, Jones did have an overall winning record and isn't as responsible for "destroying the basketball program" as some fans seem to think.
When Johnson and Presley were caught shoplifting, the incident took away two of the more heralded basketball players at this school and made Jones look like a fool as he tried to work out details to keep both players in school and on the team. However, when it became clear the pair had indeed shoplifted, they were removed from the team and both transferred to other schools, where they continued to play basketball.
Jones chose to remove them from the team and have an honorable program, rather than tolerate shoplifting, but he was still widely criticized for his players' actions. At other programs, most notably Florida State, shoplifting isn't enough to kick players off athletic teams. Jones made the right decision, but because it didn't help the team win, it wasn't seen that way.
Alexander's dismissal is probably a better example of the dichotomy of opinions surrounding Jones' tenure at Virginia. In the summer of 1997, Alexander was arrested for beating his girlfriend, who eventually dropped the charges against him. Jones removed Alexander from the team before he even went to trial.
So, Alexander transferred to Fresno State, where he led the nation in scoring this year, averaging 25.3 points-per-game. After losing Alexander, the team suffered an 11-19 record in Jones's last season. While most people understood why Alexander shouldn't be part of the team, the same people still criticized Jones when the team didn't win. Without its leading scorer, any team could have a losing season.
The people who understood why Virginia had a losing record still saw Jones as responsible for the character of his athletes and the crimes his players were accused of. This is ridiculous. Coaches are not capable of determining what recruits are going to do in the future and even the best individuals have made wrong character assessments. What Jones should have been commended for, however, was recognizing his mistakes and doing something about them.
Removing those three players was not the popular decision and may have cost Jones his job as Virginia coach, but he has another chance with American. I wish him the best of luck in his new job. He deserves the second chance.