The head track and field coach at Science Hill High School knows a thing or two about running fast because he was basically involved in the sport from the day he was born.
“Both my mother and my father were very successful sprinters themselves,” Jones said. “Growing up in public housing, I was always trying to find something to do and stay active. I loved competition. I couldn’t get enough of it.”
Jones is a native of Danville, Illinois, which is about a two and a half hour drive from Chicago. He played baseball as a youngster, but his heart was set on being on the rubber oval.
At Danville High School, Jones was a standout sprinter, competing in the 100 meters, 200 meters and accounting for a leg on both the 4x400 and 4x200 relay teams.
Jones was a six-time all-state athlete, won the Illinois Gatorade athlete of the year award for best male track and field athlete for the entire state and finished his prep career with school records in the 100 (10.2), 200 (21.0) and 400 (48.2) on the outdoor track. Indoors, he owned the 55-meter dash (6.1), 200 (22.12), 400 (49.3) and was part of the 4x400 relay record (3:26.72).
Jones went on to compete for the University of Illinois, a 35-minute drive from Danville, so he was right at home.
As a senior in 1994, the Fighting Illini overcame their nemesis in Ohio State by winning the Big Ten outdoor title in Madison, Wisconsin.
Jones lit up the track that day as he set the Big Ten championship meet record with a win (10.10) in the 100. That mark remained untouched until this year, when Purdue sophomore Waseem Williams tied the meet record in the finals.
Jones graduated with a degree in economics. On the track, he was a four-time All-American for the Fighting Illini and held the school record in the 100 and 200 while owning a share of the 4x200 relay mark.
“There have been a lot of good guys come through Illinois since I’ve been there,” he said. “Andrew Riley was just a phenom. The year he ran 10.02, he won both the 100 and 110 hurdles at nationals. I’m proud that I still hold some of the top times at the school.”
Jones was Big Ten freshman of the year in 1991. In 1993, he captured the Big Ten title in the indoor 55-meter dash and finished runner-up in 1994.
Going out, he was named University of Illinois male athlete of the year and was also named Big Ten outdoor track athlete of the year.
MAKING IT BIG TIME
After seeing his former teammate Tonja Buford break the world record for the 400-meter hurdles in 1995, Jones thought that he, too, might be able to pursue Olympic dreams.
Jones reached the semifinals of the 1996 U.S. Olympic Trials in Atlanta, but failed to advance with an eighth-place finish in the first semi.
The next Olympics (2000) were to be held in Sydney, Australia. In 1997, he decided to move to Johnson City and become a part of Flynn Sports Management, managed by Ray Flynn, and begin his pursuit of going to Sydney.
Jones was a force on the track and one of the top sprinters in the country, especially in the 60-meter indoor dash.
He did break the elusive 10-second barrier for 100 meters once in a race in Knoxville, but it was wind-aided. Still, 9.95 is pretty impressive for someone who says the 200 is his best event.
He even got to meet his idol, Carl Lewis.
Lewis, one of the greatest American track athletes ever, earned at least one gold medal in every Olympics from 1984 (Los Angeles) to 1996 (Atlanta) and won the long jump four Olympiads in a row.
“It was one of the best moments in my track and field career when I got to talk to Carl Lewis, who was my idol growing up,” Jone said. “I got to talk to him for about eight or 10 minutes and he just told me that I don’t have to eat and breathe this sport. He told me that I needed to find something else to fall back on afterwards. He was in a few more of my races while I ran and being beside your idol in a race is just something else.”
Skip ahead to the 2000 USA Indoor Championships in Atlanta in March, mere months before the Olympic Trials in early June.
Jones had gotten to the finals of the 60 with a qualifying time of 6.66 in his heat to take second. He said that he was running in some of the best shape of his life. Perhaps his qualifying time was a bad omen.
The gun went off and he got out well. Alas, a false start brought everyone back for a do-over.
“I knew that it was going to be a good day because I got out well the first time with Jon Drummond and Tim Harden,” he said. “They were two of the fastest guys in the world at the time and I was ahead of them before they called us back.”
With the runners back on the line in the Georgia Dome ready for the restart, Jones took off again and got to where he was going to accelerate. Except he could not lift his leg and he fell to the ground in agonizing pain.
“It was like a misfire in a car engine or something like that,” he said. “I don’t know another way to describe it. I went to lift my leg and the next thing I knew, I was on the ground.”
Jones had ruptured his quadricep muscle and was unable to finish the race — and it also put an end to his season. While being carried off the track, a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency member sought him out for a drug test. Jones took the drug test even though he did not finish the race and it came back clean.
“It’s frustrating because I was in perfect health and hadn’t had anything happen since sophomore year in college,” he said.
Jones tried to make a comeback several times, but was ultimately unsuccessful in returning to his former glory.
After being away from the sport in a large capacity for several years, Jones had another fire lit under him when he turned to coaching. He said he felt the need to finally give back to the sport that had given him so much.
He started at Milligan as an assistant under head coach Chris Layne and learned about distance running from the great Buffs coach.
“That was a good experience as well,” he said. “I had to learn about pacing and all the distance running I did not know that much about. It really helped me broaden my horizons on coaching.”
In 2011, Jones came to Science Hill as a volunteer and still worked with the city. After serving six years as a volunteer and assistant for the Hilltoppers, he was named head coach in 2017.
Jones finished his second season at the helm this spring for the Hilltoppers and he says the future is bright.
“On the girls’ side, we’re very young,” he said. “We ran pretty much all freshmen and sophomores on the relay teams this year and they were still fast. The boys are losing some seniors, so there will have to be some guys step up, but I think they will still be OK.
“I’m trying to change the mindset and some of the goals that my kids have. I always tell them that they need to focus more on time instead of winning the race. You can be a four-time state champion and still run slow. Just winning doesn’t mean you’re going to get looked at from colleges. I think I’m getting them to focus now on being the best by time instead of winning. That’s how I was coming out of high school. I never won a state title, but I still went on to have a great collegiate and post-collegiate career.”