When Jim Jones was hired as Gilbert Mesquite’s football coach last February, his wife, Becky, asked him a simple question.
He was 63 years old. He had been coaching for more than 30 years and he already had climbed the mountaintop, winning state titles with Mesa Red Mountain in 2000 and 2001. Why start over again, taking over a Mesquite program that had gone 5-15 the previous two seasons?
Jones didn’t have to respond. Becky answered her own question.
“Her comment was, ‘I guess guys who like to golf are going to die on the golf course,’ ” Jones recalled. “You like football; you’re going to die on the football field.”
Jones smiled at the memory. He was wearing a straw hat to protect him from the sun and as he talked, Mesquite was starting its afternoon practice in anticipation of Friday night’s Division II semifinal game against Scottsdale Chaparral. It’s the first time in school history Mesquite has advanced to the state semifinals and the hullabaloo around campus has caught Jones a bit off guard.
“Boy, I tell you what,” he said, the smile back. “They’re excited here.”
They should be. Mesquite has been in the dumps since Mike Reardon retired after the 2010 season. The triple threat of computer scheduling, the defection of kids to nearby Gilbert Campo Verde and having one of the smallest enrollments in Division I had put Mesquite in an almost untenable position.
In 2012, Mesquite played Chandler, Chandler Hamilton, Mesa Red Mountain and Phoenix Desert Vista. The combined score of the four losses: 167-34.
Because of declining enrollment, Mesquite was placed in Division II for this two-year scheduling block and the results were immediate.
Hamilton, Chandler and Desert Vista disappeared from its schedule, replaced by the likes of Glendale Cactus, Florence Poston Butte and Mesa Westwood.
“Now we’re in the top tier as far as (enrollment) goes,” Jones said. “It makes a big difference. It’s a numbers game.”
But the drop in class wasn’t enough to make Mesquite a winner again. The program had become fractured, with kids doing their own thing or loafing through practice and off-season workouts. They needed a jolt to the system and they got it from Jones, an old-school coach who believes in hard work and one voice — his.
“All they needed here was someone to turn the steering wheel,” Jones said. “We basically said, ‘Guys, there’s going to be one driver.’ About the second or third game of the season the kids realized that and bought into it. Deep down they wanted the discipline. They’ll say they don’t like discipline but they do, especially in football.”
Senior lineman Dequan Samuel said Jones “woke a lot of us up out of that cool state we were in.”
“Usually during spring ball it’s kind of laid back but with Coach Jones everything was structured and everything was on time and everything had to be done right,” Samuel said. “That was what we were missing.”
The players have reciprocated Jones’ tough love with some affection of their own. Jones is not, by nature, a hugger or someone who throws around those three little words very often. But the kids have taught him — and he’ll absolutely hate this phrase — to get more in touch with his emotions.
“They’ll come up and put their arm around me. It’s been hard to get used to but they’re just an affectionate bunch of guys,” Jones said.
“We had a team meeting one night after a game and I said, ‘Guys, I think I’m getting more out of this relationship than you are.’ I’ve actually used the ‘L’ word a couple of times. I don’t even do that with my wife.”
Jones turned 64 on Monday. Mesquite’s players sang “Happy Birthday” and chided him about his age. Jones laughed right along with them. It’s mid-November, he’s still coaching and Mesquite is four quarters away from the state championship game.
What’s not to love?
“Man, I tell you what,” Jones said. “These kids have been hungry for some success. The seniors we have, they’ve had the heck beaten out of them in Division I. I’m so happy for them I can hardly stand it.”
Reach Bordow at scott.bordow@arizona republic.com. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/sBordow.