Donnie Jones said his goodbyes at the University of Dayton on Friday and Saturday. It's never an easy thing even though Jones had only been a Dayton Flyers assistant coach since last July when he was hired to replace James Kane, who left for Iowa State.
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A 33-game season gave Jones plenty of time to get close to the players and the other coaches, though he didn’t need any more time to get to know head coach Anthony Grant. Their relationship started decades ago.
“I’ll see (the coaches) on the road,” Jones said, “but it’s always hard to say goodbye.”
Stetson named Jones its head coach on Friday. This will be the third head coaching job for Jones, who coached Central Florida from 2010-16 and Marshall from 2007-10. He takes over a program that has experienced 11 straight losing seasons and hasn't had a winning season since 2000-01. The Hatters finished 7-24 last season under Corey Williams, who was fired in March after six seasons.
“I’ve been in Florida a lot,” Jones said. “I’m very aware of Stetson. I played them when I was at Florida as an assistant. I played them every year when I was at UCF. It’s an incredible academic school, a small school, a great location outside of Orlando, 20 miles from Daytona Beach. I’m just trying to bring some new life in there and build a culture. I know it takes a little time to get it up and moving, but anytime you get an opportunity to be a head coach again — and this is my third one — I”m excited about it.”
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Grant got his start in coaching as an assistant at Stetson in 1993 and left to work at Marshall under Billy Donovan a year later. Jones was also at Marshall with Donovan and picked Grant up at the airport when he flew to West Virginia to interview.
Jones and Grant coached with Donovan at Marshall until 1996 and then followed Donovan to the University of Florida. Both were on Donovan’s staff when the Gators won the national championship in 2006, and Jones remained on the staff when the Gators won the title again in 2007. Dayton assistant coach Darren Hertz was also part of those national championship teams.
Hertz joined Grant’s first staff in the 2017-18 season, and Jones arrived for the second season. The Flyers improved from 14-17 to 21-12, finishing third in the Atlantic 10 Conference with a 13-5 mark and earning a NIT berth, which resulted in a first-round loss at Colorado.
Seeing the direction Dayton’s program is headed made it more difficult for Jones to depart for Stetson.
“There are some big things happening over there,” Jones said. “That’s not talk or hyping everything. They’re doing things right. That’s why it’s hard to leave because the best is coming.”
The hype will continue for Dayton all offseason because it returns three starters — losing senior Josh Cunningham and guard Jordan Davis, who decided to transfer — and adds four high-profile transfers who sat out last season: guards Ibi Watson, of Michigan, and Rodney Chatman, of Chattanooga; center Jordy Tshimanga, of Nebraska; and forward Chase Johnson, of Florida.
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Jones said you can never predict what a team will do and often crazy expectations lead to disappointment, but he added, “Obviously, things are lined up there with some really good pieces. There are still a lot of unknowns with guys who have transferred in from other programs. They come into a new culture. Even though they’ve practiced every day, they’ve always been the scout team. They’ve had to be someone else. They haven’t been just Dayton. The thing they’ve seen is the culture that’s in place and what’s expected, the mindset, the consistency. These guys obviously have talent. They’re great kids. Now how they’ll come together and play together, how the kids will relate, is the unknown. We’ve got good chemistry right now, but nobody has had to be taken out of a game or sat down. Everything’s great. You don’t lose a game. You don’t win a game. You’re just the next big thing waiting.”
Jones played an integral part in the recruitment of Johnson because they're both from West Virginia.
“Chase is a really superb athlete,” Jones said. “He really moves well. He’s got a really good work ethic. He’s got incredible upside and potential. Through his injuries at Florida, he just never got consistent opportunities to have a chance to play. We’ve eased him in slow and are making sure we’re getting his confidence back and his body right.”
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Johnson appeared in a total of six games in two seasons with Florida and scored 23 points. He received a medical redshirt his freshman season, so he has three seasons of eligibility remaining but won’t be able to play for Dayton until the end of the first semester in December unless the NCAA grants him a waiver.
“With his athleticism and the way he can move and defend and guard four positions, he can be a very versatile athlete,” Jones said. “With him and Obi (Toppin) and Jordy together, that there is a front court that can compete at a very high level. He just needs experience and game time.”
Dayton has 12 of its 13 scholarships filled, and Jones said the coaching staff is trying to add another “shooter/guard” to the roster.
“That could add some needed firepower to what’s already in place,” Jones said.
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That’s the concern for the remaining coaches, however. Jones was scheduled to be introduced as Stetson’s head coach at a press conference Monday afternoon. He said he was happy for the opportunity but sad to leave Dayton.
“Obviously, I love coach Grant,” Jones said. “Once I got here, everyone tells me how great Dayton is, but you hear that about a lot of programs. Until you get here, you sometimes don’t know what you don’t know. Getting here and being around this culture, the fans are special. The pride and love for this school is like no other place I’ve been. It’s been pretty incredible. The leadership’s great. Neil (Sullivan) and the president (Eric Spina) and those guys are exceptional — superstars. What they want to do and what they’re doing and how they support it, it’s been incredible, so it’s been fun.”