The ever-changing coaching carousel took a toll on the Bradley men’s basketball team in late September. Assistant coach Drew Adams, who had been on head coach Brian Wardle’s staff at Bradley since the latter took his position in Peoria, was nabbed by Cincinnati, leaving the Braves with a big hole in their staff with less than two months before the season started.
Luckily for the Braves, their answer was right down Interstate 74 at Illinois State, an unfamiliar place for Bradley to poach from. Heading into Bradley’s first rivalry matchup of the 2022-23 season with the Redbirds on Wednesday night, Jones couldn’t be much happier about where he’s ended up.
“[Bradley] is a basketball school and it’s just really fun to be a part of it,” Jones said. “And being a part of this group right here has been special for me.”
Jones’ associate head coach job that he held at Illinois State for three years came to a close after the Redbirds overhauled their staff when new head coach Ryan Pedon came in. That left Jones in a tough predicament on where he would land next, especially since he was trying to stay in central Illinois for the sake of his children in high school.
“Even though this has been my life and my passion, you come to a point where you’ve got to do right by your children,” Jones said. “So I wanted to stay in the area but there just weren’t a lot of available jobs in the area.”
Jones just didn’t come to Bradley by chance though. 24 seasons of coaching at Missouri State, Iowa, North Dakota and Illinois State certainly expanded his Roladex.
“Coach Wardle, I’ve know him a long time,” Jones said. “[Associate head coach] Jimmie Foster actually worked with me at North Dakota and I’ve known [associate head coach] Mike Bargen a long time so it was just a perfect timing, perfect situation because I was just 45 minutes down the road, [knew] the staff very well and [knew] the league. It’s been a great ride ever since.”
Even before entering the coaching sphere, Jones was no stranger to the MVC, as he played for Northern Iowa from 1989 to 1994. Following a brief professional career in Portugal and Australia, he latched on at Missouri State as an administrative assistant for the 1998-99 season.
Similar to his current position with the Braves, Jones was a late add to the coaching staff and focused his efforts on ensuring the team was prepared as much as possible for the unpredictable nature of the MVC.
“My talent and my skill is game preparation and skill development,” Jones said. “So, in those young years, I just did a lot of getting the team prepared for games, scouting, watching a ton of film, a lot of camp stuff and getting the team ready for travel.”
“The basketball stuff is kind of where I cut my teeth really on the game preparation side and that’s really catapulted me and I take a lot of pride in that today,” he added.
The veteran-laden Bears danced into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament that season, a finish that was good enough for head coach Steve Alford to get offered a job at Iowa. He brought Jones, not even 30 years old yet, along with him. Working just one hour away from his hometown of Rock Island, Illinois, made the deal even sweeter for Jones.
Big Sky, Big Dreams
After seven seasons and two Big Ten Tournament titles at Iowa, Jones had earned enough stripes for his first head coaching gig: at then-Division II North Dakota.
“The Big Ten is just a step up: the bodies, the athleticism, the length, and obviously the budgets,” Jones said. “That was great but then it was a huge adjustment going from Iowa to North Dakota, where you’re a low-major in Division I and you don’t have that kind of money.”
One year after Jones arrived, North Dakota began its transition to Division I and the Big Sky Conference in 2007. Recruiting challenges were plenty, given the geographical location and the school’s ineligibility for postseason play until the 2012-13 season due to the NCAA’s customary transitional period for new Division I members.
“You had to get kids who wanted to be a part of something bigger than themselves,” Jones said. “Maybe they weren’t eligible to play in the [NCAA Tournament], but they wanted to play Division I. So we had to redshirt for about two or three classes and eventually get old and that’s the magic formula even now as a way you can stay old.”
No problem for Jones though: he led North Dakota to five Collegeinsider.com Tournaments and the program’s inaugural NCAA Tournament berth in 2017 after winning the Big Sky Tournament. Jones’ lifelong Midwest ties assisted him greatly in recruiting players from the Minneapolis area and across Iowa.
“It was a tough long haul in a great spot, but a difficult spot to recruit to but I had a great staff and a lot of young kids who, again, wanted to be a part of something bigger than themselves,” Jones said.
Back in familiar territory
The rollercoaster of going from mid-major, to high-major, to low-major Division I basketball teams took an upward swing back to the MVC as Jones was hired to join Illinois State head coach Dan Muller on the sidelines. Jones got a brief gig as a head coach yet again, following Muller’s mid-season firing last February and his first game at the helm came against none other than Bradley, where the Braves won 72-64.
“I’ve always been impressed with [Wardle’s] teams throughout the years with his blue-collar work ethic, and [the teams’] toughness; their grit defensively,” Jones said.
Despite the Redbirds’ lowly finishes in the Valley, as the offensive coordinator, Jones led the group to a top-3 scoring team in the MVC his last two seasons in Normal. His three years was enough for his family to put down roots there for the time being.
“My kids are still in high school and that’s what we wanted to go through this year and then obviously make the transition [closer to Peoria] once the school year is over,” Jones said.
Being able to stay in the Missouri Valley Conference has benefited Jones from a game preparation standpoint, even as players come and go throughout the years. In his opinion, it’s very much a similar league to what it was during his playing days at Northern Iowa.
“It’s been the same, the league is very hard,” Jones said. “I think kids are still figuring out that it’s really hard to win at this level but it’s different obviously. We had Creighton, Wichita State, Tulsa, it was just a different league but it was still very, very difficult and had great rivalries. I knew that [Bradley] and Illinois State was a huge rivalry seeing that.”
“There’s great coaches, great players and it was one of the better leagues even back then,” he added. “We’re right there on the verge of being a high-major, just as far as the talent level and the coaching.”
“Just our next game”
The MVC is a highly-scouted league, plain and simple. Teams and coaches regularly know the ins and outs of a program so what was Jones’ impression of Bradley and Wardle while he was at ISU?
“I think they’ve done a great job really finding a system on both sides,” Jones said.”Where [Wardle] has grown the most is the offensive side, everybody knew he was a great defensive coach. Now, he’s really found his system that fits him and fits our personnel.”
As the Braves charge on into the meat of their conference schedule, the importance of knowing their opponents and constantly improving becomes even more crucial. That’s where Jones comes into play.
“I’m all about preparation; preparation is big,” Jones said. “You’ve got to stick to preparation and then you’ve got to trust the process. Whether you’re a player or not, you’re putting in the work, good things are going to benefit you.”
As the Bradley fanbase, students, and players gear up for what promises to be another chapter in the MVC’s oldest – and perhaps most heated – rivalry, the tall, calm Jones is simply taking the game against his most recent team with a ‘business as usual’ approach.
“I mean obviously I was there three years but [Bradley] still is where I’m at now. There’s only a couple kids [from my tenure] left. Obviously, I wish them the best and there’s nothing personal for me by any means. It’s just our next game and a game we’ve got to win in order to keep moving towards trying to win a championship.”