There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Wil Jones likes his life in Virginia Beach. He spends much of his time and money at the local Home Depot, where he recently bought a power-washer hose. He’s become almost addicted to pointing the new toy at the aluminum siding of his house.
“Growing up the way I did and where I did, there’s no way I ever thought you’d have to wash a house,” he says with a big laugh. “But I can’t believe how much I love washing my house.”
But Virginia Beach, he admits, isn’t really his home. Jones is a D.C. boy. His heart remains on Lamont Street in Columbia Heights, where he grew up. And washing houses, fun as it is for now, isn’t what Jones really wants to be doing.
He wants to coach again. Preferably in his hometown. His real hometown.
“If something came up to get me back home, I’d probably take it,” says Jones.
There might soon be a job opening that would be a perfect fit for Jones. In November, the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) announced it was not only suspending men’s basketball coach Mike McLeese, but canceling the entire basketball season for both its men’s and women’s hoops teams.
University spokesperson Mike Andrews says the decision was made after an investigation into the eligibility of the players on McLeese’s roster found rules violations that Andrews will not disclose.
“This investigation got started when somebody made an accusation that one of the players on one of the teams was not eligible,” says Andrews. “Peeling back the layers of the onion, we found more and more problems. And this was happening while we were on the verge of starting a new season for the men’s and women’s teams without a full squad eligible to participate on either. If we had gone ahead with the season, we’d have been in a position where we had to forfeit games later, so we decided it would be better to just [cancel the season].”
UDC President Dr. William L. Pollard recently convened a task force to determine what went wrong with the basketball program and to recommend changes that would prevent future such debacles. Andrews says no timetable has been set for the task force, which meets monthly, to issue its report.
If one of the recommendations is to hire a new coach—and, given that McLeese was already relieved of his duties as UDC’s athletic director earlier this school year, that seems very possible—nobody would be better to revive the basketball program than Wil Jones.
He’s already proved he can build a championship program out of literally nothing. And he proved it at UDC.
Jones, in fact, was the first basketball coach at UDC. He took the job in 1979, shortly after three colleges—Federal City College, D.C. Teachers College, and Washington Technical Institute—were consolidated into one to form UDC, which remains the city’s only public university.
From an academic standpoint, UDC’s most famous alumni are former Georgetown men’s basketball coach John Thompson, who received a master’s degree in education administration, and the ambassador from Grenada to the United States, Denis Antoine.
But Jones, more than anybody else, gave UDC its one shiningest moment. Within just two years of taking over the UDC program, he had put together a hoops squad that won the NCAA Division II championship and for a short time rivaled all the granddaddies on the local college basketball scene for publicity.
Jones’ title team included future NBA draft picks Earl Jones (no relation), who went to the L.A. Lakers in the first round of the 1983 draft, and Michael Britt, who was taken by the Washington Bullets in the second round the same year.
To hoops cognoscenti around these parts, Wil Jones was a well-known quantity long before his UDC glories. Known among local ballers as Little Willie or Wee Willie Jones because of his 5-foot-9 frame, he was the smallest man on the Dunbar High School hoops squad in the mid-’50s—and the biggest scorer. He was named to the All-High all-star team in 1956—“They didn’t name many black kids to that team back then,” Jones says. But he wasn’t one to go along just to get along. He skipped that year’s high-school all-star game after learning that proceeds from the game would go to the Boys Club of Washington, which operated segregated facilities.
When not wearing school colors, Jones became something of a legend on D.C. playgrounds by more than holding his own in games against older, bigger boys, including Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain (who spent a summer in D.C. with fellow University of Kansas track and field star Dave Harris, a Cardozo graduate).
After Dunbar, Jones hoped to follow Baylor to an out-of-town school, but that didn’t work out.
“I’d wanted to play for Michigan State because I saw them on TV,” Jones says. “But my mother had just passed, and I had a little sister that needed to be taken care of. So my father wanted me to stay close to Lamont Street. He wasn’t going to let me go anywhere.”
And when a recruiter for American University stopped by the Jones house, Dad made the decision for his son.
“The AU people walked in and told my dad that my education was going to be free,” says Jones. “And he looked at me and said, ‘Sign!’ Times were different, man. They didn’t take me for no dinners.”
He elevated the AU program almost singlehandedly, taking the school to three straight NCAA Division II tournaments and breaking every Eagles scoring record along the way. Before a 1959 game against Georgetown, a Division I program that had beaten AU in every one of the previous 16 meetings between the schools, a Washington Post reporter asked Jones if he was concerned about facing Puddy Sheehan, the equally diminutive but more heralded Hoyas guard.
“After you’ve played against Wilt and Rabbit [Baylor’s nom de playground], nobody worries you,” Jones said.
Jones put in 30 to Sheehan’s 10, as he gave AU its first win ever against Georgetown in what the Post called the school’s “greatest athletic hour.” His college career ended when he scored 54 points in a losing effort against Evansville in the 1960 Division II semifinals.
Jones says he has no regrets about his dad’s college choice for him, but he wishes AU would acknowledge his accomplishments by retiring his jersey. Kermit Washington, class of 1971, is the only Eagle to be so honored.
“I love American University to this day,” he says. “But would somebody please tell me why the hell don’t they have my jersey flying in their gym? I mean, Kermit had one good year! I had three!”
Jones got an invitation to the 1960 Olympic tryouts, reserved in the pre–“Dream Team” era for the best collegians in the land, but didn’t make the final cut of a squad that featured Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas.
After a military stint, Jones coached in the Arlington and Fairfax County school systems—and changed his court name to Wil. He gained attention not just for putting together winning teams, but for wearing outrageous outfits—a purple leisure suit was the norm for Jones’ courtside couture.
“Everybody wore big lapels in the ’70s,” he says. “I just wore bigger lapels.”
People noticed him. In 1976, when Jones was coaching at Robinson High, Lefty Driesell brought him to Maryland as an assistant coach in hopes of bolstering the school’s recruiting program. Jones was up to the task, helping bring in still-beloved Terps Buck Williams, Albert King, Ernie Graham, and Jo Jo Hunter.
In 1979, when the opportunity to take over the brand-new UDC program came about, he jumped.
“Maryland was one of the best programs in the country, but I never looked at going to UDC as a step down,” he says. “I really wanted to be a head coach—anywhere! Schools wouldn’t even look at you when they were hiring a head coach unless you had head-coaching experience, so I needed to go someplace. And D.C. was my city. I couldn’t think of a better place to start.”
Even while putting the school on the map, Jones wasn’t on the friendliest terms with UDC administrators.
His worst run-in with UDC came in 1988, when he was suspended for what was announced by school brass as not graduating enough players on time. Jones sued the school, alleging that administrators had trumped up the graduation statistics just to give them a reason to get rid of him. In 1993, after five years of wrangling, a period which Jones used to set up an SAT-preparatory program for students in Anacostia, an administrative law judge in the D.C. government’s Office of Employee Appeals ruled that the UDC coach’s firing was “a sham” and ordered him reinstated.
Jones didn’t get buddy-buddy with school officials upon his reinstatement, however. In the spring of 1997, amid a budget shortfall of more than $18 million, then-UDC President Julius Nimmons announced he was eliminating all athletics. Jones very publicly blasted Nimmons’ move, pointing out that the alleged savings—reported at $450,000—wouldn’t make up for the damage that cutting sports would do to the school.
Again, Jones came out on top. Before tipoff of the next season, the basketball program was back in business, with Jones on the sidelines.
He left in 1999, however, when Orby Moss, the athletic director at Norfolk State and the guy who, as UDC’s athletic director in 1979, had given Jones his first head-coaching job, offered up the head-coaching job at the Tidewater school. Jones had never led a Division I program before or been out of D.C. for any length of time, but he took it.
Jones didn’t fare so well so far away from Lamont Street. He compiled a 34-52 record in three years there before Moss pulled the plug after the 2001–2002 season.
For reasons he can’t explain, Jones stayed in Virginia Beach after the firing. He wishes somebody had called him with a job offer by now. Along with the Home Depot trips and power-washer workouts, Jones has stayed in touch with the game during his downtime.
He’s particularly interested in, and hurt by, the disintegration of the UDC program.
“I built that!” he says, his excitement building. “That’s my baby. And look what’s happened to it. It’s a joke. If I were still up there, no rules would have gotten broken. And we’d still be winning. The city would still have something to be proud of. It’s a disgrace!”
He’s not going to contact UDC to ask for a job, and he’s not going to wait by his phone for a call from the school. But if such a call should come, Jones says, he’d take it.
“Wil ain’t one to poke his nose in others’ business,” he says. “People have to ask me, and since I’m all the way down here, they probably don’t see me. But if the program was to be revived again, and somebody asked, would I do that? I said I’d never leave Washington—maybe I never should have left. I always wanted to get back home. If I really think about it—well, if we could roast marshmallows and really talk about it—I’d probably come home fast if somebody asked me.”
And if nobody asks?
“Then I’ll just stay down here and float into the ocean,” he says. —Dave McKenna