With his resume as both a player and assistant coach, Michael Jones probably could have left Harlan County several years ago if he had wanted to lead a basketball program of his own.
But Jones knew where he wanted to coach, and he was willing to wait. That wait ended Thursday when he was named the boys basketball coach at Harlan County High School, succeeding his father, Mike, a future Hall of Famer who won over 600 games, four regional titles and two All “A” Classic state championships in a 30-year career.
“I’ve thought about this job since they started talking about consolidating. I hoped one day I would be blessed to have the opportunity to be the head coach here,” Jones said. “It’s always been my goal, my dream, to take over for my dad. I knew it would be a humbling feeling following his footsteps.”
“We’re excited about having Michael as the boys basketball coach,” Harlan County High School Principal Edna Burkhart said. “He’s done a great job with the junior varsity team for several years. He has a very good rapport with the players and a great knowledge of basketball. He’s been a big part of the success of the basketball program at HCHS over the previous six years and is very deserving of this opportunity.”
Even though he played and coached under his father, well known for his halfcourt style of offense, Jones plans a different approach.
“We’re going to turn them loose,” Jones said. “We’ll get up and down the floor. We’ll shoot a bunch of 3s and try to score in transition. We’ll press as much as we possibly can and try to create turnovers. It will be different, but I will always go back to the basics he has taught over the years. We don’t want to change too much, because for 30-plus years he’s been one of the best coaches in Kentucky. We’ll see how it works this summer.”
Jones started playing high school basketball for his father as an eighth grader at Jackson County. He spent his freshman season at Todd Central, then moved back to Harlan County with his family when his dad took over as the Harlan coach.
Harlan had posted a losing record in 1991, the year before the Joneses arrived, but it was clear even then that the Dragons were on the verge of a resurgence with a talented eighth grader named Charles Thomas in the starting lineup after his transfer from Cumberland. Todd Cox arrived a year later from Cawood to play center, and the Dragons went from missing the regional tournament in 1991 and 1992 to winning it in 1993 with a lineup featuring Jones, Thomas, Kevin Hudson and Casey Lester in the backcourt and Cox at center..
Jones earned all-state honors as a senior in 1994, setting a state record for assists. He earned an invitation to the Kentucky All Stars tryouts that summer and signed with Cumberland College.
He joined his father’s staff as an assistant coach when Harlan County High School opened in the fall of 2008 and led one of the top junior varsity teams in the region each of the past four years with a combined record of 53-4.
Harlan County won 52nd District Tournament championships in 2010 and 2013, advancing to the 13th Region Tournament finals in 2013 before falling to Clay County. After improving each of the previous five years, the Bears dropped to 14-15 last season after losing five of their top six players to graduation and missed the regional tournament for the first time in school history.
Jones expects the Bears to be much improved this season with four starters coming back and one of the region’s top freshmen classes joining the program
“The talent is there. It’s our job to get it out of them,” Jones said. “We have a good group of kids coming back and a good group of kids coming in. We’ll work hard and see what we can accomplish. I’m very thankful to Mrs. Burkhart for having confidence in me, my dad for all I’ve learned from him and my family for their support.”
Cody Bumgardner, who will be a senior next season, will run the HCHS offense in a backcourt that also features two of the region’s top freshmen from last season, Cameron Carmical and Treyce Spurlock. Trey Sanders, a senior next fall, is one of the team’s top shooters and provided a lift off the bench last season.
“We have the kids who can get up and down the floor, and we have some really good shooters. We feel we have one of the best point guards in the region in Bumgardner, who can really push it in transition,” Jones said. “You can’t say enough about Cameron and Treyce. They both have the potential to be two of the better players in the region, and we’ll definitely feed off them a lot this year. Trey does a great job in practice on showing how hard you’re supposed to play, and he will be a huge part of this team.”
Zach Caldwell and Fred Massey, both seniors next year, were starters inside for the Bears at the start of last season and will likely move back into those positions after football season ends. Both are potential all-staters on the gridiron and have also played a big role with the basketball team since leading Harlan County to the AAU state junior varsity title two summers ago.
“Those kids inside, with Massey and Caldwell, can be as good as anybody in the region down low if they come in ready to play,” Jones said.
Junior forward Cody Brewer and sophomore center David Turner will also complete for playing time, along with sophomore guards Jared Sizemore and William Bowling. Several freshmen will also be in the mix for varsity spots.
Harlan County will open its season Dec. 2 at home against Letcher Central. The Bears will also play in WYMT Mountain Classic, the Berea Invitational and the Arby’s/KFC Classic at McCreary Central.