Even after achieving the goal of landing his dream job, more than 30 years after arriving on the campus as a wide-eyed freshman, Johnny Jones never stopped showing how passionate he was about LSU and being back again.
That wasn’t limited to coaching the men’s basketball team, which was clearly a bonus for the DeRidder native who proudly wore the school’s colors since being recruited by his mentor, Dale Brown, in the late 1970s.
Spending four years on the LSU team that advanced to the Final Four in his freshman season in 1981, then serving as an assistant on Brown’s staff for 13 seasons merely solidified the bond Jones had with his alma mater.
After being hired in April 2012 to succeed Trent Johnson, who left for a job at TCU, Jones spent most of his time coaching the basketball team while still supporting the school’s other sports when he could.
“When I’m not the basketball coach, or even during the season, I’m at other events,” said Jones, who was fired March 10. “I am a huge fan in football and other sports, you name it. I’m a diehard LSU guy, purple and gold, that’s who I am. I’m ingrained in it … I wore the uniform and did the blood, sweat and tears and all the other stuff that comes with it, and had to compete at a certain level. So I’m ingrained, I’m entrenched and all the things that go along with it.”
There wasn’t a doubt in his mind, either, about where he wanted to be when he first interviewed with school officials in 2008 after John Brady was fired and four years later when the job came open again.
“When I say a dream come true, I mean it,” Jones said at the time. “Many nights I went to sleep with this on my mind, having an opportunity to be back. I was never really disengaged because of the fact that I was a former player, a student and I coached here for all of those years. You just can’t get that out of your blood. … I understand what it means to be a part of that LSU family.”
David Patrick certainly saw it, particularly during his three seasons as a member of Jones’ staff — two of them as his top assistant and recruiting coordinator — before taking a similar position at TCU last spring.
“When you talk about being passionate, Johnny was passionate about the job,” Patrick said with a laugh. “That’s why we got a lot of the kids that we did. It started early with Jarell (Martin) and Jordan (Mickey), then it was Tim Quarterman and Josh Gray and (Antonio) Blakeney."
Not to mention Johnny O’Bryant, a holdover from the Johnson regime who became a second-round NBA draft pick following Jones’ second season.
“A lot of the sales pitch we used to give in people’s homes was LSU was his dream job,” Patrick said. “He wasn’t just saying it, either. The line he liked to use was the L.A. Lakers could call him and he wasn’t going to that purple and gold.”
But with four NBA draft picks and another player making a roster despite not being drafted, the expectations were just as high as they were for the old Lakers.
After increasing the program’s win total three years in a row with 19, 20 and 22 victories, the Tigers were 19-14 a year ago and took another step back this season with a 10-21 mark that included a school-record 15-game losing streak.
In his five seasons, Jones’ critics pointed out that he guided the program to the NCAA tournament just once, and even that appearance ended badly.
LSU watched a 14-point lead evaporate in the final nine minutes and fell to N.C. State despite having a talented team led by two All-Southeastern Conference forwards, Martin and Mickey, and high-scoring guards Keith Hornsby and Quarterman.
That was followed by last season’s disappointment. The Tigers failed to make a return trip to the NCAA tournament despite having the nation’s top recruit and eventual No. 1 NBA draft pick in Ben Simmons and a fellow McDonald’s All-American in Blakeney.
But injuries sidelined Hornsby at the beginning and end of the season, which kept him out of 13 games, and forward Craig Victor missed eight while sitting out after transferring from Arizona.
This season, Victor was dismissed for violating team rules for a second time just before SEC play started, and Jones suffered his first losing season as the Tigers dropped 19 of their final 21 games.
It was a tough season for everyone — most of all Jones — and it made the fan base more uneasy with each setback.
“That’s the business that you’re in. It’s about winning,” said the 55-year-old Jones, whose 90 victories are the fourth-most in school history. “That’s what we’ve always done.
“We didn’t come here for any other reason,” he added. “We’ve been able to do that consistently while we have been here and done other things that really go along with winning and running a program.”
But Jones' approach produced just that one NCAA tournament berth. Still, Patrick said the plan was in place from the start to get that done while taking on some of the established programs in the SEC — namely Florida, which won national titles in 2006 and ’07, and Kentucky, which won it all just 11 days before Jones accepted the LSU job.
“We wanted to win in the (NCAA) tournament, of course, but first it was, ‘Let’s beat Florida, let’s beat Kentucky,’ ” Patrick said. “When we did that, it was, ‘OK, we’re not where we want to be just yet, but we’re on the way and heading to the upper echelon of the league.’ That’s where we set our goals. To come that far in a short amount of time kind of told us we would have a chance if we continued to get our (recruits) in play. We had a pretty good nucleus and might be on a little faster track than we thought.”
In doing so, they were able to surpass Missouri, Arkansas and Vanderbilt, all conference teams that had moved ahead of LSU on the court in past years. Jones was all in and fully committed, Patrick said, to returning the program to national prominence, even though things didn’t work out in the end.
“His sentiment, his whole speech to our guys, was the letters on their chests,” he said. “It was the most important thing to him. When we didn’t play well or we lost, he was more worried about the impression they gave fans and the way they represented the school. I know jobs in this business are predicated on wins and losses, but the way he makes the players dress and carry themselves … he’s concerned about the way they represent the LSU brand, and I think that goes a long way.”
Jones’ most memorable victory was the “Ice Game” against Kentucky in 2014, when the Tigers upended the 11th-ranked Wildcats 87-82 in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center — his signature win during his five seasons. Because of icy conditions in town and around the LSU campus, fans were advised to stay home and watch the game on television.
“They came anyway,” Jones recalled. “That let you know where the program was: They were excited to come out and be a part of it despite the weather. It told me how much our fans cared about the program and what they’d do to get to the games.”
The feeling was mutual, especially with his involvement in the community.
Jones was active with the Baton Rouge Food Bank and also helped refurbish basketball courts for kids. Last fall, he co-hosted a golf tournament with Shaquille O’Neal that raised more than $200,000 for local flood victims.
When Jones received overtures from other schools a year later after guiding LSU to the NCAA tournament, Patrick was surprised when he wouldn’t even consider a move.
“As an assistant, I was like, ‘Coach, you don’t even want to listen to what they have to say?’ ” Patrick said. “He said, ‘I’m not going anywhere. I’m not leaving here for anything.’ You could really see that it was working for him.”
As much as he loved being LSU’s basketball coach, it started going the other way late in the 2016 season when lofty expectations gave way to a 33-point loss in the SEC tournament semifinals and no postseason trip after Jones declined an NIT invite after missing out on an NCAA bid.
When it started going bad this season, the PMAC crowds began to dwindle.
Right or wrong, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said the dismissal of Jones and Missouri’s Kim Anderson after three seasons at his alma mater earlier this month is now part of the college basketball landscape.
“It’s so different than it used to be,” he said. “It used to be that when somebody would get a job, they would have the opportunity to get some recruiting classes through there. You were given some time to build, but it doesn’t work that way any more. Coaches now are paid millions, and they get fired whenever it’s expedient. … That’s not the way it was years ago.”
Even if he doesn’t believe he had enough time and deserved another year after having just one losing season in five, Patrick said he knows Jones cherished his time here.
“Johnny knows LSU was great before him and it’ll hopefully be great after his time there,” he said. “He knows LSU will continue to be a great institution.”
“LSU is a special place, and it’s not about bricks and mortar. … It’s about the people,” Jones said. “That’s what LSU is about: the fan base, administration, student-athletes, you name it.
“You have a lot of people that are passionate about those letters and colors, and it’s in them whether they attended classes or just grew up in the city or the surrounding areas. You’re part of that, and you’re entrenched in it.”