Why KU football 'needed' interim head coach Emmett Jones' energy, enthusiasm

Matt Galloway
Topeka Capital-Journal
Emmett Jones oversaw his first spring practice as Kansas football's interim head coach Tuesday.

LAWRENCE — The decision three weeks ago to join the chorus of Kansas football players publicly lobbying for Emmett Jones to be named the team’s interim head coach, insists Kwamie Lassiter II, was an easy one.

“We all want to go to war with Jones. That’s pretty much it,” said Lassiter II, speaking at a Tuesday news conference. “It’s self-explanatory. If you know Jones, you know how that goes.”

The dozen-plus players who advocated for the wide receiver coach’s elevation into that interim role in the aftermath of Les Miles’ departure got their first taste of what a Jones-led Jayhawk practice looks like Tuesday, the first day of the team’s spring football slate.

Jones, who joined KU in early 2019 as part of Miles’ first-year Jayhawk coaching staff, said he observed energy, communication and excitement from the players in their first official practice since the conclusion of last year’s 0-9 campaign and the program upheaval that followed — Miles on March 8 agreed to a buyout of the remaining three years on his contract amid resurfaced allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct that took place during his tenure at LSU.

Other Jayhawks that joined Lassiter II in calling for Jones' promotion on social media included safety Kenny Logan, defensive back Valerian Agbaw and wide receivers Lawrence Arnold and Malik Johnson. Multiple incoming recruits from the Class of 2021 also threw their support behind Jones.

While the circumstances that led to his promotion were less than ideal, Jones said the opportunity to serve as the team’s interim head coach is “like a dream come true.”

“You never really saw it coming,” Jones said Tuesday. “I didn’t really come to Kansas to be the head coach at Kansas. I just came to be the best position coach and the best co-worker possible. As far as the guys standing behind me, that just speaks volumes of the staff. We’re doing a great job as far as building that family base and building that relationship well with players. They wanted someone that they knew well and trusted to represent them as we continue to move forward through our spring and next season also."

A former wideouts coach at his alma mater Texas Tech (2015-18), Jones said that, despite having never been in this particular role at the collegiate level, he felt a sense of having been down this road before as Tuesday's practice unfolded. Jones’ authenticity and natural leadership abilities may have helped him meet the moment, too.

The coaching staff’s goal entering this offseason was to show improvement on a day-to-day basis, and the changes at the top did nothing to take away from that vision, Jones said. 

“We’re just staying the course — matter of fact, kind of amplifying some stuff a little more,” Jones said. “These kids are ready to go. They feel like they’ve got a point to prove. Same with this coaching staff. ... One thing we always talk about is, together it’d be difficult for anybody to slow us down. But we’ve got to make sure we’re together with this, and that’s what we’ve been displaying these last two or three weeks.”

Atop the list of what Jones wants to accomplish this spring appears to be the macro mission of simply instilling confidence in players that haven’t experienced much success during their time at KU. The Jayhawks will enter the 2021 campaign on a 13-game losing streak.

“We’re doing our best to change the perception, change the image of the program,” Jones said. “It all starts with hard work. All these guys are Division I football players. All of these guys were recruited, the majority on full-time scholarships. ... Our plan next year, you know, if you don’t speak it, it won’t happen. We want to contend and be in contention in December. We don’t want to just go through the schedule, ‘This is a normal game.’ No, we want to be in contention. We feel like we have the pieces that we need, and we’re very fired up about it.”

As for the role Jones will hold this fall, that remains to-be-determined. KU is also seeking a new athletic director, and that individual could opt to let the upcoming season play out with an interim coach before making a decision on a full-time leader from a deeper pool of candidates in October or November.

Jones said he tries not to inquire about how long he should expect to be the team’s interim head coach. It doesn’t appear he’s itching to get the answer to that question, either.

“Shoot, I just try to take it one day at a time, try to be great one day at a time. That’s all I worry about,” Jones said. “Everything else is pretty much out of our control. The good Lord up above, he’ll make the final decision. As long as we come in and pour into these kids and make sure we’re all on the same page and stuff, we’ll be fine.”

Lassiter II, a senior wide receiver, said Tuesday’s practice reaffirmed that Jones is still “humble,” “head-down” and “real hungry.” Whether it’s receivers, defensive backs, linebackers, defensive linemen or any other position group, Jones has “got everybody just in a circle, ready to ball,” Lassiter II observed.

One of those players getting to know Jones better is senior outside linebacker Kyron Johnson. While Johnson is more familiar with defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot and outside linebackers coach Jacob Schoonover, the fifth-year Jayhawk out of Arlington, Texas, indicated he’s been inspired by Jones’ energy and enthusiasm.

“When he speaks,” Johnson said, “it’s like you are locked into him.”

Already, observed Johnson, these Jayhawks “look different.”

“With (Jones) it’s like, 'Whoa, where did this energy come from?' We needed that. We need that motivation,” Johnson said. “... He’s a great dude. Like, I wouldn’t be surprised if they just stayed with him as the head coach because he’s just great like that.”