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For Central Florida's Jones, returning home is bittersweet

by | CBSSports.com College Basketball Insider
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In his final year at Marshall, Donnie Jones led the Herd to a postseason victory. (US Presswire)  
In his final year at Marshall, Donnie Jones led the Herd to a postseason victory. (US Presswire)  

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- The fans went ballistic when he stepped foot onto the court last season, raising their "Benedict Arnold" signs, some even raising their middle fingers with anger seeping through their veins, venom directed at the man walking across the court. It was exactly why Donnie Jones left his wife and three young children back in Orlando this time around, the reason his mother remained in her house about 40 minutes away in Point Pleasant, unable to watch her son return home.

Donnie Jones didn't want to subject his family to the untamed hostility that awaited him at the Cam Henderson Center.

This time, though, the crowd was more subdued in its anger at Jones. There was the booing, as soon as Jones walked out on the court and also when he was introduced just prior to the start of the game.

"It wasn't nearly as bad as last year," Marshall senior guard Damier Pitts, who was recruited to the school by Jones, said after the Thundering Herd's 65-64 victory. "We're past that."

It wasn't all that long ago that Jones was Marshall University's Golden Boy, the local kid who grew up just down the road, got his master's degree from the school and came back and made the program relevant again. However, on Saturday afternoon, when Jones made his second appearance in Huntington as the head coach of the Central Florida Knights, Jones was the enemy.

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But not just any ordinary foe.

"It's tough," Jones said. "This is obviously my home and I love this school. I spent nine years here, I met my wife here, had my daughter here. This place still has special meaning to me and always will. Nothing will change that. It's a shame my kids can't come because they love Marshall, but they just wouldn't understand."

Those in these parts felt he betrayed his own when he left in March of 2010. It wasn't just the fact he bolted; it was that he went to another Conference USA program.

But Jones had his reasons. There was a new athletic director -- and usually that translates into a lack of job security the first sign of a losing season. The salary was nearly double the $325,000 he was earning at Marshall -- and he'd grown to love Florida in his time down in Gainesville as Billy Donovan's assistant with the Florida Gators. There was also the factor that the higher-ups at UCF were optimistic the school would join the Big East in the near future, a plan that came to fruition just a couple months ago when the league agreed to accept the Knights in 2013.

"It wasn't an easy decision," Jones said. "I had to make a choice that I felt was best for my family and some people don't always understand all of the factors that went into my decision."

The fans at Marshall should, in fact, be applauding Jones when he makes his way onto the court at Cam Henderson Center. Rolling out the red carpet. This year's team has a realistic opportunity to go to its first NCAA tournament in 27 years -- largely because of the guy fans refer to as a Benedict Donnie.

He was the one who recruited the three players who sat at the news conference following Saturday night's victory: Pitts, leading scorer DeAndre Kane and big man Nigel Spikes. He also brought key reserves Shaquille Johnson and Dago Pena.

Jones led the program to 24 victories and its first postseason win since 1967 in his third and final season at Marshall.

"I'll be the first one to tell you that he helped lay the foundation for the restoration of this program," current Marshall coach Tom Herrion said. "He pumped new life into it and he deserves a lot of credit for that."

This was a dead program under Ron Jirsa. The guy who preceded Jones was unable to compile a winning record in his four seasons in Huntington. There was virtually no talent when Jones took over, but he changed that in a hurry with the addition of talented big man Hassan Whiteside, Pitts, Kane and others.

Whiteside was an NBA draft pick and Pitts and Kane have helped take this once-mediocre program to a perch in which those around here feel this current group may be able to legitimately challenge perennial C-USA power Memphis for league supremacy.

Last year, in Jones' first appearance back in this building, he angered the locals when he utilized a different entrance and basically snuck his way onto the court while the sellout crowd in excess of 9,000 -- rearing to give it to its former coach -- was looking in a different direction.

The fans felt hoodwinked. Again.

This time was different. Jones came out with his players and took the verbal abuse. He said he understands it, but deep down it hurts -- just as much as it wounded the fans who were floored to hear the news that Jones was leaving in March of 2010.

They figured Jones would stay here at Marshall, until maybe Donovan left Florida and the Gators came calling. Why would he leave home? Certainly not for a program within the same league, a move that was considered lateral by many who haven't been to both spots.

Trust me, it's not lateral.

Jones received a five-year contract worth about $3 million and set his family up financially, possibly forever. He left chilly, blue-collar Huntington for the sprawling Central Florida campus, just miles down the road from the Happiest Place on Earth -- Disney World. In a couple years, he'll be coaching against guys like Rick Pitino and Jamie Dixon on national television instead of going up against Jeff Lebo and Mike Davis in virtual obscurity.

Jones and Herrion maintain a healthy friendship -- both publicly and privately, eager to give one another credit for their accomplishments while in Huntington.

"I have a ton of respect for him and the job he's done there," Jones said of Herrion. "He's taken the program to another level and, as a Marshall alum, I'm happy to see that. I still cheer for Marshall -- as long as we're not playing them."

Marshall got the win on Saturday after Kane made a couple of free throws with 14.5 seconds left that proved to be the game-winner. After the game, Jones congratulated both Kane and Pitts in the back hallway -- and then shared a moment with the guy that replaced him.

"I want my kids to feel good about Marshall," Jones said. "My daughter still talks about how it's one of the schools she wants to go to college. I'd never tell her not to go there, even with everything that's happened with me. I have great feelings about Marshall."

Feelings that should be mutual.

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