AMBOY — Gary Jones is your prototypical old-school football coach. And his is a year-round vocation that was long foreseen.
Back in 1968, when the eighth-graders at Amboy Junior High School were asked what they want to be when they grow up, Jones wrote “football coach” at the top of his sheet.
He took over as the Clippers’ defensive coordinator in 1976, immediately after his playing days ended with the exchange of a physical education degree at Eureka College. Having taken over as head coach in 1994, suffice to say he’s drawn more X’s and O’s than a lifelong hopeless romantic.
He’s seen fans threaten to storm the field and riot when shady calls went against the Clippers, and personally ordered said fanatics off the field. Talk about a far cry from the 18-year-old who threw a punch and triggered a melee after the Clippers lost the Blackhawk Conference-title game 22-20 to Oregon.
“We got thrown out of the conference for that, but anyway ...” Jones said. “Put it this way: I wouldn’t want a player of mine to do what I did. That type of thing, it’s something you look back on and you go, ‘That was kind of stupid.’ But at the time … yeah, I thought it was the right thing to do.”
“Tank,” as Jones has been affectionately known since his high school coach, Don Fritz, gave him the nickname, has seen and done it all, including helping direct the Clippers to their lone state title in 1984.
So it should come as little surprise that he began a conversation in his cramped coach’s quarters Thursday afternoon with some serious next-level analysis while breaking down the Clippers’ Class 2A quarterfinal matchup with Mercer County.
His knee-jerk response to a gameday forecast that calls for temperatures in the upper-60s?
“I just hope it’s windy,” he said.
Well played, coach. No defensive scheme would slow down the Golden Eagles’ outstanding passing game like a blustery day.
It’s that sort of matter-of-fact common sense that makes players want to run through walls for Jones, even if there was a certain period of skin-thickening.
“It took a little bit of getting used to, but we knew what to expect,” junior Damon Quest said. “He brings that old-fashioned style that we like around here – that old-fashioned, suck-it-up attitude.”
Jones took his pointers from those for whom he played. One buzz phrase in particular stuck with him.
“When I first got to college and walked onto the practice field,” Jones leans back and remembers, “Coach [Leo Traister] came up to me and he goes, ‘Jones, I’m not gonna tell you when you do a good job, because you’re here to do it right. But I’ll be the first one over your ass when you do it wrong.’ “
But Jones admits he’s backed off the throttle over the years.
“Oh, it’s changed from 20 or 30 years ago, to what it is now,” he said. “Kids are kids. They’re never gonna really change. I think the parents have changed over the past years.
“Kids know where their place is – if they’re first string, second string, third string – they know their role on the team. Sometimes, parents get that messed up a little bit.”
Jones says each of his teams had its own personality. But when it comes to squads that accomplish great feats like the ‘84 title team, or the 2006 semifinal team for which his son, Alex, played, there’s a common feature.
“All those kids got along, and they could correct one another,” Jones said. “We’ve had some teams here where one kid might say, ‘You know, you’ve gotta pick it up,’ and hear, ‘Why don’t you just take care of yourself?’ “
That’s not just the case in Amboy.
“I don’t care what school you go to,” Jones said. “All great teams have that ... that thing where they get along like brothers. You can criticize one another, but don’t somebody from the outside dare come in and criticize your teammates.”