June 3, 2001, was a day Rick Jones had waited for his entire life.
On a warm and humid Sunday afternoon at Zephyr Field in Metairie, a quarter-century since accepting his first baseball coaching job, Jones’ eighth Tulane team was about to wrap up a memorable super regional series victory over the Green Wave’s archrival, LSU, in front of an overflow crowd.
When Matt Groff caught a fly ball for the game’s final out, the Green Wave players formed the obligatory dogpile. Jones hugged his staff, then walked to home plate to greet his opponent’s coach, whose career had ended just moments before.
Skip Bertman hugged Jones, offered his congratulations and said, “Let ’em take a victory lap, and then I’ve got to talk to them. They need to hear me.”
Moments later, behind second base, only Jones and Bertman knew what was coming next. The retiring Bertman, who won five national championships at the helm of the Tigers, gave the soon-to-be Omaha-bound Green Wave players a primer on what to expect.
“I’d thought so many times about what I would say to the team if we were going to Omaha,” Jones said. “After he spoke, there was nothing I could say. I just said, ‘Guys, I can’t top that.’ ”
If you can top ’em, join ’em. Jones will join Bertman, Ron Maestri and the late “Rags” Scheuermann in a select group as the only college baseball coaches in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in Natchitoches.
The enshrinement of Jones and 10 other members of the Class of 2016 is June 25 at the Natchitoches Events Center.
“It’s hard to believe,” Jones said last month. “I’m going to be the fourth (college) baseball coach in Louisiana to go in; it’s pretty special company, (along with) all of the other athletes, coaches and administrators who are in the Hall of Fame.
“It was a shock, and at the same time, I’m very honored.”
Jones won 818 games in 21 seasons as Tulane’s coach — more than any coach in any sport in school history — and led the Green Wave to 12 NCAA tournament appearances, including the only College World Series trips in program history in 2001 and 2005.
The North Carolina native spent his entire career in ACC country — including four seasons as the top assistant at Georgia Tech — until the summer of 1993, when he was hired to replace Joe Brockhoff.
“I wanted to be a Division I head college baseball coach,” Jones said. “I wanted to be that from the time I got into coaching. I’d done it for 18 years. I’d been a junior high coach, a high school coach, a junior college coach, a small college coach and an assistant at Georgia Tech. Obviously, coach Brockhoff had done such a great job and the Tulane job was attractive.
“I learned a lot from (then-Georgia Tech coach) Jim Morris on not just how to run a program in an academic setting, but a metropolitan setting. For me, I felt like it was a really good fit.”
Jones inherited a Tulane team that had won only 19 games the previous season, but returned 10 seniors. His first Tulane team went 41-24 and earn the school’s first NCAA tournament at-large berth in six years.
“There’s so many clubs I’m really proud of — three World Series teams at Elon, two World Series at Tulane — but I don’t know if I’ve ever had more fun than that first year at Tulane,” Jones said.
Tulane returned to the NCAA tournament in 1996, winning the Conference USA Tournament in the league’s first year of existence, and again in 1998, which would be the start of nine consecutive postseason appearances.
In 1999, Tulane was a No. 1 regional seed in the NCAA’s new 64-team, 16-regional bracket, but was sent on the road to Auburn, where it lost to the host Tigers in the regional final.
“I just sort of felt like things were starting to move from a regional to a national level,” Jones said.
Tulane made a third straight regional appearance in 2000, setting the stage for what was to come in 2001.
Behind All-American Jake Gautreau and National Freshman of the Year Michael Aubrey, the Green Wave set a school record for victories and was the No. 5 national seed in the NCAA tournament, earning the right to host a regional for the first time.
Tulane and LSU won regionals to earn the right to face off in the super regional, which the NCAA baseball committee placed at Zephyr Field. The series drew 35,268 fans, a super regional record that stood for 14 years.
LSU won the first game 4-3 in 13 innings before Tulane bounced back the next day with a 9-4 victory to force a winner-take-all Game 3.
“After we won on Saturday, I did not sleep,” Jones said. “I walked around my suite and kept thinking, ‘Tomorrow, we go back to being the same, or we change forever.’ ”
A change was about to come.
Tulane scored six runs in the bottom of the fourth to break the game open, while left-hander Beau Richardson turned in a complete-game performance in a 7-1 victory.
“If I could relive any time in my life, it would be those three days,” he said. “It was such a surreal experience, being a part of something like that.”
The Green Wave lost to Stanford in the opening game of the CWS with President George W. Bush in attendance. It defeated Nebraska before being eliminated by Cal State Fullerton.
Tulane returned to the postseason the next two years but did not advance out of the regionals, then won a regional in 2004 as a No. 3 seed before losing in the supers to Fullerton.
Jones had most of his team returning — including All-Americans Brian Bogusevic and Matt Barket — for what had already figured to be a promising 2005 season when an improbable phone call came just before the start of the school year.
“I’m recruiting and on a plane in Los Angeles and getting ready to turn off my phone,” Jones said. “I get a call from the head coach of the East Cobb Yankees, and he said, ‘You have any (scholarship) money left? Micah Owings just got his release from Georgia Tech.’ ”
Owings, who hit 30 home runs and won 18 games in two seasons with the Yellow Jackets, picked Tulane a week later over Texas and Arizona State.
Suddenly, a Tulane team that figured to be a preseason top 15 team was tabbed as the No. 1 team in the nation by Baseball America. Even more remarkably, it held on to that ranking for nearly the entire season and entered the postseason as the No. 1 national seed.
“They performed all year, had preseason accolades, and it’s not easy to go out every day when you know you’re going to get the ‘A’ game of every other team you play,” Jones said.
Again, Tulane’s regional was matched with LSU’s regional for a potential super regional matchup, and just like four years earlier, school officials offered bids for both Turchin Stadium and Zephyr Field. The Green Wave did its part, but Rice went into Baton Rouge and knocked off the Tigers.
Said Jones: “When Rice won (the Baton Rouge regional), I told (former athletic director) Rick Dickson, ‘I really want to play it (on campus).’ It was exciting being able to do that.”
Just like in 2001, Tulane lost the opening game of the super regional, but came back to win Games 2 and 3 to punch its ticket to Omaha.
“Micah (Owings) was lights out, and (J.R.) Crowel pitched well in Game 3,” Jones said. “Seeing the response of our fans and our Grounds Krewe, how excited they were. Being in Turchin and doing it, that was a special time.”
Tulane finished 56-12 and Jones was named Baseball America’s National Coach of the Year.
Little did anyone know at the time, but the super regional would be Tulane’s last games on campus for three years. With renovations to the stadium underway, Hurricane Katrina struck.
Jones and his team spent the fall of 2005 at Texas Tech and then played its home games in 2006-07 at Zephyr before a new facility was completed in 2008.
“Katrina was unprecedented,” Jones said. “You go from putting kids in a dorm room for orientation to two weeks later, being in Lubbock, Texas.
“As proud as I was of the ’05 club, we were in a regional final in ’06. That club could have easily folded. We were in the final 32 in the country.”
Jones’ Tulane teams produced 54 first-team all-conference selections, 22 All-Americans and 76 Major League Baseball draftees, including five chosen in the first round, but his biggest legacy may be the former players and assistant coaches who have gone on to coaching and administrative posts, including current head coaches Jim Schlossnagle (TCU), Mark Kingston (USF) and Matt Riser (Southeastern Louisiana), LSU hitting coach Andy Cannizaro and San Francisco Athletic Director Scott Sidwell.
Though Jones and his wife Gina moved back to North Carolina two years ago, it feels like a second address.
“We’re here,” Jones said, “but I consider (New Orleans) home, to be honest with you.”