Phil Jones won 213 games in 37 seasons as a head football coach at the high school and college levels. But as Gary Whitlock, one of his former assistants at Winder-Barrow High School, summed it up, Jones didn’t stress “wins and the scoreboard” as much as the relationships he developed, fostered and maintained with everyone around him.
That was apparent Sunday, April 18, as family members, friends, former colleagues and the community held a celebration-of-life service at W. Clair Harris Stadium for Jones, who died in December at age 74 following a prolonged battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Jones, who coached at Winder-Barrow from 1984-1996 before joining the college ranks as an assistant and later started and guided the program at Shorter University for 12 seasons before his retirement in 2015, remains Winder-Barrow’s all-time wins leader with 81 and led the Bulldoggs to their most successful season in school history in 1993, when they finished 11-3 and reached the GHSA Class AAA semifinals.
But while Jones was remembered by former players and coaches from his days both at Winder-Barrow and Shorter as a great “strategizer” and aficionado of the veer offense, the primary focus was on his leadership and influence as a father-like figure both for his fellow coaches and his players, and as a faithful servant of Jesus Christ.
“His hard work and dedication and vision will always carry on here,” said Al Darby, one of Jones’ former players at Winder-Barrow, who later became principal of the school and is now the Barrow County School System’s chief officer for athletics and student affairs. “He taught us empathy. He taught us humility, and most of us all he taught us compassion.”
“Phil instilled in us that we all needed to be a family and that nothing was stronger than family,” added Isaiah Berry, one of Jones’ Winder-Barrow assistants and now a Barrow County commissioner.
Darby and other former players recalled Jones saying “I love you,” to them, when most of them had only ever heard that from their fathers or no other man at all.
“He taught us life. He taught us to believe in those who God sends to us and to pull them up and train them up, so that when any of us fall down, we remember how to get back up,” said former Bulldoggs receiver Eric Polite, now a pastor in Dacula. “Yeah, we sweated, we bled, we cried, we fought, we played games. But when it came down to it, the memories we truly hold are of God and him showing us God in a man.”
‘HE STILL COACHES US’
Polite recalled feeling devastated his senior year when he dropped a crucial pass in a game the Bulldoggs lost at Dalton, but said that Jones’ faith in him never wavered.
“He said, ‘Son, after all the work you’ve put in, and who you are, I’m throwing you the first pass next game,’” Polite said.
That belief in others — even when they didn’t always see it in themselves — and his ability to “get every single ounce out of” his players was among Coach Jones’ strongest attributes, his son and former Winder-Barrow quarterback Philly Jones said.
“He would have loved this scene today. He was a uniter, and I think having friends, family and the community here today would really move him,” said Philly, who remembered his father as a great motivator. He envisioned the coach, “with a fully restored mind and body,” delivering a pre-game speech in heaven.
“Those of you who ever experienced one of those moments with him know how he was able to just capture the room, unite the room and just convince us that we could do anything, motivated by the love that we all shared for each other,” the younger Jones said. “Those were moments when Dad was at his best.
“…Even though he’s not physically here with us, he still coaches us — because his spirit lives with us, and he’s still, to this day, calling us to do better.”
AN ‘UNBREAKABLE’ BOND
But for all the strength he displayed and motivation he provided for others in need, Jones wasn’t without his own personal demons, and his daughter, Connie Jones, remembered that it was when they talked their struggles through together during her young adult years that she truly got to “know” her father.
“I saw my dad so differently and the same as others, too,” Connie said. “I wanted to be everywhere with him. …I saw the magic of his coaching, I heard the motivation in his speeches, and I witnessed the beautiful way in which he built programs, everywhere he went, from the ground up, and brought together teams, people and communities like only he could. Often, I was on the outside of that, a bystander. And to be honest, it was really hard.”
Connie recalled her struggles as a college student with anxiety, depression and a debilitating eating disorder that eventually forced her into a residential treatment program. When her father missed his first football game to join her for several days of “intensive family counseling,” it was the start of a much deeper relationship between the two, she said, adding that he eventually opened up to her about his own personal struggles — from a childhood of emotional abuse through battles with anxiety and depression in his adult life.
“My dad and I had a bond that was unbreakable,” Connie said. “We talked through things that nobody knew but us. We thought the same. We struggled the same. And I realized along the way that I was my father’s daughter, that I was his legacy.
“Gosh, I miss him. I miss his eyes. I miss his wisdom. I miss his funny cracks at my mom. I miss his presence that calmed me, his voice that eased me, his heart that moved me. We had some awesome years together.”
And even though the advanced Alzheimer’s in his final years robbed Jones of his ability to speak, the look in his eyes always reassured the family, Connie said.
“His beautiful heart was right there until the end when he went to be with Jesus,” she said. “But his love and legacy still live within us.”