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Watching a coaching legend for 30 years from the best seat in the house

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If my records are correct, Mike Jones coached 868 boys varsity games in a career stretching back 30 years.


It’s safe to say I covered around 500 of those games as a sports writer, about two thirds of his games in four years at Cawood and eight years at Harlan and about 90 percent of his games the past six years at Harlan County High School, along with a handful of games at Jackson County and a dozen or so at Clay County.


Last week is sometimes a blur, but my long-term memory is pretty good, if I do say so myself. It comes in handy in times like this when I try to put together a history about someone I’ve known a long time.


My first interview with Jones was in the fall of 1980, when I was still a senior at Cawood High School and Jones was in his first year as assistant boys basketball coach, a position he held for three years before beginning his career as a head boys varsity coach. We talked in the Little Theatre at JACHS about the upcoming season for the Cawood junior varsity team.


My most recent interview was last week in an almost empty Harlan County High School, where we talked about his decision to step down as the HCHS boys basketball coach, likely ending one of the most successful coaching careers in Kentucky history.


I like consistency, and no one was more consistent through the years than Mike Jones, both as a coach and person.


Very few people, however, were more misunderstood.


Jones had a way of intimidating people without even talking to them, a skill that likely came in handy when dealing with parents and fans through the years.


People would often say they felt for me when I was on my way to interview Jones after a tough loss. I sometimes would point out that I talked to him after Cawood’s loss in the 1986 regional finals and after Harlan’s loss in the 1994 regional tourney and in the 1999 finals. No loss now would ever be any tougher than those, I reasoned.


The truth was that it was never that tough to interview Jones. He was/is a tremendous competitor, but he always answered any questions I had professionally and honestly, both during the good and the bad times. We got to know each other so well that he sometimes communicated to his players through the comments he made to me for the newspaper. I knew what he was doing, but it always made for interesting reading, especially when he was unhappy, and as his players, especially in the early years knew, making Mike Jones happy was not easy.


Though his teams’ playing style changed very little, Jones adjusted his approach in dealing with players through the years. I always thought it was funny when people complained that he was too tough. I used to say you should have seen him in 1994, and you wouldn’t have wanted to see him in 1984 if you think he’s a disciplinarian now.


I had the good fortune of covering both Jones and Billy Hicks when I started writing sports for the Enterprise in 1985. I learned a lot of basketball from watching both of them in the early years and also figured out that one of the keys to their success was they simply worked harder than the rest of the competition, a trait I tried to copy in my own career.


It’s going to be different not having coach Jones sitting on the bench next December when the season begins, but having his son, Michael, in charge will make the transition a lot easier, both for me and the Black Bears. Michael did a great job with the team this summer and deserves a head coaching opportunity as much as anyone I’ve worked with through the years. He learned basketball, and coaching, from one of the best.


When I look back on all the great teams and players (my thoughts on the best of the Jones years are below), I feel fortunate to have had one of the best seats in the house for all those years.


The following is my look back at what I think is the best of the Jones era:


All-Jones teams


First team


PG — Michael Jones, Harlan, 1994


G — Charles Thomas, Harlan, 1995


G — Casey Lester, Harlan, 1996


F — Nick Sanford, Cawood, 1986


C — Todd Cox, Harlan, 1995


Second team


PG — Nathan Blanton, Harlan, 1996


G — Jeremy Asher, Clay County, 2001


G — William Fields, Harlan, 2000


F — Gary Greer, Harlan, 2000


C — Rodney Mitchell, Clay County, 2005


Third team


PG — Tyler Brewer, Harlan County, 2013


G — Brian Griffin, Clay County, 2004


G — Kyle Hogue, Harlan County, 2010


F — Greg Bibb, Todd Central, 1991


C — Richard Robinson, Harlan, 1999


Fourth team


PG — Angelo Smith, Clay County, 2002


G — Joel Kauffman, Harlan, 1997


G — Kyle Jones, Harlan, 1999


F — Garry Henson, Cawood, 1987


C — Richard Walker, Clay County, 2002


Best Jones teams


1. Harlan 1995 (33-4) — Led by Mr. Basketball Charles Thomas and fellow Kentucky All-Star Todd Cox, the Dragons made it all the way to the final day at the Sweet Sixteen, falling in the final four to Pleasure Ridge Park.


Harlan had to beat Knox Central in the semifinals and Corbin in the finals to make it back to the state tournament after being upset by Clay County the previous year in the semifinals at Manchester.


Nathan Blanton, who went on to play at Tennessee Wesleyan, took over for Michael Jones at point guard. Casey Lester was in his fourth year as a starting wing. Senior Kevin Hudson rounded out the backcourt in the star-studded lineup that helped Harlan gain statewide attention.


2. Harlan 1994 (28-4) — I’ve always thought this was the best of the powerhouse Harlan teams and probably the best team I’ve covered with a starting lineup that include two future Division I signees (Charles Thomas and Todd Cox) and three who went on to play on the NAIA level (Michael Jones, Casey Lester and Nathan Blanton), not to mention the steady Kevin Hudson at guard and Jeremy Simpson at forward.


That Harlan team blew out M.C. Napier in December, and the Navajos went on to win the 14th Region. The Dragons also won the first of two straight All “A” Classic state titles in Richmond but may have peaked too early, falling to Clay County on the Tigers’ homecourt in the regional semifinals.


3. Harlan 1993 (33-6) — With basically the same team as 1994, the Dragons broke a 24-year drought between regional championships for Harlan County teams and they had to do it by beating perhaps the region’s three other best teams as they knocked off Bell County, Clay County and Corbin in the regional tournament after losing to Cumberland in the 52nd District Tournament finals. The Dragons may have been the youngest team in the state tournament that year with Michael Jones the elder statesman as a junior. Charles Thomas had started to establish himself as a future star in his sophomore season, and the arrival of Todd Cox gave Harlan one of the state’s best young big men


4. Harlan 1996 (27-5) — Jones has said none of his teams ever played together any better than his 1996 squad, led by seniors Casey Lester, Nathan Blanton and Jeremy Simpson, along with junior Joel Kauffman and freshman Kyle Jones. Harlan continued to win despite losing Michael Jones, Charles Thomas and Todd Cox to graduation the past two seasons. The Dragons beat a tough Jackson County team in the regional semifinals before blasting Bell County in the finals. Harlan advanced to the second round of the state tournament before falling to Henderson County.


5. Cawood 1986 (25-5) — When you talk about 13th Region basketball, the mid 1980s could be considered the greatest era, for both players and coaches. In order to win the 52nd District Tournament that season, Jones’ Trojans had to beat Ralph Roberts’ Cumberland Redskins in the semifinals and Billy Hicks’ Harlan Green Dragons in the finals. Hicks and Roberts are both among the winningest coaches in Kentucky history. Future Harlem Globetrotter Paul Gaffney was a standout player for the Redskins that season, but he was probably the third best player in Harlan County with all-stater Nick Sanford at Cawood and Jeff Miller among the state’ s top scorers at Harlan.


Cawood defeated Middlesboro and all-stater Lawrence Buell in the semifinals before falling in a heartbreaker to Clay County in the finals, losing a lead in the final minute when Woody Asher hit a go-ahead jumper in the lane. The Tigers also featured guard Richie Farmer, the 1988 Mr. Basketball, and Sean Pennington, who went on to play football at Eastern Kentucky University.


Sanford was the Trojans’ star and led the Kentucky All-Stars to a sweep of Indiana in June, along with future Wildcat Rex Chapman. Senior Ronnie Ball and juniors Sam Metcalfe and Tommy Hensley were in the Cawood backcourt that season with junior Garry Henson playing center and Jeff Osborne serving as the region’s top sixth man.


6. Clay County 2001 (25-8) — Not many expected the Tigers to win the title with Bell County and Cawood both fielding their strongest teams in years. Clay knocked off the Trojans on their homecourt in the semifinals, then beat out a powerhouse Bell team in the finals. Clay went on to defeat South Floyd in the state tournament’s opening round, giving Jones a 4-0 record in the first round of the Sweet Sixteen, before falling in the quarterfinals. Jeremy Asher was the star for the Tigers, but freshman Brian Griffin had a big postseason performance with his 3-point shooting ability and sophomore Angelo Smith was a steady point guard.


7. Harlan County 2013 (25-8) — After first-round regional tournament exits the previous four years, the pressure was on a senior-dominated HCHS team. The Bears, led by senior point guard Tyler Brewer, wings Alex Sergent and Chad Massingill and forwards Tyler Miller and Aaron Caldwell, plus key reserves James Bond and Zach Caldwell, overpowered Harlan and Middlesboro in the 52nd District Tournament.


The Bears had to battle from behind against South Laurel and North Laurel in the regional tournament, winning both with gutsy comebacks, before falling to a red-hot Clay County team in the regional finals.


8. Harlan 1999 (27-6) — Jones’ last game at Harlan ended with a loss to Clay County in Bobby Keith’s final season as coach (Keith also retired just before the Tigers upset Harlan in the 1994 semifinals). The 1999 team featured Jones’ son, Kyle, at guard, and Richard Robinson at center. Juniors Gary Greer and William Fields were also key players as Harlan bounced back to win the district title after falling to Cawood the previous year.


9 Cawood 1987 (22-10) — A senior-dominated squad, led by Tommy Hensley, Sam Metcalfe, J.D. Lambert, Jeff Osborne and Garry Henson, won 14 of its first 15 games in Jones’ final season at Cawood. The Trojans were upset by Harlan in the 52nd District finals before knocking off Bell on the Bobcats’ home court in the opening round of the regional. The Trojans appeared headed toward a rematch Clay County in the regional finals but were knocked off by Williamsburg on a last-second shot. Clay went on to win the state championship, two years after falling in the finals to Hopkinsville.


10. Harlan County 2012 (27-6) — After a strong finish the year before with a sophomore-dominated team that pushed Clay County to the final seconds in the regional tournament, the Black Bears were greeted with high expectations going into the school’s fourth year. Led by Tyler Brewer, Chad Massingill and Alex Sergent out front and Aaron Caldwell and Chase Calton inside, the Bears set a school record for victories that still stands but slumped down the stretch. Middlesboro upset the Bears on their homecourt in the 52nd District finals, then fell to Clay County in the opening round of the regional.

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