And yet, Donnie Jones, the newest addition to the University of Dayton coaching staff, is definitely still second fiddle when it comes to celebrity status in his small town hard on the Ohio River, just across the bridge from Gallipolis.
The headliner in his hometown has a 12-foot metallic statue spreading its wings in a small park at Fourth Street and Main. There’s a museum bearing his name across the street and every year there’s an annual festival that honors him, too.
A book was written about him in 1975, and in 2001 it became a movie starring Richard Gere.
“Oh yeah, the Mothman’s got me,” Jones said with a nod and a laugh as he sat in his Cronin Center office for one of the very first times the other day.
Part of West Virginia folklore, the Mothman first drew national attention in the late 1960s. According to those who reportedly saw it — and Jones said there were at least 75 to 80 sightings from Point Pleasant to Charleston some 55 miles away — it was mostly described as a large, flying creature with glowing red eyes, a barrel chest, an eerie shriek and giant wings.
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The creature supposedly lived somewhere in an abandoned World War II munitions plant outside of town, a place now called the “TNT Area.”
Seen by everyday people — from construction workers to couples out for an evening drive — the Mothman was connected to various incidents in the area, including the 1967 collapse of the Silver Bridge that killed 46 people during afternoon rush hour as they were crossing the span that takes U.S. Route 35 over the Ohio River between West Virginia and Ohio.
Born just months before the Mothman was first spotted, Jones, like other kids in town, was drawn to the story as he grew up.
“As a kid I wasn’t sure what to believe,” he said. “But being kids we had no fear and we’d ride up there looking for the Mothman.
“He supposedly hung out at one of those condemned explosive plants at TNT. Back during World War II they had all these igloos in the hills up there. That’s where they stored dynamite and other things. The igloos hid everything if a plane should fly over.”
Jones never saw the Mothman, but he heard the stories.
“One guy had his dog bit into by some massive creature,” he said. “The teeth marks in it (weren’t) from a bear. It was something larger than a bear.
“That whole mystique, all the stories and everything that happened, it brought a lot of attention to our town.
“I guess it has to do if you believe in monsters. I don’t, but there was definitely something different up there. It was something we never identified that went through the valley.”
While a wildlife biology professor at West Virginia University suggested the Mothman might actually be a migrating Sandhill Crane, there were several people who saw it and thought it to be something far more frightening.
“A guy who worked with my dad at Goodyear Tire and Rubber right there on Route 2 coming up the river had just gotten off work on the midnight shift and was driving home in his convertible with the top down,” Jones recalled.
“He said all of a sudden he saw something fly over his head. It was dark out and he was kind of like ‘What was that? Was it a bird of something?’
“Then he looks up and there was this huge monster. He said he’d never seen as bird this big, especially one with red eyes. It hovered over him and he took off as fast as he could, just trying to lose that thing. He said he was going 70 to 80 miles an hour and it stayed right over the top of him. He pulled right up to the police station and ran in and he said that’s when the thing flew on.
"I know the guy well. He never, never would make up a story like that. He had no reason to lie. He didn't want attention.
“But I’ll tell you, he was shook like there was no tomorrow.”
A hometown hero
While glimpses of the Mothman would fade out soon after the Silver Bridge collapse, Jones became a prominent sight on the basketball courts in Point Pleasant over the next decade and a half.
When he was 12, he said Greg White — the West Virginia schoolboy legend who would have a Hall of Fame career at Marshall and go on to become a long-celebrated college coach — came to Point Pleasant to put on a clinic.
Jones said he was in awe of White, then a star point guard for the Thundering Herd: “I was one of the campers then and he just became a huge influence in my life.”
When it came time for college, Jones listened to just one recruiting pitch. It came from White, who had just taken over the Pikeville College job in Kentucky.
“I committed right then without even visiting the campus,” Jones said. “I was his first recruit.”
It was during his Pikeville career that Jones said he decided he wanted to be a coach. After his playing days ended, he was an assistant at the school and then moved to Marshall as an assistant.
When Billy Donovan took over the Thundering Herd program, he kept Jones on the staff and added Anthony Grant, now UD’s head coach, as an assistant too.
Jones and Grant followed Donovan to Florida, where the Gators great success helped launch both their careers. Grant took over the head coaching job at VCU in 2006, and a year later Jones finally returned to Marshall, a program that had seven straight losing seasons.
He went 55-41 in three seasons, got the Herd its first postseason win in 33 years and then was hired as the University of Central Florida head coach in 2010.
He opened with three straight 20-plus win seasons, but UCF football and basketball was hit by NCAA sanctions. They stemmed from an association with a player agent who was friends with the old athletics director, who then had introduced him to Jones and football coach George O’Leary.
Basketball got a one-year postseason ban, and Jones got probation and was limited in his recruiting visits. He still was embraced by the school and the new AD, and the following year he signed a lucrative five-year contract extension.
But with the realignment of the Big East, the Golden Knights ended up in the American Athletic Conference where they regularly faced powerhouse opponents.
“Two years in a row that national champions, UConn and Louisville, were from the American Athletic Conference,” Jones said. “I remember one span where we played nine straight Top 25 teams. It was rough.”
After six seasons — the final three with losing records thanks, in part, to the sanctions and a few defections of prominent players — Jones was let go. He spent a year as an NBA scout and travelled the country making speeches, and then last season he was an assistant on Gregg Marshall’s staff at Wichita State.
When James Kane left Dayton last month for Iowa State, where he reconnected with head coach Steve Prohm, a former colleague, Grant suddenly had an unexpected opening on his staff.
Eight days ago Jones said Grant asked Marshall for permission to talk to him, and that led to a whirlwind hire.
Forming a connection
Grant and Jones first got to know each other when Donovan made them part of his staff at Marshall for the 1994-95 season.
Jones had been there with the previous coach, Dwight Freeman, and had kept working in the transition, even though it took Donovan six weeks before he officially hired him onto his staff.
“I was in the office keeping things running and I remember he sent me to pick up Anthony at the airport,” Jones smiled. “As I was driving Anthony back, I remember him in the car asking me, ‘By the way, are you one of the managers?’
“I said, ‘I guess you could call me that. I’ve got a lot of titles right now.’ We get a good laugh about that now.”
He said he and Grant became good friends and coaching confidantes.
“Our kids were all born the same time and they grew up together and have been to each other’s birthday parties and all that,” he said. “We’ve been close a long time.
“He’s an incredible person. I know his character, his trustworthiness, his sincerity. As a coach he’s very analytical, very well-scripted. He prepares and studies like no other. And he’s passionate in his own way. He’s got that quiet strength.”
Grant said he believes Jones, with his own head coaching experience, “complements what I do very well. I think he complements the other members of our staff, too, and will fit in really well with our players.
“He’s someone I know very well. I know the type person, the type coach he is. He understands what we’re doing here and our culture and he’ll be great in terms of development and growth of our players.”
Not only does Jones know Grant, but he knows a little of Dayton, too.
“I used to come here a lot as a little kid,” he said. “My dad’s uncle was a physician forever in Kettering and we used to come visit here as a family.”
Years later, when he was coaching Marshall, he brought the Herd into UD Arena for a game on Dec. 23, 2008.
“There was bad ice storm that day, and we didn’t think they’d play the game, but they did,” he said of the Flyers’ 62-50 victory. “And they had a nice crowd (13,021). I was shocked.”
Along with knowing Grant and the passion of the fans here, Jones has a link to some of the Flyers assistant coaches, too. Darren Hertz was a student assistant at Florida when Jones was there and became one of his best friends.
“I was in Darren’s wedding,” Jones smiled. “And I got Ricardo Greer into the business when I was at UCF. I hired him as my basketball ops guy. I introduced him to Anthony last year.”
Even with all the connections, Jones admits it’s hard to jump to a new job on short notice, especially when it means his wife Michelle and their three children, 17-year-old Madisyn, 14-year-old Isaac and Sophie, who’s 10, will have to uproot their lives again, just a year after moving to Wichita from Orlando.
“That’s the life of a coach,” he said.
And so, just hours after he was officially hired at UD and then sat down for an interview for this column, he was on a plane to Augusta, Ga., to begin recruiting for the Flyers at the NIKE EYBL Peach Jam basketball showcase.
That also meant Isaac, who had accompanied his dad from their home in Wichita to Dayton for a couple of days, would spend this weekend in Point Pleasant with his grandparents.
Tonight, Jones plans to pick him up there.
“That’s another plus of coming here,” he said. “It’s just two hours away from Point Pleasant. It’s always nice to be able to go back home.”
And although he still may be second fiddle back there, at least now he comes in a real Flyer, too.