So when the Knights’ head basketball coaching position became available two weeks ago, Jones not only jumped at the chance to speak with UCF Athletics Director Keith Tribble, but he also came prepared. He hand-delivered Tribble a detailed “blueprint” of how he would go about implementing his system at UCF and stock the Knights with homegrown talent from Florida.
Tribble left that meeting knowing he wanted Jones, 43, as the next coach of UCF’s basketball team. Jones officially accepted the position on Monday and will be introduced Tuesday at 2 p.m. at UCF Arena in a ceremony with media and fans. And Jones, an 11-year assistant at the University of Florida before he became Marshall’s head coach, can hardly wait to get started in a position he’s closely monitored for years.
“Being an assistant at Florida I always knew there was a special school there at UCF and it just kept growing and growing. I’m just so excited about the leadership there,” Jones said. “And being in Conference USA and being able to come on the campus there the last three years, I was really impressed. Being in Florida all those years, I always looked at UCF as a place that could be a special job. I’m just so excited to be a part of it there now.”
Jones developed a reputation as a relentless recruiter as an assistant coach at Florida and his profile as one of the nation’s top young head coaches rose when he quickly turned around a downtrodden program at Marshall. His Thundering Herd teams improved each of the past three seasons and went 24-10 this year, Marshall’s best record in more than 20 years. Stocked with five recruits from Florida and C-USA Defensive and Freshman Player of Year Hassan Whiteside, the Herd also reached the second round of the CollegeInsider.com tournament.
It was Jones’ complete package of being able to recruit, coach and change the dynamics of a program sold him to Tribble. Tribble said he interviewed 14 prospective coaches for the position. He narrowed his finalist list down to three coaches, and Jones ultimately won out because of the strength of his entire body of work.
“The fact that Donnie is a strong recruiter, he had recruited the state of Florida not only during his days at the University of Florida, but also at Marshall was impressive,” Tribble said. “He’s been a head coach where he had to build things from the ground up and he changed the culture and got them to understand the importance of winning. He represented all of the qualities in a coach that I thought was important for us here at UCF.”
A native of Point Pleasant, W.Va., Jones called leaving his home state “very hard, very emotional” and “the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make in my career to leave.” His wife, Michelle, also hails from West Virginia.
But he said the opportunity to coach at UCF was too strong to pass up because the school is just teeming with potential. With the nation’s third-largest student body and a sparkling three-year-old facility, Jones sees no reason why UCF shouldn’t be able to compete with some of the nation’s top programs when it comes to recruiting elite level talent.
“I think the program there has so much potential,” he said. “The facilities are No. 1. Kids sometimes forget about tradition and tradition is usually for the parents. Kids get on campus and see the facilities, the commitment and the academics, and when you have those things you have a chance to get special kids and that’s the opportunities that we’ll have at UCF.”
Jones said as of Monday afternoon that he had already received approximately 40 calls from high school and AAU coaches in Florida with whom he used to work closely with while recruiting the Sunshine State. He said he already has a list of Florida’s top players that he hopes to start recruiting next week as soon as the NCAA’s “dead” recruiting period ends. And he’s already informed Tribble of his plan to spend the summer traveling the state as a way to reconnect with high school and AAU coaches in Florida.
“I’ve been fortunate to be around some great recruiters in Anthony Grant, John Pelphrey and Billy Donovan (at Florida) and I’ve learned a lot from them. I’ve been blessed,” he said. “The most important thing in recruiting is not only being persistent, but also being real. It’s about relationships and I’m a relater and I like people. When you are selling your program to people they have to have trust to come and play for you.”
Jones said UCF fans can expect him to employ an up-tempo style of play that emphasizes pressure on both ends of the floor. His Marshall team led C-USA in scoring this past season, while also extending the defense and trapping all over the floor.
He said he’s eager to work with UCF’s young core of Keith Clanton, Marcus Jordan, A.J. Rompza, and Isaac Sosa. He believes that that group mixed with an injection of talent from recruiting can have UCF competing for a league title sooner rather than later.
“We want to play an up-tempo style and we like to press and run, but we didn’t get to press as much as I wanted because we had a tremendous shot-blocker in Hassan Whiteside,” said Jones, who was 55-41 in three seasons at Marshall. “We played fast, but we didn’t press as much as I’d like to with this team at UCF.
“It will be an up-tempo style at UCF and I think the fans are going to enjoy it,” he continued. “It will be pressure type of basketball where we pressure you defensively as well as offensively all over the floor.”
John Denton’s Knights Insider appears on UCFathletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at [email protected]