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Coaching bloodlines push American's Jeff Jones to succeed

Orlin Wagner/AP American coach Jeff Jones took Virginia to the Final Four as the starting point guard before following his father into a basketball coaching career.

Strategy came easy to bench leader

He was just a freshman on the varsity at Apollo High School in Owensboro, Ky. But with his teammates struggling to grasp a play, Jeff Jones respectfully interrupted his coach during a blackboard session and asked if he could draw it up.

Wayne Chapman wasn't any standard-issue high school coach. He was a former star at Western Kentucky and player in the American Basketball Association before turning to high school coaching. Later he would be known as the father of Kentucky All-American and NBA star Rex Chapman.

But in a locker room discussing basketball strategy, the 14-year-old Jones was in his element. It's where he grew up, the son of a college coach, Bob Jones, who less than a year earlier had guided Kentucky Wesleyan to the NCAA Division II championship.

Up next
American at Army
When » Wednesday, 7 p.m.
Where » Christl Arena, West Point, N.Y.

In a way, Jones' coaching career began the day he diagramed that play. Nearly 40 years later, Jones is still drawing them up as the dean of Washington-area college coaches, in his 13th season at American University.

Wednesday when Jones, 52, guides AU (10-19, 5-9 Patriot) in its Patriot League tournament opener at Army (15-14, 8-6), he'll be relying on the lessons learned sitting quietly during practice sessions with his father's team.

"He was one to sit and watch, taking it all in," said Bob Jones, 73, now retired in Kentucky. "Then after practice, he'd go up against one of my players."

For four years as the starting point guard at Apollo and four more at the University of Virginia, where he helped 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson and the Cavaliers to the Final Four, Jones' edge on the court was his ability to think like a coach.

"Jeff was not built like the classic penetrating point guards so he used his height to see and control the whole floor at both ends," former Virginia coach Terry Holland said. "He was very effective at getting scorers the ball in the position that was best for that particular scorer. And when he didn't like the position a player took the ball into after receiving it, he had no qualms about going and getting the ball back."

That combination of acumen and feistiness convinced Holland, now the athletic director at East Carolina, that Jones had the stuff to be a coach. So Holland offered him a job after graduation and an unsuccessful, injury-riddled trial with the Indiana Pacers, who drafted him in the fourth round.

"I just always assumed I was going to be a [professional] player," Jones said. "Reality came pretty quick."

As an assistant, Jones was a quick study whether he was recruiting or diagraming plays, so much so that when Holland stepped down in 1990, Jones took over at age 29, becoming the youngest head coach in ACC history.

As he watched his AU team at a recent practice, Jones reminisced about his days at Virginia, talking of those who have influenced him. In addition to serving under Holland, he coached alongside assistants Jim Larranaga (George Mason, Miami), Dave Odom (Wake Forest, South Carolina) and Seth Greenberg (Virginia Tech).

But Jones didn't hesitate when asked who influenced him the most.

"Have to be my dad," Jones said. "All my foundation comes from him."