For 32 years Ben Jones’ name was synonymous with winning in Mississippi high school football. With stops at seven high schools and a junior college, Jones led his teams to state titles, conference championships, earned coach-of-the-year honors and more. His legacy has been cemented as one of the best to ever walk the sidelines in the state, and now the nation. Last week he was inducted into the prestigious National High School Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame (NHSACA).
While his record of 152-48-8 is impressive at a quick glance, it doesn’t even begin to tell Coach Jones’ story. A demanding but fair coach according to some of his former players, Jones worked tirelessly at his craft. Growing up, Jones’ daughter Becky Jones West never realized just how extensive her father’s body of work truly was, but she remembers his prolonged film study sessions at home as she would drift off to sleep.
“He was constantly preparing,” Becky said. “Back then, we had the old-timey film projectors, and I will always remember falling asleep to the sound of the film going backward and forward.”
Jones’ career began in 1952 as a basketball coach at Hatley High School. He spent just one year at Hatley before joining West Junior High in 1955. One year later, Jones was on the move once again. It was at Gulfport High where Jones captured his first state title for basketball in 1961. Jones spent a short stint at Tupelo High School in 1961-62 as a basketball coach and assistant football coach before getting the chance to be a head coach at his next destination.
Jones became the head coach at Itawamba Agricultural High School in 1963, the fifth stop in his career. Out of coaching at the time, Jones was asked if he would be interested in a temporary position in Fulton at the high school. The head coach had suffered a serious pre-season injury. Jones signed a three-week contract, his first game was in six days, and by the end of the 1963 season, the Indians were Tombigbee Conference Champions. The winning didn’t stop there, as Jones led Itawamba to conference titles in seven of the 10 seasons he spent at the helm.
While there may not be a trophy for it, the most enduring legacy that Jones left across the state came in 1967 when he became the first coach to field a fully integrated team in Mississippi. Jones spoke personally to all of the African-American families, and 18 players joined the team. While controversy persisted, Jones kept his focus on his team, which went on to win the conference title that year.
Becky remembers the conversation swirling around town, and to this day recalls the pride that she had for her father for standing up for what he believed to be the right thing to do; even if it was unpopular at the time.
“Daddy thought it was about equal opportunity for everyone. I think that it speaks to the kind of man and the kind of coach he is,” Becky said.
Regardless of race, skill-set or social status, Jones was only interested in putting the best team possible on the field, and that was reflected throughout his career with what he called “the fairness principle.” If at any point a player wanted the chance to start, they could challenge another player in practice for their position. While some coaches may play favorites, Jones did not –something that his players remember fondly. While Mike Mills admittedly didn’t play much, he was able to learn an immense lesson about life playing for Coach Jones. Mills, now a District Federal Judge in Oxford, credits Jones for teaching him what fairness was all about.
“There was no measure of who played other than who was the best player, and that taught me and everyone else to be fair in life and give everyone a fair chance,” Mills said.
“I’ve been around coaching long enough to know that most coaches have favorites, but not Daddy,” Becky added. “Kids knew that they always had a chance to prove that they could play. He’s just a good person.”
In 1967, Jones was selected as an assistant coach for the North Team in the Mississippi High School All-Star Game. Coach Jones’ team played Greenwood in a bowl game and he prepared by watching game film of Greenwood and Drew. While the North Team already had a quarterback, Jones wanted to extend an offer to the relatively unknown Drew quarterback Archie Manning to play in the game.
“After watching Archie practice, Daddy said ‘it’s really a shame that there’s a kid here that’s this good and he’s not going to get to play much,’” Becky recalls.
After the team’s starter got hurt early in the game, Manning stepped in, threw six touchdowns, and the rest is history.
Jones’ second time coaching in the Mississippi All-Star game came in 1970, when the first African-American player was extended an invitation to play. When the committee needed a coach to help the situation along, they chose Jones to head up the North Squad, and Walter Payton decided to play on the South Team.
Michael Watts, an attorney at Holcomb Dunbar, played for Jones at Itawamba AHS, and while the wins and losses were teaching points in the moment, Jones had a lasting impact on Watts, even if he didn’t know it at the time.
“We were just teenagers playing football, but as you grow up and look back, you realize that you were very fortunate to have had the opportunity to play for him,” Watts said. “It meant something to play for Coach Jones.”
Before leaving Itawamba High, Jones was an integral part of developing the tie-breaker rule in 1972, which helped pave the way for a state-wide playoff system in Mississippi.
After Jones left Itawamba High, he didn’t travel too far for his next job as he accepted the coaching position at Itawamba Junior College. Itawamba hadn’t had a winning season in 40 years before his arrival, and Jones led the team to the North Mississippi state title in just his second season, and the overall state title in 1975. The 1975 season is still the only undefeated season in the school’s history.
Before his coaching career ended in 1986, Jones coached at Meridian High School and New Albany High. Upon arrival at New Albany, Jones inherited a winless team, which he was able to transform into state champions in 1982. Mills summed up his coach’s career with a simple fact.
“You could drop him in any town in Mississippi, and he would start winning games.”
Off the field, Jones worked with the same tenacity to get things done. As the president of the Mississippi Association of Coaches in 1971-72, he chartered the MAC Hall of Fame. The MAC held its induction ceremony last week, and due to his health, Jones missed the ceremony for the first time since its creation.
Jones also missed his NHSACA induction ceremony in East Peoria, Illinois last week. While they wanted nothing more than for their father to be there with them, Becky and her sister, Traci Clegg, accepted the honor on his behalf and were overwhelmed by the amount of support shown for Coach Jones.
“It was a flood of emotions, because when we were young we’d go to these national meetings, and to see how far the organization has come was amazing, and to see him honored alongside a lot of his friends was really touching,” Becky said.
Bubba Davis was a high school player when he first saw Coach Jones on the opposing sideline, and as he began his own coaching career, he held Jones in high regard. Now serving on the board of the MAC, he and the other members were tasked with nominating someone for the NHSACA Hall of Fame and could think of no one better than Coach Jones.
“He’s one of those guys who blazed the way for the rest of us, and we’re so proud of him to be honored at this level,” Davis said. “He’s always been there, and we nominated him because of how much he has done for others. He meant a lot to all of us because we watched him, and he helped us realize that there are other things that are important in coaching, and that it’s not all about winning.”
Becky knows that her dad has been there for so many others over the years. To see her father honored means the world to her.
“Daddy only had two girls, and all of the players really thought of him as their dad,” she said. “He’s been a father figure to so many young men. He deserves this.”
Steven Gagliano is the managing editor for HottyToddy.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos provided by Becky West JonesHERE!