Just before being inducted into the Tulane Athletics Hall of Fame on Friday, the most accomplished coach in school history for any sport recalled the most euphoric day in his 21-year career.
Rick Jones took the baseball team to the College World Series twice, reached a regional in nine consecutive seasons and won 814 games from 1994 to 2014, but nothing matched his feeling after the Green Wave beat LSU and legendary, retiring coach Skip Bertman in a super regional decider at Zephyr Field in 2001, clinching its first trip to Omaha.
“I think that still ranks as one of the greater sporting events in Louisiana,” he said. “When you think about all the storylines, playing LSU, coach Bertman’s last game, Zephyr Field had just been built and the (huge) crowds. We had to have the state police move the crowds just to get off the buses. There were probably about 5,000 people sitting in the parking lot watching it on television. It’s one of those things I’ll always remember.”
He even enjoyed having to hitch a ride back to campus after the 7-1 win. Every Tulane player and staff member had departed when he finally left Zephyr Field after the victory laps, Bertman addressing the team about going to Omaha, a long news conference for Bertman, Jones’ interview session and a one-on-one interview with a reporter.
“We’re talking about three hours after the game,” he said. “I don’t have a ride back to Tulane, and there are some Tulane fans still hanging out drinking a beer. They yelled, “Coach!” I said, can you guys maybe take me to campus? I sat in the back of a pickup truck in uniform, and it was probably the best ride of my life.”
When Jones succeeded Joe Brockhoff in 1994, he inherited a solid program that had reached seven regionals in the previous 15 years. He raised it to a new level almost immediately, but that day against LSU changed his status forever. Tulane had lost the opener of the super regional in extra innings before bouncing back emphatically, with the Wave’s first four batters combining to hit for the cycle to begin game 2, starting with Jon Kaplan’s leadoff home run.
At the team hotel the night before game 3, Jones understood the importance of finishing the job.
“I’m in my suite and I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “I just kept pacing the floor thinking tomorrow will change forever or we will go back to where we were. It was one of those things that really put our program in a different perspective. I saw people an hour-and-a-half, two hours after the game still crying (in elation).”
Jones certainly did not stop with that CWS appearance. The Wave returned to Omaha again in 2005 as the top seed after being ranked No. 1 in the preseason and staying there for much of the year.
But the feeling was much different when Tulane took another winner-takes-all super regional game against Rice at Turchin Stadium.
“It was more relief than anything else because we were supposed to be there, but that was a special year,” he said. “Both of those years (2001 and 2005), we won 56 games. That’s hard to do, and in ’05 we didn’t lose a game to an in-state opponent. That really is hard to do with how good baseball is in our state.”
Although Jones’ tenure ended quietly, with five consecutive regional-less years leading to his retiring midway through 2014 due to stress-related health issues, his record of 814-439-2 at Tulane speaks volumes.
Now 64 and living in his home state of North Carolina, he has not ruled out returning to the dugout. He said it took about a year-and-half to regain his equilibrium after leaving Tulane. Plus, a coaching stint with one of the Junior USA teams this summer re-invigorated him.
“I had some opportunities to do some things in pro ball and I resisted them because I just wasn’t ready to do that,” he said. “I’m a college guy, so we’ll see what happens.”