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Vikings defensive backs coach Daronte Jones fields questions during a news conference at TCO Performance Center on Feb. 11, 2020, in Eagan, Minn. LSU hired Jones on Tuesday as its new defensive coordinator, putting him in charge of a unit that struggled throughout a 5-5 season.

"There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first or last time. I owe him my best."

— Joe DiMaggio, former New York Yankees center fielder, Baseball Hall of Famer

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Tem Lukabu says LSU is getting the best-dressed coordinator in the country. His former co-worker, Daronte Jones, is a "big suit guy." Lukabu recalls how the wardrobe reflected his friend's meticulous side when they were both assistant coaches with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2019.

Jones was aware that such details can have as much effect on people as an "X" placed near an "O" in a playbook; once someone takes their first glance, their understanding will evolve from there.

Pioneers in positions of leadership must think this way, Lukabu says, and even though 151 years have passed since Rutgers first played Princeton, he and Jones still have to be among the pioneers for Black coaches seeking the top jobs in college football.

John Mitchell became the first Black defensive coordinator in the Southeastern Conference when he was promoted for a one-year stint with LSU in 1990, and, 30 years later, there were five African-American coordinators in the league last season, with one Black head coach, Derek Mason, who was fired from Vanderbilt in November.

Brian Johnson was Florida's first Black offensive coordinator. Derrick Ansley was the first Black defensive coordinator at Tennessee. Now, Jones is LSU's second Black coordinator in school history, and Lukabu says his friend is aware of the hopeful eyes that are watching.

"He's always going to present himself in the best light possible," says Lukabu, now Boston College's defensive coordinator. "Because I do think he takes it serious for somebody with brown skin: There is an image that you want to show the other generation of what it can be."

There's a lesson in a quote by the late Joe DiMaggio, Lukabu says. A well-recited saying by the Hall of Fame center fielder that paints the image of a child watching him play for the first time. Jones has been that proverbial child, observing his mentors, Marvin Lewis and Vance Joseph — coaches who've hired him and trailblazed on their own as head coaches in the NFL.

There's also a lesson within the lesson. When you take off the suit and strap on the headset, there's more weight on your shoulders: Those same people will be watching for your success or failure.

"When you're playing games on Saturdays and Sundays, winning matters," says Joseph, now defensive coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals. "No one cares if you're Black or White on Sundays or Saturdays."

And there's urgency to win again in Baton Rouge.

There's plenty of pressure for LSU coach Ed Orgeron to rebound from a tumultuous, pandemic-ridden 5-5 season that immediately followed the program's fourth national championship. Smack in the center of the issues was LSU's worst statistical defense in history, which led to a $4 million divorce between Orgeron and coordinator Bo Pelini after just one year.

Orgeron filled his offensive staff openings quickly — hiring Joe Brady disciples Jake Peetz as offensive coordinator, DJ Mangas as passing game coordinator — and, at the time, Orgeron said he had to be patient to "get the right guys on defense."

He's had to be. LSU's first offer, Cincinnati defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, chose Notre Dame because of family proximity. An interview with Mississippi State's Zach Arnett didn't yield the right fit. Then, amid Orgeron's effort to hire protégé Ryan Nielsen, the New Orleans Saints upheld contractional language that prevented the defensive line coach from leaving for a college job and gave him a new three-year deal and the added title of assistant head coach.

LSU's month-long search ended Tuesday with Jones, who agreed to a two-year, $1.3 million-per-year deal after spending one season as defensive backs coach for the Minnesota Vikings.

By the end of the week, the Tigers announced the completion of the coaching staff with the hiring of former Miami defensive coordinator Blake Baker as the team's linebackers coach and former New York Jets defensive line coach Andre Carter for the same role in Baton Rouge.

Those who have coached, worked with or played for Jones say he's the right man for the job. He's a 41-year-old bachelor who will pour everything he has into the work. He's a 20-year veteran who has coached at nearly every level of football, from two seasons at Louisiana high schools to a year in the Canadian Football League. He's a film junkie who knows the intricacies of defense, someone who shares calls with former LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to clinic new schemes and adjustments.

Jones is also from Capital Heights, Maryland, a former defensive back at Morgan State, the largest HBCU in the state. He's a Black man who, as a part-time assistant coach at Nicholls State in 2002, was adopted by a Louisiana community, befriended by fellow assistants Mickey Joseph and Steven Simon.

Simon's father, Zeb, oversaw Jones' pledge process into the New Iberia chapter of the historically Black fraternity Omega Psi Phi. Its motto — friendship is essential to the soul — connects Jones to the Simons; to Mickey (now the wide receivers coach at LSU) and his younger brother Vance; to LSU cornerbacks coach Corey Raymond; to a coaching brotherhood still in pursuit of social progress.

Five months have passed since LSU players first joined the nationwide protests against police brutality and racial inequality. Some players were upset with Orgeron's initial handling of the protest, and several opt-outs and transfers followed in a rocky season that was salvaged with stirring comeback wins in the final two games.

Orgeron has successfully re-recruited nine upperclassmen who decided to return for the 2021 season — including the entire starting offensive and defensive lines — and now, in hiring Jones, LSU has a coordinator who can readily relate to a predominantly Black roster.

"They can see themselves in that guy," Vance Joseph says. "That creates instant trust. It creates instant loyalty. It creates instant transparency. If you can talk to players and reach players quickly and be someone who they can trust quickly, that helps the process of getting better."

Getting better. That's what Jones was hired to help LSU's defense do. He was no big-splash hire. His name is not heralded by fans just yet. But he's a hot name in the coaching world, a rising star whom Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said could be a head coach one day. 

"This is another step in his progress," says Marvin Lewis, the former Bengals head coach. "It gives him an opportunity to hopefully ascend to be a head coach. Whatever his career aspirations are, it gives him an opportunity to do that."


 

Is Jones ready? "Absolutely. It's always a thought. I know him. I have a really strong idea of what his goals are and what he wants to do in the future. I asked myself the same question, and to me, the answer that I came across is you're never ready until you do it. You can be prepared, which I think he is." 

— Tem Lukabu, first-time defensive coordinator at Boston College


Michael Lynn found himself in a discussion with his athletic director about whether his top candidate for his defensive coordinator position was ready for the job. It was 2004. Lynn had just been hired as Bowie State's head coach, and, in filling out his staff, he wanted to hire Daronte Jones, who'd impressed Lynn while he was the offensive coordinator at Morgan State.

Yes, Jones was young, Lynn admitted; but he'd been a brilliant player. Jones was the defensive back who'd put guys back in place when they weren't in the right spot on the field. When numerous stingers ended Jones' playing career, he essentially became a defensive backs coach in his final two seasons. 

Yes, Jones was an assistant coach at a small Louisiana high school; but he already had coaching experience as a graduate assistant at Lenoir-Rhyne in 2001 and as a safeties coach at Nicholls in 2002.

Hire someone with more experience, Lynn was told. So he passed on Jones and hired another defensive coordinator, and after a 5-5 season, that coach left the program.

"I was adamant that I wanted Daronte to be my defensive coordinator," Lynn says of his second chance, "and I was able to hire him at my place."

That's how a 25-year-old Jones became one of the youngest coordinators in college football. It's uncommon for such inexperience to have such responsibility, even at Division II Bowie State in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, a conference of HBCUs.

Yet over the next five seasons, Bowie State played for two CIAA championships while Jones' aggressive, attacking defense allowed just 18.2 points per game and ranked Top 10 nationally each year in total defense, scoring defense and sacks.

"He did the best job of any coach I've ever been around," says Lynn, who coached at Bowie State from 2004-08. "He totally ran our defense. That's how much I trusted him to do a great job."

Jones ran a 4-3 base defense that blitzed frequently, but he wasn't married to the scheme. He couldn't be. Bowie State only had 14 total scholarships to spread across the whole team, and Lynn said Jones routinely morphed the scheme to fit the players they could find.

Jones energized the Bulldogs defense with his personality, his unique ability to connect with players that several coaches admired in later jobs. He began a "steel-on-steel" series that had the first-team defense face the first-team offense at the start of practice. He wore a padlocked pull chain as a necklace on the sideline on game days as a signal to his players they were putting their opponent on lockdown. His defensive front would develop so fully, Lynn said he'd steal some of the players and used them on the offensive line.

Over that time, Lynn said two other HBCU programs in a higher division tried to hire Jones away, and despite Jones' interviews with those schools, Lynn was twice able to convince him to stay.

There's a patient battle, an uncertainty in some ambitious young people who are waiting for the right opportunity to move on. Jones wanted to coach at the game's highest levels, and a barrier often exists for coaches looking to move up from the HBCU leagues.

Jones felt stuck, those close to him say. He considered going to law school. He called Zeb Simon for advice. Simon told him to stick with the journey and reminded him that coaching is where his heart was. Jones then learned that sometimes you have to be humble enough to take a step backward to eventually move forward.

He sent in an application clear across the country for a graduate assistant job at UCLA.


"The biggest move he made was to take a chance on himself. To bet on himself. I'm going to take a graduate assistant job at UCLA."

— Steven Simon, former Nicholls State assistant coach


Chuck Bullough sorted through the dozens, if not more than 100, applications. Coaches get blasted with letters from young coaches when there's a graduate assistant opening, especially at a big-time school like UCLA.

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Bullough, UCLA's defensive coordinator from 2009-10, was searching for someone who could work with his cornerbacks. Like, really work with them. Take notes. Show them how it's done. Basically, he was looking for a cornerbacks coach to bolster a staff that, back then, wasn't allowed to hold a 10th assistant.

Then Bullough found his guy: Daronte Jones. He liked that Jones had been a coordinator. Jones flew in with about four other candidates, and after an impressive interview, Jones was the "no-brainer" unanimous pick by Bullough and UCLA's defensive staff. 

"It was a home run for me getting him there," Bullough says now.

UCLA had its quasi-cornerbacks coach for one season — a hands-on, "meticulous" technician who, at the same time, was using the moment to fill up his own notebook with schemes sharpened by then-head coach Rick Neuheisel and offensive coordinator Norm Chow.

And after Bullough left for the NFL, Jones filled in his notebook again in 2012 as defensive backs coach for the Montreal Alouettes under Marc Trestman, a longtime NFL coach who remembers how Jones "transcended our locker room, how positive he was and emotionally intelligent he was." 

"That's what leaders do," says Stump Mitchell, Jones' head coach at Morgan State and now the running backs coach for the Cleveland Browns. "Leaders are great followers. In order for you to be a great leader, you have to just be an unbelievable follower. An unbelievable follower. And Daronte was an unbelievable follower."

Daronte Jones officially named LSU defensive coordinator, school announces

Meanwhile, Chow had taken over as Hawaii's head coach and found it was somewhat complicated to build a staff. Hawaii was paradise, but paradise ain't cheap. Chow said he had to find young, up-and-coming coaches who didn't mind working for pay that didn't quite match the costs of the region.

Jones had impressed Chow "right from the get-go" at UCLA, and because Jones was "eager to find a job," he was the prototypical hire. For three seasons, Jones lived in a one-bedroom studio apartment in Hawaii while coaching the Warriors secondary. 

Hawaii improved from the nation's No. 85 pass defense in 2011 to No. 11 in 2012, and by 2015, Paul Chryst — who coached with Mitchell in the short-lived World League of American Football — became head coach at Wisconsin and wanted Jones as his defensive backs coach. Aranda, a former Hawaii defensive coordinator who knew Jones, was also retained on Chryst's staff.

Chow remembers Jones coming into his office feeling bad about leaving Hawaii, loyal to the coach who gave him his first full-time Division I job.

"I said, ‘Daronte, I will help you pack,’ ” Chow says. “’Cause he had to go! Those guys have to go, you know? Just like Dave Aranda. Just like (former Hawaii offensive coordinator) Nick Rolovich (now head coach at Washington State). When I took over there, they wanted to stay on, and I said, ‘I'm doing you all a favor. I'm firing you. Get outta here and find out what coaching is all about.’ ”

So began Jones' final education as a position coach. He spent a year in Wisconsin concocting defenses with Aranda — the coach who'd later recommend him to Orgeron — and impressed his fraternity brother, Vance Joseph, with "his football IQ being so high" that Joseph, then defensive coordinator with the Miami Dolphins, hired Jones as an assistant defensive backs coach in 2016.

It was in the NFL — under Joseph in Miami, Lewis in Cincinnati, Zimmer in Minnesota — that Jones learned the in-game problem-solving that will be perhaps the most critical element to his job at LSU.

When an offense shows up with a scheme you haven't seen before, Lukabu says, "you better have that answer at the tip of your tongue." No, Joseph says, "you can't wait two series. That can be 14 points. He's been trained that way. His brain works that way."

And after 16 years away from Louisiana, some might think he's not familiar with the area. That he'll see something he hasn't seen before.

“A lot of people think there’s going to be a big curve for him coming back to Louisiana or a culture shock," Steven Simon says, laughing. "Nah, there’s going to be none of that."


"Daronte's got a good enough sense of humor. And he's going to take himself over there serious. He is like a jokester. He likes to laugh. But I'll tell you what, in this high-pressure job, you've got to have that part of it."

—Jacob Burney, former Cincinnati Bengals defensive line coach


There's a memorable story about Daronte Jones' old pet, Gambino.

Former Nicholls State coach Daryl Daye tells it best.

It's 2002. The part-time safeties coach Daye had just hired, Jones, asks Daye if he wouldn't mind taking care of his pet for the weekend.

"No," Daye says. "I'll take it."

"It's in my office," Jones says. "I know you'll take care of it."

They exchange goodbyes — yeah, great; have a good weekend — and Daye walks over to Jones' office and opens the door.

Squirming, hissing and staring back at Daye from inside a cage is an eight-foot, albino boa constrictor.

Daye immediately leaves the room and calls Jones.

"Hell, you gonna leave me with this snake?" Daye says. "What am I gonna do with this snake?"

Jones says he's left written directions near the cage.

Daye goes to the restroom. He comes back and realizes the cage must not have been closed all the way because of the chaos that's ensued.

The snake is wriggling through the hallway. The secretaries are screaming. A custodian is wielding a shovel, all but certainly prepared to hack this intruder in two.

Daye takes after the snake, manages to haul it into his arms and puts it back in the cage.

"When (Jones) got back, he was chuckling at me," Daye recalls. "He conned me into watching his snake. So I figure there's a nickname for him somewhere there. Snake Doctor. Snake Daddy. Something."

Where'd Gambino come from?

Stump Mitchell says owning snakes was apparently a big thing among players while he was the head coach at Morgan State. He knew former defensive back Anthony Collins, a Baton Rouge native, had a snake. He's not sure if that's who started it all, or if someone had told the players that he "didn't care for snakes."

"I didn't fool around with those guys," Mitchell says. "So they kept me out of their rooms."

Steven Simon even had to take care of Gambino for a time when Jones, experiencing his first hurricane while at Nicholls, left it behind when he took refuge on Mickey Joseph's couch.

Simon and Jones lived in Calecas Hall, in rooms connected by a shared bathroom. Jones was limited to restricted earnings as a part-time assistant, and he even served as a resident assistant to supplement his coaching pay. But at this point, they were both just trying to get started in the coaching world.

Everything was about football, Simon remembers. His father had befriended Lionel Vital, a former Nicholls running back, who worked as an NFL scout and mentored Simon on how to evaluate talent. Simon and Jones would sit together watching hours of film cut-ups on VHS tapes, digging through any playbook they could get their hands on and filling up notebooks with their own ideas.

Nicholls was a coaching "Mecca" at that time, Simon says. Jones and Joseph are both part of an impressive coaching tree that was on Daye's staff: Charles Kelly is now Alabama's associate defensive coordinator; Jay Thomas was eventually Nicholls and Northwestern State's head coach; Karl Dunbar is now defensive line coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers; and Jon Robinson is general manager of the Tennessee Titans.

But after one year of coaching on limited pay, Jones connected with Zeb Simon, then Jeanerette High's head coach, who helped him get hired as the defensive backs coach at Franklin High — a job that was probably $30,000 higher in pay, Zeb says — until a job opened up on Zeb's staff a year later.

When Bowie State came calling, Steven remembers it was a tough decision for Jones to leave. He had loved south Louisiana. It'd become home. He prayed on the decision, then spoke with Zeb, who gave him the same talk Norm Chow gave nearly a decade later.

"Whether you like it over here or not," Zeb told Jones, "we've talked about coaching college football, going on to make good things for yourself, and it's just a gateway to your career. Now if you don't go, I'm gonna fire you."

Today, his fellow coaches and fraternity brothers are still at Jeanerette: C.C. Paul is the head coach, Steven is offensive coordinator, and Zeb has returned from retirement as a consultant.

Soon, they want Jones to visit them and speak to their players. When the kids look at his official biography, they can't really believe that a small school like Jeanerette is on the list.

"They're pretty blown away by that," Steven said. "I tell them anything's possible."

Email Brooks Kubena at bkubena@theadvocate.com.