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I’ll never forget it. Aug. 2, 2017.
I was in my favourite place in Canada. Buried in the Rockies just outside Jasper, Alta. on my annual summer escape when my friend looked at his phone as we walked down a dirt path towards Trefoil Lake and let out a “whoa” uncommon to the laid back approach of the week.
I cautiously asked what shocked him in hopes it was only the good type of stunning news to which he responded, “it’s about work, you sure you want to know?”
When I get away I REALLY get away. No cell phone. No communication to the outside world. It’s good for the mind, but here is my friend offering up presumably CFL news and his initial reaction signaled I had better say yes.
Making the news all that more important was the Ticats’ 0-5 start and 60-1 loss in Calgary days earlier which, when paired with hefty expectations on the return of Zach Collaros as starting quarterback, led to a general uneasiness around the then-current state of the organization.
“June Jones joined the Ticats.”
I stopped walking immediately.
“What?!” How?! From where!? Why?! To do what!?”
For anyone who loves football you know the June Jones name and what comes with it well before he ever comes in contact with your favourite team. As a young quarterback growing up with CFL aspirations I loved watching skilled quarterbacks sling it around 40-50 times a game while making it look seamless.
The Hawaii Warriors were that team from 1999-2007, my formative football viewing days between the age of eight and 16.
I knew Colt Brennan’s name before I ever knew the man behind his record setting arm but once I learned about Jones’ tenure, history and experience there was no forgetting it.
My friend read me the press release signalling Jones had been hired as an assistant. A consultant of sorts.
That wouldn’t last.
Twenty-two days later Hamilton named Jones head coach as Kent Austin stepped down to focus on his duties as vice-president of football operations.
The Tiger-Cats were 0–8.
Immediately executive decisions were made. Brandon Banks was a starting receiver. Jeremiah Masoli was the starting quarterback over Collaros. Practice had a different vibe all of a sudden from a group of tightly wound professionals waiting for the next inevitable bump in the road to a group that found the joy in battling back to East Division relevance.
The term “culture change” is wildly overused in sports analysis as a simplistic way to describe the feeling of a group dynamic changing. For the 2017 Ticats, June Jones’ addition wasn’t a culture change; it was a a value reset, a morale boost, and suddenly each room Jones stepped into seemed a little bit brighter than the team’s record should warrant.
June has that unique ability through interpersonal relationship building, refined X’s and O’s allowing players to build confidence in understanding their assignments clearly or any other of his never-ending coaching tools to make people excited to win the day.
In Hamilton that resulted in a 6-4 finish to the season and a new contract for their head coach.
In 2018 the Tiger-Cats contended for the East under Jones’ leadership and smooth sideline demeanour but couldn’t overcome the red and black wall that was Ottawa.
Jones’ era in Hamilton was by no means perfect. There was a controversial attempted coaching hire of his long time friend Art Briles, the occasional battle to take advantage of Canadian football’s quirks and nuances and even the odd frustration with the Canadian game’s officiating.
Through it all though it never felt like the Ticats lost hope. Jones restored that when he arrived as a veteran professor of offensive football and maintained it as the soft smiling sideline general wandering about with a manila folder he still hand scribes game notes and play calls into.
It’s what he’s done everywhere he goes. He makes the room a better place. He lifts people up and he finds talent thrown aside like trash only to become system driven treasure in his offence.
So now just days before CFL camps are scheduled to open Jones has found his next adventure. A full circle foray back to Houston where he once coached the USFL’s Gamblers and NFL’s Oilers in the mid-1980’s with the driving force in the move – predictably – being the challenge in finding the next diamond in the rough.
Most everywhere Jones has gone has either been a startup or a team in the darkest of dumps. The reality is he was never going to be a Tiger-Cats coach long term and that’s okay, because he accomplished what he came to do. It’s partially his own fault for helping to fix things so quickly. Once a team returns to relevance his job is done and it’s time to fix the next team in need of a vision.
Thankfully for the Tiger-Cats there is not just a suitable in house solution, but an ideal one in Tommy Condell who has proven time and time again to be one of the CFL’s most effective and driven offensive coaches. For the past few weeks Condell and Jones have been buried in the Tim Horton’s Field offices exchanging notes and terminology in hopes of bettering each other as they go their separate ways.
An experience any football junky could only dream of.
Aug. 2, 2017 June Jones joined the CFL coaching ranks. While a Hamilton Grey Cup victory remains elusive, Ticats fans should feel like they won the lotto over the 649 days he spent in black and gold because I’m not sure there’s another coach who would’ve been better suited to change the direction of a franchise than June Jones.
I’ll never forget it.