BOSTON – Yale coach James Jones stood near a set of bleachers at Harvard’s Lavietes Pavilion on Saturday night when his nine-year old son, Quincy, sprinted over and jumped into his arms. His wife, Rebecka, edged over as an interview ended, hugged him tightly and planted a giddy kiss on the cheek.
Jones cracked his calm demeanor with an iridescent smile, soaking in the moment, ever so briefly, following Yale’s 62-52 victory over ancient rival Harvard. Jones, 51, finds himself on the cusp of delivering the Bulldogs their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1962—two years before he was born—and Yale becoming one of the most endearing stories of March. Yale (22-8, 11-2) clinched a share of the regular season Ivy League title with the win Friday night and can vanquish a half-century of futility with a victory at Dartmouth on Saturday night or a loss by Harvard (20-7, 10-3) to Brown.
In this 16th year as Yale’s head coach, Jones has had plenty of time to develop a concise game celebration game plan.
“I’m probably going to be as calm as I ever have,” he predicted in a quiet moment. “Hug everyone I can and tell them that I love them.”
A victory Saturday would help Jones shed one of the most fascinating stigmas in college sports. He’s the longest tenured coach at a Division I school to not deliver his team to the NCAA tournament. (His 16 seasons at Yale put him 21st in tenure, according to the irrepressible Patrick Stevens of Syracuse.com). And has he sits on the precipice of his moment, it’s fascinating to ponder to confluence of events that allowed him to sustain in this volatile college sports landscape.
Jones has proven the consummate grinder in the Ivy League, typically good but never great, usually contenders but never sole champions. Since getting hired in 1999, he’s seen the Ivy League evolve from the Penn-Princeton vice grip to Cornell’s run of dominance (2007-2010) to Harvard’s run atop the league the past three seasons. And Yale stood with him all the way, as he won a share of the regular season title in 2002 and knocked on the door a few times since.
“Yale has stuck in there with me and been part of this,” he said. “I’d like to think that I’ve given them great returns. We have a Rhodes Scholar on the team and great, great people that have gone on to great things.”
Fittingly, Friday’s win gives Jones a 231-230 career record. And as the Bulldogs have fluctuated between mediocrity and contender, Yale administration relished Jones’ consistency as a teacher and leader. “We’re in this for the long haul and James has been a tremendous citizen,” said Yale athletic director Tom Beckett. “His students love him. He’s good in the community and tremendous with our alums. You can’t have enough of those kinds of people in your organization.”
There’s a certain buzz around a program that’s on the verge of a generational moment. That feel reverberated through the Yale alumni, former players and family members who hung near the bench in the hour after the game. They loitered because they didn’t want to leave, savoring the moment with hugs, high fives and best wishes for the bus ride to Hanover, N.H. Chris Dudley, arguably the biggest star in Yale history, flew in from San Diego. Jones’ former players came back and introduced themselves to the current ones. A communal longing, angst and nervousness permeated the group. They weren’t doing something for the first time in school history, but it sure felt that way.
“Selfishly, I want it for him,” said Joe Jones, James’ brother and the head coach at Boston University. “I want it for all the people that have supported him. Former players, administrators and the Yale community. You know they are longing for this opportunity. It’s just a great story when it all comes together for a program that’s won the right way for so long.”
There’s a lot to like about Jones’ Bulldogs team. In the Lavietes sauna on Friday night, in front of a rowdy crowd, Yale leapt out to a 12-point lead and fended off every subsequent Harvard run. There was reserve guard Khaliq Ghani, storming for an and-1 tip-in to swing momentum. There was star guard Javier Duren (22 points, 9 rebounds), crossing over Harvard’s Wesley Saunders and hitting a pull-up jump shot and, finally, drilling a dagger 3-pointer with 1:33 remaining.
Most impressive, they were unfazed by the chants of “Safety School,” the magnitude of the moment or the heat of the rivalry. Harvard began this season in the Top 25, but the Crimson hit just 2 of 17 3-pointers and, much like the rest of this fickle season, never fulfilled their potential.
Harvard’s only hope for the NCAA tournament bid is a Yale loss on Saturday and Crimson victory over Brown. They'd then have to win a one-game playoff for a bid.
They'd again attempt to overcome the Bulldogs, who spoke of an uncommon chemistry to this group. It showed in an early-season victory at UConn and hasn’t wavered. That begins with Jones, whose team is rallying around him.
“In the four years that I’ve been here, there’s a sense that he’s given so much of himself for the program,” said Matt Townsend, the power forward who doubles as a Rhodes Scholar. “To give something back to him and give him that elusive Ivy League title would just be incredible.”
Townsend studies molecular, cellular and developmental biology when he’s not setting bruising screens or swishing mid-range jumpers. And it doesn’t take someone with his intellectual heft to figure out what this would mean for Yale. It’s been 53 years since Yale reached the NCAA tournament and 16 seasons without an appearance for Jones. ESPN did a live SportsCenter hit from Lavietes on Friday, not exactly common practice.
The NCAA bid on Saturday would serve as a fitting coda for a coach who has endured and a school that’s valued, well, values. After 16 long years, James Jones and his plucky Yale team are about to meet their moment. “That’s a story,” he said, “you can sell.”