The man once called “the worst coach in America” has just been appointed as the head coach of the worst team in the Canadian Football League, despite only joining them earlier this month, not coaching in the CFL since 1986, and not serving as a head coach anywhere since resigning from the NCAA’s SMU Mustangs following an 0-2 start in 2014. (That infamous SMU exit led to the aforementioned “worst coach” epithet, especially after the team finished 1-11; Vikas Sharma made that case looking at both 2014 and the last few years of Jones’ SMU tenure in a Liberty Voice piece here).
Midway through their season, the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats brought in Jones as an assistant head coach (with no coordinator responsibilities) earlier this month, and with the team falling to a league-worst 0-8 after last Friday’s loss to Ottawa, former head coach Kent Austin has announced he’s promoting Jones to the head coaching role (Austin will stay on in his role as vice-president of football operations).
What exactly are Jones’ qualifications for this job? Well, he briefly played in the CFL as a Toronto Argonauts’ backup quarterback in 1982, and that actually played a role in a lot of his coaching career. Jones’ OC in Toronto was Darrel “Mouse” Davis, who had been his coach at Portland State and was in the process of introducing the run-and-shoot offense to the CFL (he’d later bring it to the USFL and NFL); Jones would use variations on that offense throughout his own career.
And he soon got more experience with Davis as a USFL assistant with the Houston Gamblers in 1984 and the Denver Gold in 1985 (after he spent 1983 as a graduate assistant with Hawaii). But Jones’ sole CFL coaching experience prior to this month was as an offensive coach (it’s not clear if he was a position coach or coordinator) with the Ottawa Rough Riders in 1986, a year they went 3-14-1. That doesn’t scream greatness.
Yes, Jones has had some coaching success since then, working as an NFL quarterbacks coach for Jerry Glanville and Davis in Houston and Detroit respectively, then as an offensive coordinator and assistant head coach for Glanville with the Atlanta Falcons before replacing him as head coach in 1994.
However, Jones went 7-9, 9-7 and 3-13 in three seasons there, and even got in a famously profane sideline shouting match with quarterback Jeff George during that final season. And the rest of his NFL record isn’t any better; San Diego hired him as quarterbacks coach in 1998, and fired Kevin Gilbride after a 2-4 start to promote Jones, but then went 3-7 under him (in Ryan Leaf’s rookie season, interestingly enough).
Jones did find more success in the college ranks. In 1999, he was named head coach at his alma mater, Hawaii, where he took over a team that had gone 0-12 the season before and led them to a 9-4 record. They went 3-9 the next year and 5-7 in 2005, but posted six further winning seasons under Jones, including a 12-1 campaign in 2007.
That led to him taking the SMU job, where the Mustangs went 1-11 in his first season (the same as the previous year under Phil Bennett), but improved to 8-5 the next year, and then posted 7-7, 8-5 and 7-6 marks. However, 2013 saw a downturn to 5-7, and Jones promptly exited after the team started 0-2 in 2014, citing personal reasons. Many blamed the weird 2011 saga where Arizona State seemed set to bring him in, then pulled the offer at the last minute for the beginning of the end. In any case, while Jones had impressive success with Hawaii, his SMU tenure isn’t inspiring, and his exit there doesn’t look great.
Since then, Jones was a high school offensive coordinator in 2016 and briefly a high school athletic director. But he didn’t have any high-level football experience between leaving SMU in September 2014 and joining the Ticats earlier this month. And his lack of knowledge of the modern CFL is perhaps particularly problematic; very few people have found success as a CFL head coach without being a coordinator or other assistant for a significant period before that.
And the most recent examples of someone hired as a CFL head coach based mostly on their NCAA experience are Dan Hawkins (who posted one of the shortest head coaching stints in CFL history in 2013, and one that stacks up there with some of the oddest, going 2-3 in five games with Montreal) and Jeff Tedford (who went 7-11 in one season in B.C. in 2015). Those aren’t good precedents.
Of course, the Tiger-Cats’ options here were limited. The man from their staff most buzzed about as a potential head coach, former defensive coordinator Orlondo Steinauer (2013-16), left to take the same job at Fresno State (under Tedford). Their long-time offensive coordinator Tommy Condell (2013-15) left suddenly before the 2016 season.
The only guy on their staff with CFL head coaching experience was long-time special teams coordinator Jeff Reinebold, who was shifted to defensive coordinator this year and then fired earlier this month. They do have several assistant coaches with Canadian university head coaching experience, including offensive coordinator Stef Ptaszek, but he was briefly stripped of playcalling duties last month, and had his role further reduced with Jones’ arrival. And while promoting someone with more experience with the Canadian game may have been a better idea, it wouldn’t have been too splashy, and the team could use a splash here to distract from their struggles.
Those struggles are significant, and they go well beyond the 0-8 mark. The Tiger-Cats are last in the league in 21 out of 29 offensive and 19 out of 28 defensive categories tracked weekly by the CFL. They’ve also been outscored 310-148. It seems unlikely that’s turning around dramatically regardless of who’s at the helm, unless Jones can muster up some Hawaii magic. And it seems unlikely he can.
For one thing, the run-and-shoot hasn’t really worked well anywhere since Jones’ Hawaii days, for another, it’s hard to install a radical offensive transformation midseason (especially with the CFL’s limited practice hours), and for a third, its problems are already present in Hamilton; one of the Tiger-Cats’ biggest issues recently under Austin has been an overemphasis on the pass and a neglect of the ground game. It seems improbable that Jones is suddenly going to turn this team around.
What may be even more interesting to watch here is what this means for Austin. He won the Grey Cup as a head coach with Saskatchewan in 2007, then left for NCAA stints at Ole Miss (as offensive coordinator) and Cornell (as head coach), but returned to the CFL in 2013 as Hamilton’s head coach and general manager. He found success there early on, including Grey Cup appearances in 2013 and 2014 (albeit with 9-9 and 10-8 regular season records respectively) and a 10-8 campaign with an East Final loss in 2015, but the Ticats went 7-11 last year and are now 0-8, bringing his overall Hamilton coaching record to 48-50.
He’s also now delegated both his general manager (to Eric Tillman in May 2016) and head coach titles, remaining just as the supervisory VP of football operations, and previous attempts to have three different people in those jobs usually haven’t gone well.
Maybe Austin can devote more of his energies to the personnel side now, and maybe he and Tillman can work to fix the Tiger-Cats on that end. Maybe Jones can spark some small improvement (and it’s worth noting that the CFL East is so bad even small improvement might lead to a playoff berth; the other teams there are 4-5, 3-5 and 2-6-1, with the top two automatically making the playoffs and the third getting in with an equal or better record to the West’s fourth-place team).
Even missing the playoffs might be okay if the team can show they’re making progress. But Jones is stepping into a bad situation even by midseason CFL coaching change standards, and he’s doing so without the usual qualifications. That doesn’t raise a lot of optimism, and if this doesn’t work out, Austin’s seat may get hot as well.