As Mike Jones leaving as DeMatha’s basketball coach, he says ‘this is clearly home’
May 24, 2021
Even after months of quarantine at home due to COVID-19, the head coach of DeMatha’s boys’ basketball team estimates he spent more time over the past two decades at the school’s Hyattsville campus than his own house. Sitting with his laptop open on a folding table set upon the hardwood floor before a wall of bleachers, Mike Jones surveyed the airy gymnasium and reflected on his career.
“This place is a major part of who I am – people here are my family,” said Jones, a graduate of DeMatha’s class of 1991 and only the second head basketball coach in the school’s 75-year history. On May 17 school officials announced Jones, 47, accepted an assistant coaching position at Virginia Tech University, and the coach spent the day telling his players.
Jones’ eyes teared as he described feeling both excitement for the new opportunity assisting the Hokies’ head coach Mike Young in Blacksburg, Virginia and “the heartache I get because of the kids I won’t get to coach” at DeMatha.
For Jones, the current moment contains both the warm welcome he and his wife, Stayce Jones, received from the college community awaiting their arrival and the flood of memories from his experience at DeMatha. “I feel it every time I pull into my parking space – every time I walk in here,” he said. “This place allowed me to be me.”
Jones, who will remain at DeMatha through the end of the school year and graduation, told the Washington Post he received offers to coach at the college level the last 15 years or so, but none on this scope. He ultimately made the difficult decision to accept the position for his family who he said support him 100 percent – prompting Jones to add that his wife “lives and dies with every game.”
“This is clearly home – this building epitomizes everything about my career,” he said referring to DeMatha’s new facility that opened in 2010. “I was here when this gym was opened… here when they first put the shovel in the ground,” Jones recalled. He also clearly remembers the school’s original gym where he played and where he coached his very first varsity game after taking the program over from Morgan Wootten – DeMatha’s legendary coach who was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000 and retired in 2002. Jones recalled the exact moment when he looked up and his former coach “gave me the thumbs up.”
However, it was not all smooth sailing inheriting the program from Wootten, who molded DeMatha’s program from its beginning in the late 1950s to an eventual 1,274-192 record including five national championships and 33 Washington Catholic Athletic Conference titles. In addition to such large shoes to fill, Jones would be expected to match and even extend DeMatha’s dominance in the sport. “Most people didn’t think I would have made it past one or two seasons,” laughed Jones. Now, friends have been calling with their congratulations and well-wishes admitting they can’t believe it’s already been 19 seasons, including this year’s pandemic-modified regular season 11-0 record with no postseason.
As a few masked students occasionally walked through the gym on their way to class with a fist bump for Jones, the coach remembered some of his favorite moments. The many wins and losses of course – but also the “hours and hours and hours” of sweat, cleaning floors, fixing chairs, yelling, and hugging players on his way to leading the team to eight WCAC titles and a record of 511-119. The NBA drafted five of Jones’ former players, including 2017 No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz and 2019 all-star Victor Oladipo.
Highlight WCAC championships for Jones include his first in 2005 – when DeMatha was still considered an underdog; the 2018 title – the school’s 40th overall; and the 2019 championship coinciding with his 500th win. That celebration was short-lived as the worldwide pandemic shuttered schools a few weeks later. Asked how the team navigated the past year, Jones noted the value of resiliency, “a trait that is at the core of who we are as a school.” His players and all the students “know because of what they experienced this year – they can get through anything.”
Another lesson Jones tried to impart over the years to his students both on the court and in the classroom is “to empower the kids to have a voice – don’t have a popular voice, have your own voice,” he said, “embrace it, say it, respect it and defend it. I want to make sure I am creating leaders.” Jones, who is African American, said he believes in the continuing movement for racial justice. Over the years he encouraged his students to do their homework on various issues, stand behind their beliefs and “do it because it is the right thing to do.” Jones acknowledged his lessons will spread, because those young men will become future husbands, fathers, coaches and bosses. If students learn moral actions now, they will teach it to others in their lives, Jones added.
As a student himself, Jones did not realize the unique gifts DeMatha offered until after he graduated. “Our diversity, our celebration of excellence – and our pursuit of it,” became evident after entering Old Dominion University where others struggled to adjust to college life, Jones said. His experience at DeMatha “taught me how to study, how to organize my time, and not only how to value my culture but other cultures as well. It taught me how to treat people,” he said.
After majoring in counseling at Old Dominion and a brief professional basketball career, Jones was hired as the sophomore guidance counselor at DeMatha in 1998 by his former principal, John Moylan. Moylan had kept in touch with Jones over the years, keeping the possibility of a job at his high school open until the timing was right. In Jones’ first year as counselor, he also became an assistant to Wootten – his former coach and mentor. Jones started on the bottom rung as an assistant coach to the freshman team and one year later took over as freshman coach and varsity assistant. Over the next 23 years, Jones would serve the school at various times as counselor, assistant and later director of admissions, director of recruitment, school NCAA coordinator and a psychology and public speaking teacher.
Jones, named head coach of DeMatha’s varsity team at age 29 – without any head coaching experience – said that the most important lesson he learned was being purposeful in relationships. His initial excitement of going out to win games gave way to the understanding that he would have to work hard to build relationships. “The stronger relationships a coach has with his players, the easier it is going to be to win,” Jones said.
“I’m honored to be the school’s only coach to have won a game in this gym – named after the greatest coach ever and his wife,” he said.
The Morgan and Kathy Wootten Gymnasium is located inside the Lt. (SEAL) Brendan Looney '99 Convocation Center, one of the school’s newest additions. Jones has an office in the building and according to the coach, a favorite place to meet his team – gathered around a little brass plate located near the top of the key for free throws. The brass plate is used to secure the school’s volleyball net for physical education classes, but also marks a spot of DeMatha history. Buried beneath the concrete is a single horseshoe, said Jones, and for the past 10 seasons a tradition emerged with team huddles slightly off-center from the middle of the court.
At one time in history this land was in horse country, confirmed Daniel McMahon, the school’s longtime principal and a former student there. “Even before the Trinitarians moved in, there were stables here at some point,” McMahon said. The principal explained when the excavation for the new building uncovered a horseshoe, school officials decided to rebury the piece of the past with a nod toward home team advantage – a little symbol of luck sunk below the free-throw line of the Stags’ second-half basket.
But McMahon knows it was more than luck for DeMatha in hiring two basketball coaches who represented the mission of the school, excelled in public speaking, and inspired others in the classroom for a combined 65 years. “I believe in incarnational work,” McMahon said – “wherever two or more are gathered you can render Christ. I got to be here with both of them.”
McMahon, who teaches English, also claims to have influenced Jones’ basketball skills because as the administrator readily offered he was his first coach at DeMatha. “I taught him, I coached him freshman year,” McMahon said, adding, “I never taught a harder working kid, I never coached a harder working kid.”
One of the principal’s favorite memories of Jones’ coaching career came after a particularly difficult loss. About 10 years ago the team had traveled to New England for a tournament broadcast on ESPN, got beaten badly and following the game viewed harsh criticisms directed to DeMatha’s coaches and players posted to social media. When the team returned home, Jones asked if he could speak at a pre-game reception for school alumni. “He came in the room and said, ‘I need your support. I hope none of you were the ones who talked about these children. Their worth does not depend on their performance on a basketball court.’ His love was so evident,” recalled McMahon. “We love to win – it’s way more important to do the right thing.”
“Mike Jones helps us be our best selves,” McMahon said. “I’m going to miss him.”
Jones returns the sentiment, noting DeMatha is a constant reminder of doing the best you can and being who you are supposed to be.
“I’ve been allowed to embrace my faith and do it in my way,” said Jones, who is not Catholic. “DeMatha is a Catholic high school, a faith-based institution,” he said adding, “I was never judged here and I’ve grown in my faith since then. God has blessed me in so many different ways.”
And while Virginia Tech just gained a legion of new supporters – friends and graduates of DeMatha who will cheer on Jones, the basketball coach wishes only the best for the Stags. “I want to see them win. I hope they continue to win and in the next 10 years say, ‘Mike Jones who?’ It’s been all about them anyway.”