After co-ordinating a Grey-Cup-winning defence in Toronto last year, Chris Jones could easily be calling the shots as a head coach in the CFL right now. But he’s not.
It’s early morning, and the Toronto Argonauts’ defensive co-ordinator sits in his small office at the University of Toronto Mississauga, sharing his thoughts over a plate of eggs. Numerous key players and coaches from his 2012 championship defence have left for the NFL, retired, or been lured away by other CFL teams. The Montreal Alouettes approached Jones about making him their head coach, but he dropped out of the running, saying his perfect head-coaching job will present itself some day. He’s patient and happy right now and speaks with a boyish exuberance about the mountain to climb in Toronto – rebuilding a defence nearly from scratch and chasing another championship.
Jones declined most interview requests last season, especially during Grey Cup week when pitted against his former team, the Calgary Stampeders, who protested to the CFL and got the Argos slapped with a tampering fine when they hired Jones away in late 2011. He’s outgoing and talkative, but recoils at monikers often used to describe him, like “defensive guru” or “one of the CFL’s brightest defensive minds.”
Says Jones: “I don’t need the ego stroke any more. It’s enough satisfaction to walk off the field with our coaches after a win and into the locker room to talk to our players after winning a championship. We have great chemistry here. There were a whole bunch of teams I’ve been on that were more talented top to bottom but couldn’t put it together because they didn’t have a strong locker room. Every guy here knows I’m behind him and I know he’s behind me.”
From the night the Argos hoisted the Grey Cup in late November to the opening of training camp this month, 46-year-old Jones took just three weekends away from work. Also the Argos’ assistant general manager, he spends much of the off-season travelling across the United States, often to little-known places, scouting and working out players who few others know. The careers of many of these players had been assumed over by others, but Jones gives them another shot, believing he can teach and mould them.
“Chris finds guys that nobody else knows about and we feel we’re so comprehensive in our scouting,” Argos general manager Jim Barker says. “He believes in a certain athleticism, and he believes that if you have that, you can make up for some other things with that athleticism. I’ve seen him create things with those guys many times. We won a Grey Cup together in Calgary, in Montreal and again in Toronto. He has so many connections and has a passion for uncovering guys in his tryout camps.”
Jones grew up in South Pittsburgh, Tenn., a town of some 3,000 people where the local high school football team is all the talk, where every boy dreams of playing college football in the powerful Southeastern Conference or in the NFL.
“From the time you’re this high, you can’t wait to put on your black uniform and run out there in high school as a Pirate, that’s your identity,” Jones says in a raspy, Southern tone, holding up his hand to illustrate the height of a young football-crazed boy. “You’re judged for the rest of your life on how you did as a 16-year-old player where I come from, whether it’s fair or not.”
Jones played running back in high school and can recall the earliest lessons of motivation from his high-school coach, who would praise some of his teammates, but dog him endlessly.
“I asked him years after why he never gave me positive reinforcement,” Jones says. “He said, ‘You didn’t respond to it,’ and that stuck with me. He knew how to motivate me to play. It’s a coach’s job to find out what makes every guy go.”
Jones is known today for his aggressive man-to-man defences filled with fast, explosive athletes flying around the field zeroed in on the ball. His Argonauts unit led the CFL in takeaways last season, and won’t compromise that in-your-face style this season, despite the departures of star personnel such as defensive backs Jordan Younger, Ahmad Carroll and Evan McCullough, and defensive linemen Ejiro Kuale, Ricky Foley, Ronald Flemons and Armond Armstead.
“When we watch the film, he’s checking the effort of every guy, and if it isn’t there, you’re going to get it in Chris Jones’s way,” says linebacker Robert McCune, whom Jones once had in Calgary and then brought to Toronto after he was cut from the NFL. “He’ll put the laser pointer right on you on the film and put you right in the spotlight in front of everyone and say, ‘That ain’t good enough.’”
At training camp, Jones and his coaches run the sidelines alongside their defensive players, barking at them to “sprint to the ball.”
“Chris Jones gave me a chance last year that nobody else was giving me,” says linebacker Marcus Ball, Toronto’s defensive player of the year in 2012. “I was on the street, I worked out for Hamilton, and they didn’t want me, but then I worked out for Coach Jones and he saw something in me. More than anything, he makes you realize how important the hustle is.”
Jones is up at 3 a.m. daily during the season, in the office and watching film until 5 a.m., when he takes his daily walk around the campus before meeting the other coaches. He and Argos head coach Scott Milanovich have been close friends and fierce competitors since they were roommates and assistant coaches together with the Alouettes, where they stayed up until the wee hours, drawing up competing plays on yellow legal pads.
While Jones says he is driven to win every play in practice, he doesn’t fret about rebuilding this defence. The athletes are there. He doesn’t fret about the next head coaching opportunity either.
“I’m going to work a long time,” Jones says, “and there are a lot of factors that factor into taking a head-coaching position, so it’s got to be the right one. When it happens, it’s going to be the perfect one for me, and we’ll win a bunch of games. I used to worry about it a lot. I don’t worry about it any more. It will happen when it’s supposed to happen.”