Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series.
Ernest Jones, center, helps Notre Dame's coaches get a better understanding of what is going on in the Irish locker room.
Ernest Jones has never lost a regular season football game in his current role. Notre Dame hired Jones as its director of player development and engagement last February. Among his many roles with the Irish, he helps bridge the communication gap between coaches and players.
Jones first started working with Brian Kelly and other members of his staff in 2005 at Central Michigan. In 2009, after a one-year stint as Alcorn State’s head coach, Jones rejoined Kelly at Cincinnati as a player development coach away from the field. His job description was almost identical to his duties at Notre Dame. He was responsible for the intellectual, social and spiritual well-being of the football program. That year the BearCats finished 12-0, a record that launch Kelly to South Bend, before losing to Florida in the Orange Bowl.
Jones landed in Buffalo as an associate head coach and recruiting coordinator for the Bulls. Two years later, after a rocky 8-5 season that caused Kelly to examine his relationship with his players, Jones joined the Irish staff. Notre Dame followed with a 12-0 season before losing to Alabama in the BCS Championship game.
One year into his tenure, Jones recently sat down with Blue & Gold Illustrated to discuss his responsibilities – past, present and future – with the Notre Dame football team.
BGI:With a 24-2 record, are you the magic puzzle piece to a successful football program?
Jones: “That was a running joke we had. I got a chance to come back and do this, and we took a team and went undefeated. I didn’t come on board in the beginning. Them I came here and we took another team undefeated. It’s funny for all us coaches.”
BGI: Why did you leave your job as a coach on the field to come to Notre Dame?
Jones: “Coach allows me to do me. I have a lot of respect for him and he has a lot of respect for me. He led me to believe that there was a need for a guy like me in the building. … You want to know that what you’re doing is important to somebody. For him to say, ‘Coach what you bring to the table, or the job that you did for me in this role, is important. I want you to come here and do that for me at Notre Dame.’ It was kind of a no-brainer.”
BGI:Do you think you’ll be an on-the-field coach again in your career?
Jones: “If that’s what God’s will is. I’m coaching all of them right now. Coach [Kelly] knows I’m very capable of coaching, and if an opportunity ever came and he thought I would do a better job and he needed me to coach with him, sure I would look at that. But if that never happens I would be all right with that as well. I love what I’m doing. I love working with these student-athletes.”
BGI:How would you sum up your role currently on the staff?
Jones: “Ultimately, I’m kind of like a walking billboard of our pillars, focusing on three of them. Our pillars are the social, intellectual, the spiritual, the physical and the skill. So I take care of the social, the intellectual and the spiritual. … We present it to these players as you have your own independent individual coach in me. You’ve got a guy that you can come in here and talk about football, talk about life, talk about school. That’s a benefit.”
BGI:How much of your job is helping players deal with the culture shock of living and playing at a place like Notre Dame?
Jones:”That’s a major part of it. We call it an experience. So part of my job is to make sure that these young people are enjoying their experience while here at Notre Dame, whatever that entails. Coming here is a part of their experience. This is something that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. That’s a major part of what I do.”
BGI:When do you start that process?
Jones: “When we bring players on campus to recruit I meet with every player. I meet with all the families. I’m a part of that process so I can see why [they] want to come to Notre Dame. Coach is cutting edge with that as well. I don’t know that all the guys around the country are meeting the prospects when they get to come on campus.”
BGI:You have experience as a recruiting coordinator. Do you think your role there will grow with the more relaxed recruiting rules scheduled to go into effect in August?
Jones: “We’ve gotta get some more clarification on exactly what it is. If I happen to fall underneath the rule where I’m able to do more I would think they would probably try to put a little bit more on my plate in regards to that. I’m not sure.”
BGI:Why do you think more and more teams are hiring people to do the kinds of things you do?
Jones:” When you get a chance to really dig in there and see what these players are thinking and how they see it, it helps. We have a really, really good picture of what these players are thinking and how they’re seeing it. That’s the message that I bring to the coaches: this is what they say.”