Tulane coach Rick Jones is retiring as head coach due to health reasons, which have kept him away from the team since March 21, when assistant Jake Gautreau stepped into an interim head coach role. Jones spoke with Baseball America on Thursday night about his health and his future.
“Doing this for almost 40 years and never having a hobby, the job being my hobby and getting so wound tight like I am, it just took its toll,” Jones said. “The doctors said I was a candidate for a heart attack or a stroke if I continued to do that, and they wouldn’t let me do it.
“I’m 60, I’ve been doing this forever. It’s not something I wanted to have happen, I promise you. But I can tell you Tulane’s been very good to me and looked after me in a lot of different ways. We’re going to run our camps this summer, and my wife and I will probably move back to North Carolina after this summer, to Wilmington.”
A strong case can be made that Jones became the most successful coach in the history of Tulane athletics during his 21-year tenure, which included two College World Series appearances (2001 and 2005) and 12 trips to regionals, but none since 2008. This year’s club finished 23-29 overall and did not make the Conference USA tournament, making it the first losing season in Jones’ tenure. He went 1,090-532-3 in his career, and 814-439-2 at Tulane.
The Green Wave’s momentum from its 2005 CWS run was shattered by Hurricane Katrina that fall, decimating the city and Tulane’s recruiting efforts. The program has not returned to national prominence since. As a private school with a price tag in excess of $60,000 per year, Tulane has dipped largely because it lacks the huge financial aid available to private schools like Vanderbilt and Rice.
The program’s struggles took a major physical toll on Jones, who said there is a history of heart disease in his family. He said he is a close friend of Arizona coach Andy Lopez, who had quintuple bypass surgery last fall, and the two have talked about the importance of heeding the warning signs.
“I was on my back at 5 o’clock in the morning with just panic attacks,” Jones said. “I’m not the only coach who’s ever had that happen, but it certainly happened to me. One of the doctors said, ‘Were you always anxious?’ Anxious is what I lived on. About a year ago, that turned into anxiety and turned me on my head. I started to feel like I was letting the fans down.
“The hardest thing to do in our sport now is to be good every year. It really is. It’s just one of those things that, I didn’t see (the health problems) coming. I never thought it would happen, I never even thought about it.”
Jones said he would like to remain involved in baseball in some capacity—whether broadcasting or a role in professional baseball or something else—but his coaching days are likely over. But he’s not going to worry about his next move right now.
“To be honest, stress is what put me in this situation, so I’m trying not to think about a lot of things,” Jones said. “Right now, I don’t have to do anything for a while. Tulane’s looked after me. But I can tell you, I’m not going to sit idle.”
He also said he won’t be involved in the search to find his successor. Gautreau has made it clear he wants the job, and he will be a candidate. But Illinois State coach Mark Kingston, who was Jones’ assistant from 2002-08, might be the front-runner. Kingston is an outstanding recruiter with experience as a successful mid-major head coach, as he has led Illinois State to school records for wins in two of his first four seasons as head coach.
Mississippi assistant Cliff Godwin, who has recruiting ties in the area from his days on LSU’s staff, could be another strong contender. The usual collection of top assistants could all garner consideration, including Louisville’s Chris Lemonis, North Carolina’s Scott Forbes, Virginia’s Kevin McMullan and Mississippi State’s Butch Thompson. Sam Houston State head coach David Pierce, a proven recruiter in Conference USA during his days at Rice, would be another great target.