Southern Illinois basketball stories can sometimes pop up in such unexpected places. My interest in Coach Dick Jones is just such an example.
In the early 1990s, my oldest son, Ryan, played middle school basketball for the Jasper, Indiana, Wildcats. As fans gathered and waited in the bleachers for the games to start, some of them would introduce themselves to others sitting close by. One such person that approached me was an older gentlemen who I knew had once been the Athletic Director at Washington, Indiana, High School, Dick Jones. His grandson, Matt McComish, and my son were best friends and played together on the Jasper team. I did not make the southern Illinois connection, however, until Dick mentioned that his first head basketball coaching job in 1955 “was at this tiny little school called Bluford.” It was at McLeansboro High School, however, home of the Foxes, that Dick Jones was destined to make his mark.
The list of great southern Illinois basketball coaches from the 1950s and 1960s is a long one, the number of wins being the most popular way of judging their successes. But there were other qualities, along with high winning percentages, that delineated the level of a coach’s success. McLeansboro head coach Richard “Dick” Jones, who guided the Foxes from the fall of 1964 until 1971, possessed a quiet respectful demeanor that made him stand out from many of his more boisterous colleagues. All but forgotten today, Coach Jones’ story is a study in small-town high school basketball in Illinois during the era of the 1950s and 1960s. It all started quietly enough at Bluford High School in the fall of 1955, a school that had just over one hundred students.
A Gillespie, Illinois, native, Dick Jones was twenty-six years old when he came to Bluford in 1955. He was an all-but-novice coach, having worked just one year as a Virden, Illinois teacher while coaching on the middle school level. Nevertheless, he had a strong background in both sports and in life general. He started as a Southern Illinois University baseball infielder, along with playing some football at Carbondale in the late 1940s. A stint in Korea during the Korean Conflict kept him from getting into the coaching ranks for a couple of years, but gave Jones a much larger view of the world and of human nature. Still, his first head coaching job would not be easy.
When Dick Jones walked through the doors of Bluford High School in 1955, he discovered he had to fill some very big shoes. In fact, it was one of the most difficult tasks a new coach can face, that of following a very successful coach. Bluford High School basketball fans were disappointed, but not surprised when previous Coach J. M. Hooper left the Trojan basketball program to coach at a much larger school at Carlyle, Illinois. The jump was made possible by Hooper’s last two years at Bluford, years that brought amazing successes. In the 1954-1955 season, Hooper’s players racked up an amazing twenty-six victories, one more than the year before. But the 1955-1956 season had only one key players, Bill Irwin, returning and Hooper headed for greener pastures.
It helped that Bill Irwin, the leading scorer for Hooper during the great 1954-1955 season, continued to put up big numbers for Jones. In an early game against Cisne, for example, the Trojans clobbered their opponent 68-39 with Erwin the game’s leading scorer. The next game was a homecoming tilt against Little Egyptian Conference foe Royalton. The Mt. Vernon Register News described Dick Jones’ tough predicament. “Richard Jones, who coached at Virden, Illinois, before moving to Bluford is faced with a major rebuilding job.” The newspaper reporter needn’t have worried. Bluford won the game easily, 84-64. Just before the sixteen-team Wayne City Holiday Tournament, Jones had his players at peak performance and they came into the tourney with a solid 7-3 record. In January, a loss to Crab Orchard dropped them to second place in the conference.
The season now came to a pivotal point. Jones would easily be able to guarantee himself another year of coaching for Bluford if his charges could defeat their arch rival, the Wayne City Indians. The Indians had thumped the Trojans by ten points earlier in the season at the Wayne City gym and had also defeated the Fairfield Mules, a team from a much larger school. The local paper reported the results of the important contest. “The Bluford Trojans downed the Wayne City Indians in a grudge basketball battle which packed the Bluford gymnasium to overflowing. Wayne City was the favorite in the traditional meeting, having chalked up successive wins over Allendale and Fairfield.”
Once again, Trojan Bill Erwin came through, leading the team to an 88-78 victory. The year, however, eventually ended with a disappointing loss to Dahlgren in the first round of district play and the Trojans ended the season at a solid 14-11.
Jones got his second contract. All-in-all, it wasn’t a bad start as a head coach. A sports reporter, on summing up Dick Jones’ first year of high school basketball coaching, mentioned not only his solid record, but also spoke of his calm approach to the game, a quality the reporter described as “refreshing.”
Dick Jones’ work ethic and friendly demeanor did not go unnoticed. In his second year at Bluford, Jones was selected by his peers to be secretary for the Little Egyptian Conference. Winning games, however, grew harder. Scoring machine Bill Erwin was gone from the squad and the Trojans ended up with a 10-4 record in conference play, third place in the conference standings.
Jones’ success with such a small pool of players at Bluford, his hard work, and his friendly demeanor did not go unnoticed. McLeansboro High School, a southern Illinois school over four times the size of Bluford had just hired a new head coach, Gene Haile for the 1957-1958 season. Haile was determined to find the best assistant coaches available to help him make the Foxes an ongoing competitive force in southern Illinois sports, and Jones had caught his eye. Coaches at that time worked a number of sports, and Jones’ football and baseball playing days at SIU probably helped his cause when it came to getting the McLeansboro post. He was invited to join the McLeansboro coaching staff in July of 1957, an invitation he excitedly accepted.
The Foxes would have some extraordinary seasons under Haile, going to the state finals one year, playing much larger schools there and winning third place under a single class system. Better still, under Haile, McLeansboro was no longer the whipping boy come early tournament time against the largest school in southern Illinois, Mt. Vernon. Meanwhile, Dick Jones quickly established himself as the coach behind the scenes, carrying out the often forgotten but essential task of building the strong fundamental basketball skills of the upcoming freshman and sophomore players, young athletes such as future NBA player and coach Jerry Sloan, David Lee, the Burns twins, Jim and John, who starred at Northwestern University, and future NFL star, Carl Mauck.
Dick Jones might have stayed as assistant coach at Mcleansboro for the rest of his career had it not been for the fact that the nearby Mt. Vernon Rams program had struggled under three different basketball coaches in a three year period starting in the fall of 1961. In the spring of 1964, Mt. Vernon administrators came up with a plan to remedy their ongoing coaching problem, offering Gene Haile the head basketball job, a position Haile quickly accepted. Haile, who left a school of four hundred students, now found himself coaching at the largest school in southern Illinois, a school with an enrollment of over seventeen hundred students. With such a pool of potential players, Haile would now face incredible pressure to win. A McLeansboro fan wrote to he Mt. Vernon paper, humorously complaining that since the Rams were not able to beat the Foxes, they wisely “stole the Fox’s coach.” Mt. Vernon had a powerhouse team awaiting Haile’s arrival that included Terry Gamber, Gary Jones, Danny Hester, Bill Kirk, and Gary Large.
After Haile departed, McLeansboro High School spent little time figuring out who they wished to be their new head coach. A Mt. Vernon Register News sports headline declared, “Dick Jones New Boss of the Foxes.” The article further pointed out that Jones “had remarkable success with McLeansboro frosh-soph teams during seven years as assistant to Coach Haile in basketball, football, and track. He is already head baseball coach at McLeansboro.”
Dick Jones quickly achieved head coaching success, his football team going 7-1-1 that fall, “their best record in modern times,” reported one local newspaper. Another sports writer at the Mt. Vernon Register News thought McLeansboro basketball potential looked reasonably good as well.
Coach Jones, of McLeansboro, has excellent prospects with Carl Mauck, Ron Farlow, and Alan Downen returning from a unit which compiled a 20-4 record last season under Gene Haile. Three other returning seniors—John Higginson, Roger Phillips, and Steve Huggins—saw varsity action last year. The present crop of Foxes was unbeaten under Coach Jones as sophomores.
The Foxes came out of the gate strong at the beginning of the 1964-1965 season, winning their first three games. After a loss to Carmi, they won their next seven. Then there was a loss to South Seven Conference school Harrisburg, followed by four more wins. After winning the Quad City tournament in late December of 1964, where they whipped Fairfield, Carmi, and Benton, McLeansboro began receiving votes in the state ranking polls. Gene Haile, now at Vernon, took special note of the Foxes’ victory against Fairfield, a team that soundly thumped the Rams at the beginning of the season.
Coach Jones’ team lost their final two games of the regular season, but still stood at a solid 19-7 when the state tournament rolled around in February. Jones’ team would need to win three games to get out of sectional play and move on to the regionals, where they would likely have to face Gene Haile’s Rams. To get through sectional play, however, the Foxes would probably have to beat Harrisburg, a school who had already defeated them earlier that season.
And so it was. After an easy win over Norris City and a shaky victory over Ridgeway, the Foxes would face the Harrisburg Bulldogs. The Foxes more than rose to the occasion, shooting an amazing .750 in the second half and winning their fifth Sectional championship in six years by a score of 67-53. The Foxes’ heavy-duty Mauck hit 5-11 from the field and 7-9 from the free-throw line while fellow Fox Farlow made 9-13 from all angles of the court. A Harrisburg sports writer lamented how the McLeansboro team “outshot, outhustled, outrebounded, and outplayed” the Bulldogs. The jubilant team carried a laughing Coach Jones off the floor on their shoulders, a not to difficult a task given the husky sizes of future NFL star Carl Mauck and sharp-shooter Ron Farlow.
McLeansboro’s next test would be against the Benton Rangers, in the first game of the regional at storied Davenport gym in Harrisburg. The two teams had split during the regular season and both games had been incredibly close.
Benton took a big lead at the start of the game, but Jones’ squad came fighting back as the game wore on. Benton was holding a two point lead with a minute to go and seemed to have the winning momentum when Dick Jones called a time out. He then sent his team back out on the floor to apply a full-court press, a decision that may have won the game for the Foxes. One newspaper reported, “The South Seven Rangers held a two-point lead into the final minute but blew the decision when Coach Jones’ Foxes went into a press.” Always steady Carl Mauck hit four free throws in the last thirty seven seconds to seal the 51-47 win. The Mt. Vernon Rams won their game too, setting up an exciting match between the Rams and the Foxes. At stake would be the opportunity to move into the Sweet Sixteen state final. McLeansboro came into the game at 20-8. Mt. Vernon, at 22-6 and with a tougher regular season schedule, would be the obvious favorite.
The drama only grew as Southern Illinois sports columnists now pondered the possible outcome of the match. Merle Jones, king of the regions’ sports writers, noted, “The Mt. Vernon-McLeansboro clash has the added interest that the Rams are coached by Gene Haile and McLeansboro by Dick Jones, Haile’s seven year assistant at McLeansboro before Haile made his move this year.” The Southern Illinoisan sport writer then went on to assess the two teams’ chances. “Mt. Vernon has named players in all-stater Terry Gamber and 6-7 Gary Jones.” The writer also mentioned the Rams players Bill Kirk and Gary Large, “who stand on the wing and pop in one handers.” McLeansboro, he noted, “has a couple of comparative unknowns in Ron Farlow and Carl Mauck, two husky rebounders who can keep company with any opponents. . . . The game rates as a toss-up but I have a hunch McLeansboro will win to break the Ram voodoo.”
Other writers also seems to lean toward the Foxes, or, perhaps they were just against the Rams. In some ways, the contest evolved into the archetypal battle between big city and small town. The Harrisburg Daily Register simply gushed about the matchup but seemed to be pulling for Dick Jones’ team.
Dick Jones, the jubilant McLeansboro Fox coach, tabbed tonight’s championship encounter against the Mt Vernon Rams and Coach Gene Haile as ‘The one we’ve been waiting for.’ Jones and the entire Fox squad are very anxious to battle the Rams since Haile was the head coach at McLeansboro for seven years and Jones his assistant before Haile switched to Mt. Vernon this season. . . . The McLeansboro mentor has scouted the Rams four times this season and is ready for their first meeting. Jones believes the strong schedule his team has played since Christmas has enabled the Foxes to mold a well balanced attack with all five starters capable of scoring in double figures. . . . The Foxes may shock the King City in the same fashion they did three years ago in Davenport Gym.
The battle was everything the newspapers said it would be, a real rough and tumble match. McLeansboro’s Ron Farlow suffered a cut under his eye early in the game but kept playing. After the game, he had to get stitches to close the gash. Twice the Rams built up leads of eleven points, only to have McLeansboro fighting back to make the score, turning the game into a nail-biting, nip and tuck battle. The Mt. Vernon paper reported,
Mt. Vernon and Mcleansboro have tangled in some great tourney games in the past years, but none has ended in more break taking fashion. . . . Coach Dick Jones’ Foxes, trailing by a single point, had possession of the ball for the final minute and seven seconds of the game. They maneuvered for a last shot. After a time out, with six seconds left, Ron Farlow fired the crucial shot from the side. The ball hit the rim and skidded off. As the teams scrambled for the rebound, the game ended. Mt. Vernon was sectional champion.
Perhaps other coaches and fans would have been so devastated they would have blamed bad officiating or some other set of forces for the heart-breaking loss. Dick Jones and the McLeansboro community, however, were first and foremost proud of their team and the players’ total efforts. The city sent firetrucks to meet the team and the fans and bring them into town.
Dick Jones surprised the reporters after the game with his calm, dignified comments about the loss. Sports writer John Rackaway wrote, “Coach Jones was able to smile after missing the state tournament by a matter of one shot, and perhaps one inch. ‘We set up the play for Farlow’s shot. He got it. It was his shot and a good one—but it didn’t quite go in. That was the story, no complaints,’ said the Foxes’ coach. ‘Mt. Vernon was plenty tough,’ smiled the congenial coach of the Foxes.”
Coach Haile praised the McLeansboro team for its strong basketball fundamentals, a nod perhaps at Dick Jones many years of working as his assistant, preparing the lower classmen for Haile’s successes. “They don’t make many mistakes,” Haile told a reporter.
In many ways, Dick Jones’ first season at the helm of the McLeansboro basketball team was the high point of his time there, but only in wins and losses. He would continue to be the head coach of multiple sports, a situation that probably limited potential success. During the 1965-1966 season, Jones and his Foxes suffered from several close losses, being just 8-9 in early February after seven loses by five points or less. When a reporter asked Coach Jones how it felt to be “mired at 8-9” Jones smiled and answered, “There seems to be a lot of 8-9 teams right now,” to which the reporter smiled back and said, “I suppose you’re right.” The reporter went on to say that he admired Jones’ realistic attitude. The 1968-1969 campaign witnessed Coach Jones’ second best season of his McLeansboro career, a very solid 17-9, including a holiday tournament title and a victory over the highly rated and undefeated Fairfield Mules in the next to the last game of the regular season. That victory allowed the team I played on that year, the Bluford Trojans, the school where Dick Jones had his first head coaching job, to claim the longest winning streak in southern Illinois and the second longest in the state.
Congenial was a term that was so often used by sports reporters after interviewing Coach Jones, and his even-keel, optimistic attitude continued on into the next decade. He told one reporter in 1970, for example, that while having to deal with basketball players who came out of football season was a difficult thing to deal with in a smaller school, their more than evident body contact in early basketball practices “show they’ve got a good attitude.” In 1971, Dick Jones left McLeansboro to take the head basketball coaching position at Washington High School in Indiana.
Unsung today, Dick Jones left a great legacy of preparing young men in southern Illinois for life through his coaching. He was, at his very heart, a coach—always striving, always hoping, forever looking forward to that next season—until that moment when time gently told him this work was done and that he could now go off and watch his grandchild play sports, finding me one Saturday afternoon, sitting in some middle-school bleachers, waiting for my next story.