Long Read: The rapid rise of Khari Jones
It could have been the most pronounced strike against the 2019 Montreal Alouettes, the beginning of the end of another write off of a season.
The Als had wrapped up their training camp and were about to name their 48-man roster when they announced one major cut: Their head coach, Mike Sherman. He’d be replaced by their offensive coordinator, Khari Jones.
It was Sunday, June 8. The Als would travel to Edmonton and open their season against the Esks on Saturday, June 14. Optimism for the team’s chances was already low and the announcement put a dark cloud over the season before a meaningful game was played.
That cloud cozied into an already a dark sky.
The Johnny Manziel trade was a bust, with the high profile/low results quarterback bounced from the league in the winter. Around the same time, the team came under league ownership. Four years of missing the playoffs had hurt attendance and now Sherman — a questionable hire to start with — was gone and replaced by Jones, who despite having 20-plus years experience as a MOP-winning player and a coach, had never had a team of his own. Just over a month later, GM Kavis Reed would be fired. The Als replaced him internally as well with Joe Mack, but Jones would take on more responsibility on that front, too.
The odds seemed stacked against Jones and his team.
“I can’t say enough about the opportunity in front of us,” he said that day on a conference call.
It’s what you’re supposed to say when you’re the guy in that situation, when a job you weren’t thinking about falls into your lap and the team that’s found its way to the league’s cellar year after year is now suddenly your responsibility.
“The players know who I am. They trust me,” he said. “Everything I do is about winning football games. I’m excited about this opportunity.”
Jones’ optimism fell on deaf ears that day and skeptics of all stripes, be they fans or media, waited for the bottom to fall out, again. Another Alouettes season lost before a game had been played.
Maybe no one on that call (this writer included) expected anything else.
And maybe with another coach, the Als would have marched into that fate this year. Khari Jones is unlike any other coach in the CFL, though. He saw bigger things for his team and he was determined to take them there.
* * *
Damian Williams wasn’t on that conference call that day in June, when his lifelong friend finally became a head coach, but he knew the day was coming.
Williams, 48, is the head coach of the softball team at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.
He and Jones met when they were seven, living in the same apartment complex in North Highlands, California, just a little northeast of Sacramento. A shared love of football and baseball drew them together and they’ve been close ever since. When Jones started his career in the CFL with the BC Lions, Williams lived in Seattle and was a regular at his games. When we spoke, Williams was headed to Montreal the next day to see the Als go up against Hamilton on Oct. 26.
“He’s been coaching since he was eight-years old,” Williams says on the phone from Willamette.
“Whether it be us making up games in the playground or in our homes or during sleepovers. He’d be coaching how to do it and put people in the right positions.
“I remember in high school, he was the shortstop and I was the second baseman. I could not backhand to save my life. And he just stopped me one day after practice and he says, ‘We’re going to stay here until you figure out a backhand. I’m tired of you missing balls.’ Your best friend in high school telling you he’s tired of you missing balls!” Williams laughs at the memory.
“I always thought he would go on to some sort of professional career and that would lead him into coaching. It just makes sense. He’s been doing it his whole life.”
Williams thinks back over a childhood and adult life spent around Jones and sees a constant.
“I tried to explain it a few years ago to another friend that we grew up with,” he says.
“He has such clarity and vision of the bigger picture. It’s on the field and off of the field. He’s able to guide people through his calmness in conversation with that clarity.”
Williams remembers Jones playing quarterback when they were still little, no more than 10 years old. There was very little passing in the game at that time, he said, but Jones was there because of the way that he led.
“As far as life goes as a little kid, as far as life goes as a teenager, as far as playing with him as a player, he’s always had that that way about him to have a better or more clear perspective on life and the overall big picture,” he says.
“He’s just able to communicate that to his peers and to the people he leads.”
Jones called Williams in June and told him that he’d just become the Als’ head coach. Williams knew about the Als’ recent history and that he was taking the job on very short notice. He asked what any friend would ask.
“I was asking him about the timing of it all,” he says.
Jones told him he’d been there a year already as the O.C. and that he was ready. He knew the guys and thought given what had happened that this was the best situation to start from. And from there, Jones was focused on the next game in front of him.
“That to me spoke volumes about who he is,” WIlliams says.
“He’s not worried about the circumstances. He’s worried about how to succeed in those certain circumstances. That’s a life lesson he taught me right there: It doesn’t matter how I got here. It matters what we do from here.
“I think he can see through what a lot of people can’t get past.”
* * *
Ray Jones always had a plan.
Amidst the uncertainty that life will throw any parents, let alone two that were not quite 18, from the moment that Khari was born, Ray knew what he wanted for him. He knew the kind of man he wanted his child to be.
“We were both looking to be great parents to our kids,” Ray saacadeys from his home in Tampa, Florida.
Khari was born in Hammond, Indiana, but the young family moved to California when Khari was six and his younger brother Jamie, was three. Ray joined the Air Force in his early 20s and the family settled in North Highlands. Ray coached Khari in football, baseball and basketball, getting him into sports when he was just two years old. He thought he was coaching a shortstop, he says, until Khari met Williams and started playing football.
Ray grew up in Chicago and loved baseball. He studied that city’s contrasting managers, Leo Durocher — the source of the “Nice guys finish last” quote — with the Cubs and Al Lopez — a gentleman of a coach that the media dubbed El Senor — with the White Sox.
When his boys were little, he’d take them to the park and they’d watch him play baseball and basketball.
“They’d sit on the sidelines and watch me kick ass,” he says.
I laugh when he tells me this, but he doesn’t stop talking.
“So that it wasn’t foreign to them. Even when we played video games, I’d kind of use video games as a learning tool to put pressure on my kids. I never really let them win so when they finally got to start beating me, I had to sit there and take my whippings too. They appreciated it. It wasn’t a false sense of security.
“But it was always with a lot of love,” he continues. “We had to be the bad cops sometimes, but their mother and I had a plan. They’d run to her when they needed to run to her, but we paid a lot of attention to their upbringing and their education.”
The Waggle: Khari Jones; born to lead (extended interview)
EPISODE OVERVIEW: In this Waggle Extra, Donnovan Bennett sits down with Montreal Alouettes (interim) head coach Khari Jones to talk about his transition from player to coach, his approach to his role as head coach and his philosophy towards interacting with his players.
They had fun playing sports and Ray loved coaching them, but the goal was always there in the background, to prepare them for the real world. Sports taught them that and academics were stressed just as much as the boys grew up. He proudly mentions in passing that Khari’s IQ was measured in high school at around 142.
Khari went to UC Davis, a non-scholarship college and played football there. It was his family’s third choice for him, behind Stanford and Berkeley. Davis was in many ways the perfect place for him in his parents’ eyes. School came first there and it was clear.
“If you had a test and practice at the same time, you went to class,” Ray says.
“They always put academics above athletics. We had a lot of cerebral guys on the field who might not have been the best athletes in the conference, but they were very disciplined and they were thinkers.”
Khari walks daily from the Als’ practices at Olympic Park to his downtown apartment and calls his family on the way home. He’ll chat with Ray about what’s going on with the team, about his own family and just about life. Ray has watched the CFL closely for the entire 22 years that Khari has been a part of it. He thinks back to those days when he coached him, when some would have said he was being too hard on him — an idea that Khari has no time for — and knows it’s paid off. He’s reminded of that as he’s watched his son play his part in the Als’ bounceback season.
“In a loving kind of way I put enough pressure on him that I was preparing them for the real world. If you deal with this pressure at home, then I’m not worried about you when you get out here,” Ray says.
You see that this year, whether it’s in Khari dancing on the sidelines in a tight game, or how he hasn’t let the larger issues around him, with the question of team ownership or the yet-to-be-removed interim tag affect him.
“Everything that he’s going through now, he’s been experiencing since he was little,” Ray says. “His mother and I prepared him for the real world so that it’s not overwhelming to him.”
* * *
Jones was a student at UC Davis and a redshirt quarterback when he approached his coach, Bob Biggs, about something that interested him.
It wasn’t more time in the weight room, or working with a specialized coach. He’d landed a role in a play and needed to juggle his football schedule with rehearsals. He played Juan Peron in the musical Evita.
“I remember my wife and I going to watch him and you know, my expectations weren’t extremely high,” recalls Biggs, who retired from UC Davis in 2012 and is still close with Jones today.
“I know that he was in dramatic arts and that’s where he met his wife, but I went to that performance and I was absolutely blown away. Juan Peron is a big part of that play.
“He had tremendous success. Then we went to watch him in a couple other plays as well. That’s just him. When he’s on stage, be it the football field and/or on stage, he just takes on the persona of the best player, the best actor on that stage. He’s humble, but he was a tremendous actor. He really was.”
At his desk in the Als’ offices, Jones leans back in his chair and casually runs back through his acting career. He was in plays and musicals in college and after his retirement as a player in the CFL, he got an agent and started working. He did sideline reporting for the CBC when it aired CFL games. He landed spots in commercials and made-for-TV movies. His players have always loved finding a clip of him playing the part of a club manager in the made-for-tv movie Confessions of a Go Go Girl (“there is NO nudity,” Jones insists as he explains it).
To his credit, Biggs didn’t go the stereotypical coach route and demand his player be all-in on football. Jones’ maturity and the respect he commanded from his teammates, even at that young recruiting age of 17 and 18 blew Biggs away. He wasn’t a loud leader, but the way he spoke to his teammates and encouraged them was rare, in Biggs’ eyes.
“I’m guessing in Montreal, if you talk to the players they’ll probably say that what you see is what you get. He’s going to be straight with you, but he also cares about you, too. That’s who he is.”
– Bob Biggs, Jones’ coach at UC Davis
“He is really a contrast in personalities,” he says of Jones.
“He would go as far as to paint his shoes gold. He’d say, ‘Coach, what do you think?’ I really wanted to make a statement and paint my shoes gold.’
“I said, ‘You’re going to be a target so you better play well.’ But it so belied his real personality, and the same could be true about his acting. When he was on stage he was such a larger than life figure.”
Biggs believed that the goal was full development of his athletes, so he approved of Jones’ involvement in theatre in his time with the school. If afternoons were needed for a rehearsal, Biggs would arrange meetings for the evening.
He was always hesitant to look at one of his current players and think he was looking at a future coach. As Jones’ career progressed, though, he could see it heading in a good direction.
“He’s just so relatable,” he says. “He gets along with everybody and I think in coaching, communication and having that rapport with guys that are working in the equipment room to in our case the college chancellor or president or team owner, whoever it is, Khari has that ability to relate to all those people.”
Khari’s father, Ray, calls it an Obama-like quality. Biggs sees it as the biggest factor in being a successful coach.
“You’ve got to have the work ethic. You can be a master of your trade, but you’ve got to be able to communicate with people too and I think he does that extremely well.
“I’m guessing in Montreal, if you talk to the players they’ll probably say that what you see is what you get. He’s going to be straight with you, but he also cares about you, too. That’s who he is.”
* * *
In 2006, Jones was living in Calgary and when he wasn’t working CFL games for the CBC, he was looking for acting work. His agent approached him with an opportunity that ended up taking on a life of its own.
LivingWorks, a Calgary-based provider of suicide prevention training solutions, auditioned Jones for a role as a virtual trainer for a digital program they were putting together.
“We developed our LivingWorks safeTALK Training Program and the trainers bring that program to life for the participants,” explains Owen Stockden, the manager of corporate communications at LivingWorks.
“We needed to find a really compelling voice, somebody who had charisma and relatability, great delivery, to help some of the essential content in that course come across.
“As we were looking around for somebody to be that voice at the time, Khari happened to be doing some of his broadcast work. So he came in and recorded these videos, acting as a virtual co-trainer alongside the trainer in the classroom. As a result of that, that video has been disseminated throughout those LivingWork, SafeTalk trainings that have happened ever since.”
Thirteen years later, Jones’ work is still in circulation. There’s something about him, Stockden says, that’s resonates with the trainees.
“Because the way the program is set up, there’s one trainer in the room and then there’s the virtual co-trainer, which is Khari on the video. Some trainers have expressed to us — and we’ve got over 8,000 trainers around the world — that they almost feel that even though they’ve never met him they feel they’ve been through all these situations together in the classroom with him.
“It’s a difficult subject. There could have been a recent suicide (trainers may be dealing with) and there’s a certain degree of comfort and having this co-trainer was almost like your virtual buddy there alongside you through these situations. It’s a really, really unique feeling that they get in that way.”
Jones came into the project thinking it was another acting gig. Once he started the work, he realized that there was a personal element that he could add to this role.
“From what I remember it was kind of a first-person on how you help people get through a suicide in the family. Kind of a step-by-step process with survivors of suicide, or for people taht were thinking about attempting suicide,” Jones says.
“It was really intense. It became a labour of love and I didn’t realize they’d be using it this many years.”
Jones didn’t want to go too far into specifics but he said that in the course of his life he’d had someone close to him attempt suicide. That person wasn’t successful and Jones says that they’re in a much better headspace today.
“It happens to everybody,” he says.
That, in Stockden’s opinion, brought an authenticity to the work that Jones did for LivingWorks and is a big part of what’s given the videos their longevity.
“With a subject like this, authenticity is really important,” he says.
“We try in our work to be really sensitive and reflective of people who have lived experience of suicide, either for themselves or for losing, or almost losing a loved one to suicide. And that piece brings a little bit of extra relatability that really helps the trainees engage with it and really know that they’re experiencing something genuine. I would say that’s been really valuable in that sense.”
While Jones will be known first in Canada for his career as a player in the CFL and now as a successful head coach, there’s a segment of the mental health professional world that knows him in an entirely different capacity.
“Close to 500,000 people now would have seen Khari’s videos in those in those classrooms, preparing them to help save lives from suicide,” Stockden says.
The goal of LivingWorks’ videos were to help any organization, workplace, school or neighbourhood to become safer from suicide.
“Everybody in those places can play a role,” Stockden says. “Our approach is really about empowering everybody to do that and Khari has helped make that possible for us.”
* * *
In their journey to their most successful season since 2012, these 2019 Alouettes seem to have gradually taken on the personality of the coach they had thrust upon them at the start of the season.
They play the game with joy, with fire, with a willingness to take risks and live with the results. They wear those results, good and bad on their sleeves. When they pulled off an unbelievable comeback in double overtime in Calgary this year, winning at McMahon Stadium for the first time in 10 years, Vernon Adams Jr. wept in the locker room.
Four weeks later, when the Als pulled off another miraculous win at home against the Winnipeg team that Jones won his MOP award with, it was the coach’s turn to shed tears in front of his players.
They were two of the most powerful moments the team has had this year.
“I don’t mind being vulnerable in front of them,” Jones says, “but being vulnerable in front of guys is hard.
“It’s a hard thing to do but I want them to see it, I want them to be allowed to do that. That’s why I feel like this team is as close as they are.
“They fight and they argue at practice and I allow that, I want them to be who they are, too – within limits,” he laughs.
As our conversation progressed, Jones kept the door to his office open. His assistants would occasionally pop in with a question, or for information for him. At one point, two players burst into the room, laughing the entire time. They were almost giddy, talking about a trick play they’d tried in practice that day and how well it worked on another player. Jones jumped into the story, laughing and yelling with them. They left and Jones kept laughing, shaking his head at them.
It feels like such a stark difference from a year earlier, when they’d traded for Manziel and it felt like the entire organization put itself in a pressure cooker. Winning changes a lot for a team, but you need the right people in place for it to feel the way that it does in Montreal.
“You see it and hear it. They love each other, they do,” Jones says. “They’re in here all day and they play basketball in (the locker room), joking around and playing music and being together. Those are the things that bring them together, that’s what really bonds guys so when you get in the thick of things you know you can trust the guy next to you.
“I really concentrated on that as much as the football side of things, to make sure that we have the right chemistry. That’ll get you through tough times and let you make it through OK. It’s still a work in progress, but so far in a small period of time I like where we’re at.”
For so many years after Anthony Calvillo retired, Montreal felt like a void in the CFL landscape, the free spot in the bingo card. There are still solutions to be found for the Als’ issues but as they prepare to host the Edmonton Eskimos in the Eastern Semi Final on Sunday, there’s a sense of rebirth in Montreal.
Jones will tell you that it’s not all his doing, but you wonder how different things would be this season had Sherman not been released, or if the team had gone in a different direction that day at the end of training camp, six days before they were to open the season in Edmonton.
Seasons like this one make you feel like sometimes things are meant to be. The pairing of this first-time head coach that had been passed over for other opportunities, taking a perennial loser and making it believe that it’s a winner.
“I’ve been here for six years. I played here back in the day,” says Als running backs coach Andre Bolduc, the man that’s credited by Jones when those inventive trick plays have paid off for them this year.
“I’ve been connected with this team since 1998. This is a good vibe right now and the fans deserve it. My first year here in 2014 we made the playoffs under (then-head coach) Tom Higgins and then we’ve been five years without it.
“It’s us and the Canadiens have not made the playoffs,” he says. The Habs have missed the postseason the last two years straight and three of the last four.
“I think the city needs something. They want to have winning teams. They want to show their support, like they did (in the Oct. 5 win over Calgary). That was unbelievable and I can’t wait to play the playoff game. That’s going to be nice to have that support.”
Ray Jones remembers watching the Als in a down moment in their season, when a three-game win streak turned into a two-game slide in August. Watching his son walk off of the field, he sent him a text. He read it over the phone.
“Hey man, was just looking at you on the sidelines. Let me see the enthusiasm that I saw in the earlier games. The yelling, the excitement. You’re at your very best when you’re excited about something and the team feeds off of that. You aren’t auditioning for a job and you may not see it but folks out here in the world, we know who you are. Let Dad see the shortstop who isn’t afraid to get dirty. Smile, even when it’s tough,” Ray chokes up, similar to how his son would as the emotional wins have continued to find their way to him this year. He takes a minute to finish the message.
“There’s no pressure in being you and at the end of the day, we’re gonna get it done.
“Love you man, eat something.”