Jones brings experience, rivalry to consulting role
As the head coach at Greenwood high school in western Arkansas, Rick Jones presided over camps for elementary school-aged football players every summer. Not only did Jones teach the young athletes the fundamentals of blocking and tackling, he used the opportunity to indoctrinate them into the Bulldogs’ fiercest rivalry.
“I’d say, ‘You ought to look around right now,’” Jones recalled. “‘You look around at these people right here, working and sweating and focused on being the best you can be. If you don’t like it, you know where you need to go?’”
The answer, which the kids would yell in unison: “Alma!”
“I’d say, ‘that’s exactly right,’” Jones said with a laugh. “Fanning the flames of hate among our third-graders.”
Located about 30 miles away on the opposite side of Fort Smith, Alma high school played Greenwood on the gridiron every season from 1975 through 2017. The majority of those meetings came with both schools in the same conference, and especially in the 1990’s and 2000’s, the game always seemed to determine the conference title. That combination of competitiveness and proximity forged a rivalry that Alma assistant Jason Reeves compared to the Hatfield-McCoy feud.
On the other side of the rivalry during some of its most heated years was the man who just hired Jones: Missouri head coach Eliah Drinkwitz. Drinkwitz played football at Alma from 1997 through 2000 and got his first coaching job with the Airedales’ junior high team in 2005. In February, a couple months after signing a six-year deal as Missouri’s new head coach, Drinkwitz hired Jones to be a senior consultant.
“As many ugly things as I’ve said about the Airedales over the course of 16 years, it is sort of ironic that now an Airedale is my boss,” Jones said.
The rivalry between Greenwood and Alma is just one reason why, on the surface, it might have raised eyebrows when, after 16 years, Jones left what he called “the best job in the country” for an off-field college role underneath a head coach 28 years his junior. But those who have gotten to know Jones believe he can be a valuable asset to Missouri’s staff, and Jones is eager for the challenge.
Jones’ coaching trajectory has been a bit unconventional from the start. He knew from an early age that he wanted to coach football, yet he got his first “job” before he felt ready.
Jones walked on to play linebacker at Harding University, a Division-II school in Searcy, Arkansas. He suffered a season-ending injury early during his senior season. Knowing he wanted to get into coaching, his head coach asked him to stay around the team and help coach the offensive line. Despite the fact that he had never played in the trenches, Jones agreed. He did well enough that the staff asked him to return as a graduate assistant the following season while he got his Master’s degree.
From there, Jones planned to move to Texas and find a job at one of the many football-crazed high schools in the state. He interviewed with a few schools and got turned down, but one of the coaches who interviewed him told him about an opening in Del City, Oklahoma. He got his first job as an assistant at Del City high. From there, he bounced around between Oklahoma schools, landing his first head coaching job at Edmond Memorial high school in 1987. He won a state title two years later, then upgraded to powerhouse Tulsa Union. Jones coached there for two seasons before landing an offer to coach under Jesse Branch at Missouri State.
Jones didn’t want to regret missing out on his chance to try his hand at college coaching, so he accepted and spent three seasons on the staff in Springfield. When Branch stepped down following the 1994 season, Jones returned to the Oklahoma high school ranks, spending nine seasons at Broken Arrow, before he was contacted about an opening in Greenwood. Jones was initially skeptical — it would be a steep step down in size from Broken Arrow, which had more than 4,000 students, to Greenwood’s 1,200 — but both Barry Lunney Sr. and Gus Malzahn, legendary Arkansas high school coaches who Jones had gotten to know, recommended he at least entertain the offer. Within about 10 minutes of arriving at the school, Jones said, he knew he wanted the job.
Jones wasted little time in making his mark. He led Greenwood to the state championship game in 2004, his first season at the helm. The Bulldogs lost a heartbreaker, falling short on a two-point conversion that would have tied the game in the final seconds. The following year, Greenwood went 13-1 and prevailed in the title game.
The Bulldogs returned to the state finals in 2006 and again in 2007, winning both times. Even more amazing, it may not have been Jones’ most impressive three-year stretch while at Greenwood. The team also won three straight state titles from 2010 through 2012, which included unbeaten seasons in the latter two years. Jones was named the coach of the year by the National Federation of High School State Associations in 2012. Greenwood’s winning streak grew to 50 games before a loss in the 2013 state playoffs.
In all, Greenwood amassed a record of 171-24, winning eight state championships and finishing as runner-up three times with Jones at the helm. Jones modestly attributed some of the success to administrative support and genetics luck — Greenwood had three quarterbacks go on to play Division I college ball under Jones, including former Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson and current Razorback Connor Noland — but Greenwood athletics director Dustin Smith said that kind of dominance can’t just be good fortune.
“He’s legendary, not just in Greenwood but in the state just for what he’s accomplished,” Smith said. “He’s one of a kind, that’s for sure.”
Smith pointed to Jones’ work ethic and attention to detail as the characteristics that separate him from most coaches. Smith would routinely find Jones’ car still parked outside the football facility at 10 or 11 p.m., even during the offseason. He said Jones could tell you how long each segment of practice was going to be, down to the minute. The day before each game, Jones instituted “Perfect Thursdays,” walk-throughs of game situations during which, if any player messed up a play or formation, the whole team started practice over.
Reeves, who coached against Jones’ teams for years, also pointed to Jones’ preparation as his biggest strength.
“They were going to be prepared for situations that it takes time to think through and set time aside for in practice that not everybody does,” Reeves said. “A lot of people rush through it and think, okay, we got that, because this is only going to come up every so often, if that. But they were prepared for those things, and they did the little things right.”
One side effect of Jones’ dynastic run was that it brought at least a temporary end to the biggest game on the schedule every season, the matchup with Alma. But that doesn’t mean the residents of each town have forgotten about the rivalry.
It didn’t take very long after Jones arrived at Greenwood to learn about his school’s disdain for Alma. Wanting to look sharp for his first day on the job, Jones donned a green sweater vest, which he described as “Jim Tressel-ish,” over his button-down shirt and khaki pants. He remembers strolling into the building thinking to himself “I’m stylin’ today.”
The sweater vest got noticed, just not in the way Jones had hoped.
“The first person I ran into said, ‘what in the world are you wearing?’” Jones recalled. “I said, ‘what do you mean?’ He said, ‘we don’t wear green around here.’ And he was serious.”
Jones’ colleague was so stern that Jones hurried home to change out of the sweater vest before the start of the school day. You might have guessed the reason: Green is an Alma color.
“You can look at my closet, until two months ago, there was not one stitch of green in there,” Jones said. “We were not going to wear green. We hated those Airedales.”
Those familiar with the Alma-Greenwood rivalry say the frostiness between the two schools reached its zenith from around the time Drinkwitz began his high school playing career to the year he and Jones lined up on opposite sidelines. Alma dominated most of the early years of the rivalry with legendary head coach Frankie Vines at the helm, but after Ronnie Peacock took over at Greenwood in the mid-1990s, the Bulldogs started to make things interesting. The two teams seemed to trade victories for about 10 years, and the matchup always drew crowds that spilled out of the stadium. Drinkwitz still remembers losing to Greenwood in a game that would decide the conference title during his senior season.
“That was one of the biggest games I’ve coached or ever played in,” Drinkwitz said. “Fans were extremely loud. I know my senior year they beat us to win the conference championship, and I still have regrets over that game.”
Alma beat Greenwood during Jones’ first season at the helm. The following year, 2005, pitted him against Drinkwitz, who was coaching Alma’s seventh-grade team but helping out in the booth for varsity games. Greenwood got revenge for the year prior. Alma hasn’t won a game in the rivalry since. Greenwood reeled off 13 straight victories under Jones. Drinkwitz knew to expect some ribbing from Jones after each of them.
“I might call him up and just say, ‘Well, you’ll be proud of your Airedales, ... they kept it close until three minutes to go in the first quarter,’ things like that,” Jones said.
Since the two schools are no longer conference foes obligated to meet every season, Alma has scheduled other opponents in its non-conference slate the past three years. That doesn’t mean the rivalry has dissipated, however. One Friday afternoon in February, shortly after Jones accepted the position at Missouri, conversation in the T&L Barber Shop in the heart of Alma shifted to Greenwood. Jacob Brown, who cuts hair at the shop, explained that townsfolk had been jokingly using the hire as bragging rights, saying it took an Alma man to get the Greenwood coach a college job. Terry Fimple, the owner, said Drinkwitz had done his hometown a favor.
“We’re so glad (Drinkwitz) hired the Greenwood coach because we’re tired of playing his ass,” Fimple said.
For all his colorful tales about hating the Airedales, Jones said the Alma-Greenwood rivalry “didn’t for a second” cross his mind when Drinkwitz offered him a job. But his decision to accept still came as a bit of a surprise to some, including Drinkwitz himself.
Jones is almost ashamed to admit it, because at the time, he was 49 and Drinkwitz had just turned 21. But when the two first met in 2004, Jones was impressed by the aspiring coach’s intelligence, and he decided he wanted to keep in touch.
“I try to develop a network of smart people, not necessarily so I can go work for them some day but just so I can learn from them,” Jones explained. “And there were times that I knew he was going to be at a certain place and I would just say, ‘I’ll buy you dinner if you’ll answer six questions.’”
Even now that he’s gone, Jones continually referred to his situation at Greenwood as the best high school job in America. That initial interaction between he and Drinkwitz helps illustrate why he was willing to give it up.
Jones is a voracious learner, Smith said, always reading books or listening to podcasts about football and bouncing ideas off other coaches he has met throughout his career. Jones views the position at Missouri as the ultimate learning experience.
“It gives me a chance to just learn a different way of doing things,” Jones explained. “I mean, the offense is similar, vaguely similar to what we did (at Greenwood), but the terminology is totally different. Defensively, it’s different stuff. I look at it, number one, as just a way to learn. Just learn how to do things a different way.”
Drinkwitz knew from keeping in touch with Jones that he’d be interested in returning to the college ranks at some point. But he also knew that Jones fielded offers from larger high schools and college programs every year, and he wasn’t sure Jones would actually pull the trigger and leave Greenwood. The biggest factor that made Jones finally make the leap, he said, was the timing. During his time at Missouri State, Jones saw how demanding life as a college assistant could be, and he didn’t want to spend so much time on the road, away from his children. With his children now into their 20s, he could take on a new challenge without either uprooting them or missing out on watching soccer and volleyball games.
“Surprised we pulled it off,” Drinkwitz said of the hire. “I know he had other opportunities in the past and he didn’t choose those but he chose this one, so that’s pretty good.”
Jones’ new title doesn’t reveal much about the job description, but one thing’s for sure, it will differ quite a bit from the one he’s known most his life, in which he was on the field every day and had his hands in every aspect of the program. It sounds like he will serve as an all-around advisor to Drinkwitz, someone who can help formulate strategy and give advice about everything from situational plays to recruiting. Those who know Jones believe his experience, work ethic and attention to detail make him well-suited for such a role — even those who have been on the receiving end of his playful taunts about where they went to high school.
“Head coaching is head coaching,” Drinkwitz said. “He understands people, he understands organizations, he understands leadership and he can help me in those roles. He can help me with advice and be a guy that I can bounce ideas off of and just really be a sounding board for me and our program.”
“Nobody questioned that it was a Greenwood guy,” said Reeves. “If you’re going to hire a football coach out of the state of Arkansas, there’s not a better one."