Jeff Jones' First NCAA Tourney Berth at ODU is Especially Meaningful
March 19, 2019
Jeff Jones jumped up to celebrate, hugged his assistant coaches one by one, shook hands with Western Kentucky players and coaches, then leaned back against the press table and watched his players celebrate on the court.
Unbeknownst to him, CBS Sports Network cameras captured every second. He thought about all of the years Old Dominion had been so close to a conference championship and an NCAA tournament berth, only to come up short. And he contemplated his nearly four-year battle with prostate cancer, which is incurable, and the incredible support he has received from his wife.
As millions watched, the usually unflappable 58-year-old began to sob into his towel. That tells you how much he has been through and how courageously he's faced treatments with terrible side effects that can stop the cancer from growing, but can't cure it.
He thought about the people at ODU who believed in him, including Athletic Director Wood Selig and President John R. Broderick. And when he hugged his wife Danielle, he cried some more.
Jones said he didn't want to let his emotions get away from him. "I got a little overwhelmed," he said.
ODU defeated Western Kentucky 62-56 in the Conference USA championship game Saturday with a typical Jones game - a defensive slugfest in which his players were tougher and more poised than the more-talented Hilltoppers.
WKU has had top-20 recruiting classes in each of the last two years, but ODU swept the Hilltoppers this season, including both regular-season games.
And now, for the first time in eight years, ODU is headed to the NCAA tournament. The 14th-seeded Monarchs take on third-seeded Purdue at 9:50 p.m. Thursday (TV: TBS; Radio: ESPN 94.1) as a 12.5-point underdog.
Bracket Buster is the name given to teams that upset high-rated opponents. And USA Today joined a chorus of national publications predicting that ODU will become the tournament's first Bracket Buster.
Next to the Super Bowl, the NCAA tournament is perhaps the most popular sports event in America. Tens of millions of people fill out brackets, and TVs will be on at work and sports bars around the nation. When a mid-major such as ODU upsets a Power 5 school, it's big news.
But now that ODU is in the Big Dance, expect Jones' life story to also become big news. TV and newspaper reporters will begin reporting on his courageous decision to continue to coach.
He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2015. He learned he was sick quite by chance. He got a blood test only because he had applied for a new life insurance policy. He had surgery, and doctors took out all they could find.
He then had eight weeks of radiation. I've had the same procedure for prostate cancer. It saps your energy and can cause painful side effects.
Then, in 2017 he learned the cancer had returned. He waited until last fall to tell his players and the public.
Doctors put him on meds, the same kind I took, to stop the cancer from growing. They cause a ton of side effects. They hit me like a ton of bricks.
Yet Jones willed himself through this season without displaying any ill effects outwardly.
"You'd never know he had cancer," guard Ahmad Caver said. "He hasn't slowed down a bit."
I don't think average fans, especially those who've never had cancer, understand just how magnificently Jones performed. ODU is 26-8, and that includes victories over then-nationally ranked Syracuse from the ACC and regular-season Atlantic 10 champion Virginia Commonwealth.
He says Danielle took a lot of weight off of his shoulders. Once she learned he had cancer, she threw herself into researching the disease and arranged for him to be cared for at Johns Hopkins. It's hard to imagine a more loving and smarter caregiver.
She's been to nearly every doctor's appointment with him, and when he was asked whether he wanted the most aggressive treatment, she answered for him. "The most aggressive," she said.
"Having somebody that's your best friend and closest confidant who is going through that with you means so much to me," Jones said "When I say Danee has been with me every step, that's a big deal."
She began a fundraiser as a part of Coaches vs. Cancer to raise money for patients to have a free place to stay when they need out-of-town treatments. Jeff and Danielle contributed $13,280, the amount they paid for a test that his insurance declined to cover.
"How many people don't have the $13,000 to drop on one test?" she said. "That's when the rage got to me."
The wives of the Coaches Vs. Cancer movement set a goal of raising $100,000. Danielle has raised more than $75,000 by herself.
Although breast cancer, a more prevalent disease, has hundreds of fundraisers with hundreds of teams wearing pink to help raise money, there is little effort to promote awareness of prostate cancer.
Prostate cancer has no equivalent of a Bra-ha-ha.
ODU designated a home game with Northern Iowa in November in which coaches and team wore light blue, the color for prostate cancer awareness.
"We want to raise awareness because I am so frustrated that his cancer had already spread by the time he got treatment," Danielle said.
Prior to the game, Jeff Jones spoke out publicly, saying men don't like to talk about prostate cancer because it deals with a gland that has much to do with sexual function. But left untreated, prostate cancer can be deadly.
"Men over 50 need to get tested," he said.
Jones did not speak during the game. He wanted the focus to be on the court.
Instead, he took part in a video played at halftime in which every ODU coach and Selig voiced support for Jones and the ways men can avoid prostate cancer.
There's little doubt that Jones has coached well at ODU. He is 140-66 in six seasons. That's an average of almost 24 victories per season. But Jones has narrowly missed going to the NCAA tournament twice, and that has weighed on him.
In 2015, the Monarchs suffered an early loss in the C-USA tournament to Middle Tennessee. ODU was among the last four teams not to make to the NCAA tournament.
The following season, ODU won three games in three days in the C-USA tournament before falling to MTSU by two in the final.
In 2015, Jones took the Monarchs to the NIT semifinals in New York.
"By any definition, Jeff Jones has been a great coach for Old Dominion," Selig said. "And he's shown such courage. He's well-liked and respected throughout the coaching profession.
"I think a lot of people are rooting for Jeff and Old Dominion this week."
Jones praised Broderick and Selig for hiring him and giving him a contract extension last fall.
"All the fans, Wood Selig and John Broderick who gave me this opportunity six years ago, I'm really happy for them. There are a lot of folks who have supported us that I'm so happy for," he said.
"It's not just about the team. It's about, as you said, people in the community. We get great support not just from Norfolk but the overall Tidewater community. I'm thrilled especially for the players but there are a lot of different folks I'm so happy for.
"John Broderick has been great. He's been right there for us. He's given us such great support. I couldn't ask for a better boss than Wood Selig. And we couldn't ask for better fans.
"It's about all of us, not one or the other. It's about one big Monarch Nation. I'm really, really happy we were able to do this for everyone."
Jones will live with cancer the rest of his life.
"You're never going to hear Danielle or me say, 'Oh, woe is us,' " he said. "I'm truly very lucky. I got the test done in time for treatment. Who knows where I would be if I hadn't been tested? I'm lucky enough to be able to financially pay for the best care possible.
"I'm lucky enough to be coaching a great bunch of kids at a university that I love very much.
"I'm lucky enough to have a wife like Danee. I'm truly blessed."