Jones helps Tiger-Cats claw their way up
A good coach can coach anywhere. At least that's what the adage says.
So maybe it makes sense that June Jones is having some success in his first fling as a head coach in the Canadian Football League.
The former Grant High and Portland State quarterback has won three of four games since taking over the helm of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, his first real coaching job since resigning as head coach at Southern Methodist during the 2014 season.
That's impressive, since the Tiger-Cats were 0-8 under Jones' predecessor, Kent Austin.
"It's interesting up here," says Jones, 64, via phone from his apartment in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. "The coaching stuff is fun, being back with the kids. The (Canadian) game's a little different. It's taken me a little bit of time to get used to it."
Jones played one season of CFL ball in Toronto and spent a season as offensive coordinator in Ottawa, "but that was more than 30 years ago," he says. "It's coming back to me now. The hard thing is, I didn't get a training camp or preseason to get used to it."
Jones was at his home in Honolulu in July when he received a phone call from Hamilton general manager Eric Tillman, whom he'd known since his time with Ottawa.
"Eric asked me about a quarterback I'd had at SMU," Jones says. "I gave him my evaluation. We got to talking about stuff, and he asked if I'd be interested in coming to Hamilton and helping them. I said, 'Maybe.'"
Tillman called back 10 days later. They agreed to meet at Portland International Airport. Jones signed on to join the Hamilton staff as an assistant to Austin. Three weeks later, Tillman fired Austin and hired Jones as interim head coach. Did Jones expect that to happen when he was hired as an assistant?
"Absolutely not," he says. "It was the furthest thing from my mind. I was in shock, honestly, when the change was made. I came on to work with the receivers and quarterbacks and put my touch on what they were doing."
Jones had been working as an assistant athletic director in charge of development at Saint Louis High, Marcus Mariota's alma mater. Jones hoped he wasn't retired as a coach, but he didn't know when an opportunity might arise. Hamilton was it.
A snag arose immediately when Jones hired former Baylor coach Art Briles as assistant head coach for the offense. Briles enjoyed great success his final five years at Baylor, coaching the Bears to a 50-15 record and five straight bowl games, before being fired after the 2015 season in the wake of a sexual assault scandal in the football program.
"Art is one of the best human beings you'll ever meet," Jones says. "Baylor exonerated him from all that he was accused of. He was unaware of what had gone on.
"Everybody in our organization was on board with the hire. We'd called the commissioner (Randy Ambrosie) four or five days prior and said if there was any objection to let us know. He never called us back."
But once the hire became public, Ambrosie stepped in and blocked it.
"It was really unfortunate," Jones says.
So Jones has run the offense, calling plays in the run-and-shoot offense he employed while head coach in the NFL with San Diego and Atlanta.
"It's all the stuff Mouse (Davis) and I have done for 40 years," Jones says.
The Tiger-Cats — whose losses include a 60-1 whipping by Calgary on July 29 — have rebounded nicely under Jones, losing only to Saskatchewan, 27-19.
"We should be 4-0," he says. "We were on the 1-yard line (near the game's end). If we complete a pass there, I think we'd have won that game."
Jones' quarterback is one-time Oregon star Jeremiah Masoli, who had been the backup to starter Zach Collaros.
"Zach is a really good player," Jones says. "Nothing against him, but I felt we needed a change."
Masoli has started all four games with Jones at the helm. In a 24-23 win over the B.C. Lions last Friday, Masoli completed 23 for 35 passes for 226 yards and two TDs with no interceptions.
"Jeremiah is learning on the run," Jones says. "He has that kind of magic to make plays and get things done."
Before the B.C. game, the Tiger-Cats signed Benson High grad Alex Green as a running back. Green, who played his final college season at Hawaii, hadn't played a game of football since 2013, when he was with the New York Jets.
Green had been in training camp with Hamilton but was cut before the season.
"I watched some (video) of him from the preseason and was surprised he got cut," Jones says. "After we signed him, I watched practice for three days and said, 'Guess what? You're starting this week.'"
Jones learned on the bus ride to the game in Vancouver that Green grew up five blocks from the Jones' home in Northeast Portland. "I had no idea," says Jones, who ironically spent nine seasons as head coach at Hawaii before Green played there.
Green carried 13 times for 140 yards against the Lions.
"He's going to be big for us," Jones says.
The Tiger-Cats showed immediate improvement under Jones.
"The guys have really stepped up," he says. "Every player has bought into the concept of team play and having the chemistry necessary to be a winning team.
"When you're losing as much as we did, there are so many internal things to correct. On offense, we've been pretty damn good, but we're probably 60 percent of what we should be."
The Tiger-Cats are only 3-9, but they're coming. Two teams in each division make the playoffs. The four teams in the East Division all have losing records. Toronto leads at 6-7, followed by Regina (5-8-1), Hamilton and Montreal (3-10). Hamilton has six games left, beginning with a home game against Toronto on Saturday.
"If we win," Jones says, "we'll have a real shot at making (the playoffs)."
Jones' contract with Hamilton runs through the end of the season. He'd love to get the opportunity to be back, with a training camp and preseason to prepare his team for a full 2018 season.
"I'm trying to win one game at a time," he says. "As I told the players, 'You're only as good as your last game.' That's our résumé. But I love the owner. I love the GM. The people in this city are awesome. Hopefully, we'll win enough that they'll want me back.
"If I never coach another down after this year, it's been fun. It's been great to see the kids start to believe in each other. We hadn't won at B.C. in six years. To see the joy in the locker room after that one makes it all worthwhile."