EIWA FEATURE Rookie coach Zeke Jones brings special experience to Penn coaching job
Not many rookie college head coaches have been a head coach at the Olympic Games before they coached their first college match, but Penn's head coach Zeke Jones has never really done things according to normal schedules.
When he was an undergraduate at Arizona State, Jones was already the No. 1 freestyle wrestler in the nation at 52 kg/114.5 lbs. and had placed at the World Championships. Very few college wrestlers have the talent on the world level at such a young age.
Jones went on to win a 1995 World gold medal and 1996 Olympic silver medal, holding his No. 1 spot on Freestyle Team USA for seven straight years. Immediately after his competitive career ended, Jones went right into coaching freestyle at the national level, working with outstanding athletes with the Sunkist Kids club and on international tours. When he was named as one of the coaches for the 2004 U.S. Olympic team in Athens, Greece, Jones had already put in many years training elite wrestling stars.
However, landing a Div. I coaching job, especially at the highest levels, is a difficult task. Jones, who had an impact as an assistant coach with Arizona State, Bloomsburg and West Virginia, got his first chance as a head coach this year at respected Ivy League and EIWA power Penn. He received the nod after long-time coach Roger Reina retired after building the program to national prominence.
"I always thought when I was making coaching a profession, that my goals would be a World Team coach, and Olympic coach and to coach a national champion college team. I never thought I would do the World and Olympic coaching before doing the college job," said Jones.
It has been a trait for Jones his entire life, going for the top as soon as possible.
"I am a little impatient," said Jones. "I want things faster than I should have it. Some things come earlier. Some things have come later. But that is healthy for me."
Although people think of Jones as a freestyle athlete and coach, he has very strong college wrestling credentials, both as an athlete and an assistant coach. At Arizona State, he was a member of a national champion team under legendary coach Bobby Douglas, and was a NCAA runner-up, losing to Northwestern's Jack Griffin in the finals. By then, Jones was already the best freestyle wrestler in the nation at 52 kg/114.5 lbs.
His coaching journeys began at his alma mater, then took him to assistant coaching gigs at Bloomsburg Univ. and the Univ. of West Virginia. For many years, Jones was considered one of the nation's top assistant coaches, and he was considered a candidate for many job openings for head coaching positions.
"The experiences I have had on the college level, wrestling with Bobby Douglas as my coach, got my career started as a coach. I started my assistant coaching at Bloomsburg Univ., which offered me some new perspectives on college wrestling. Then I got to go to West Virginia, a top 10 or 20 program every year. It brought me to the East, and helped me to learn how to recruit in the East. It was a path for me."
Jones says that he has learned from many of the coaches that he has worked with throughout his life, but gives special credit to Douglas, as well as West Virginia's veteran head coach Craig Turnbull.
"Having the influence of Bobby Douglas as my coach, first in college, and then at the Olympic Games was very important," said Jones. "From him, I learned the sport from a very analytical sense. From Craig Turnbull, who has a passion for wrestling off the mat, I learned things beyond the X's and O's. I learned to be caring about the athletes, to assist them in succeeding on the mats and in the classroom. I have been in the East and the West, in the Pac-10, the EWL and now the EIWA. The breadth and width has been tremendous."
Jones had a major decision to make when he received the opportunity to coach at Penn. At West Virginia, he had established a very important role on the team. Jones had just helped create the Sunkist Kids National Training Center in West Virginia, where he was going to coach elite freestyle wrestlers who would also receive jobs at Mylan Labs to help support their families and training. Yet the Penn job was just too good to let go, especially with Jones' high ambitions in coaching.
"I have enjoyed joining the Penn family. There are great athletes here. Roger Reina left the program in great shape. I was concerned how things would go initially, but the wrestlers have responded to me.They are stepping up. We were predicted to be fourth in the conference this year, but they have really done well," said Jones.
Penn has a mix of veterans from the Reina era, as well as some exciting young talents, including EIWA No. 1 seeded freshman Matt Dragon, and No. 5 seed Cesar Grajales. Yet Jones joined Penn too late to have a full recruiting season, and is looking forward to bringing in some of his own new athletes for next year. He is learning to deal with athletes who must be outstanding on the mat, but also motivated and talented in the classroom, as is required at an Ivy League school.
"The wrestling component is the same as everywhere," said Jones. "But you have to find athletes who want to excel academically. They are out there. There are kids who want to have it all. They want to do well in their life, and in wrestling they want to win national, World and Olympic titles."
After going through a full season with his team, Jones has a tremendous respect for the athletes at Penn, as well as at the other EIWA colleges where academics are stressed.
"When I came here, I asked the other coaches at Penn in all the sports to see their recruiting letters. They were all about the same. The coaches said that Penn was the best combination of academics and athletics in the nation. These schools offer balance. They are just like other kids, but they excel in two areas. As competitive as they are on the mats, they are just as competitive in the classroom. Just like they want to finish a single leg attack, they also want to figure out that math problem. They are bright, and they are still gathering wisdom and experience. They start off with a lot. They are brilliant, and they are highly motivated," said Jones.
Jones jokes about being a rookie coach in the EIWA, and how his peer coaches are teaching him a few things. He noted how they were tough on him at the seeding meeting prior to the event. He is also learning just how talented the athletes in the EIWA programs are on the national level.
"This conference is tough. Look at the match where the No. 1 guy (Josh Glenn) had to go to the rideout just to win in the quarterfinals. You have great coaches in this conference. There are legends like Strobel, Koll and Burnett, and all of the coaches are talented here. It's a challenge to step up to the level of these coaches. It is great for learning, and also great for providing me a challenge."
Jones is spending time learning all the history of the Penn program, which has a tradition going back a century in college wrestling. He is also becoming a student of the history of the university, going back to when it was founded by Ben Franklin. Zeke Jones is becoming a bigtime cheerleader for his university and his wrestling program. He is also becoming a big fan of EIWA wrestling.
"The momentum of this league is going up," said Jones. "This is in one of the meccas for wrestling in the entire country. There is so much wrestling in this area. It is neat to be a part of it."
Not a bad start for a rookie coach, who has already been to the Olympic Games and back…