Cold and clammy? Soggy and gross? Once the game’s afoot, how does that wooden floor actually feel?
“Literally, once I get to the court, it doesn’t cross my mind the entire time,” Jeff Jones said of his occasional forays into the world of barefoot coaching. “And then you go back at halftime in the locker room and you notice it again when you’re out on the court coaching. It’s not something I think about at all, quite honestly. You know, you’ll get the random pedicure comments, things like that. People joke like that.”
It’s all about good fun. And an even better cause. For the last seven seasons, including the past three as the big cheese of the men’s basketball program at Old Dominion, Jones has coached at least one game with nothing — no shoes, no socks, nada — on his tootsies. It’s a show of public support (and bare toes) in order to raise awareness for Samaritan’s Feet, a charitable organization that provides shoes for needy children around the world.
“I think in this country, certainly for most of us, we take for granted good footwear,” explained Jones, whose Monarchs host Charlotte in their Conference USA opener Saturday at noon ET on ASN. “And don’t understand, certainly, worldwide, the health ramifications of not having a pair of shoes.
“And I think it’s particularly noteworthy that we’re talking about providing footwear mainly for children and how that affects their life — not just (their) comfort, but their health and their ability to love and grow up and lead a healthy and productive life.”
Since its inception in 2003, Samaritan’s Feet has provided shoes to more than 5 million children in more than 70 countries. Over the last 11 years, roughly 3,000 high school and college coaches have made public appearances in bare feet to promote the organization.
But one of the biggest seeds was planted roughly eight years ago in Jones’ mind by Georgia State coach Ron Hunter, then at IUPUI, and a fellow member of the National Association of Basketball Coaches’ Board of Directors. Hunter had gone shoeless to help draw attention to Samaritan’s, and his overseas trips with the organization, journeys that included visits to refugee camps, had left a deep impression.
“It was a pretty emotional talk that Ron gave to the board about how it impacted him,” Jones recalled. “And I can still remember how he said (that) this is something that he didn’t just do that one time — that for the rest of his life he wants (to be a part). Because he could, through Samaritan’s Feet, help to impact thousands and thousands of lives in a positive way.
“(Then) getting to know them and the organization, that was just something that I wanted to be a part of.”
Inspired by Hunter’s enthusiasm, Jones jumped in with — well, both feet. A handful of his American University teams participated in off-campus shoe drives for children in local neighborhoods, “and they’d be lined up around the block coming to get these shoes,” the coach said.
Jones says he actually debuted the barefoot look in-game on road, Jan. 17, 2009, at Colgate, to the bemusement of more than a few. On the plus side, the managers had the foresight to bring a mat out for him to tread on during the game.
The hallways to and from the locker room, though?
“For those people who know anything about Hamilton, N.Y., it’s cold as hell,” Jones chuckled. “And there’s usually a lot of snow on the ground at that time of year up in Colgate.”
You never forget the chill. Or the funny looks.
“It wasn’t until I first walked out on the floor that opposing players would kind of look (over) like, ‘What the hell is his problem?’” Jones said. “And initially the head coach, Emmett Davis, said, ‘What’s with the bare feet?’ And I explained it to him and then everybody understood. The officials would ask, that kind of thing.
“That first game was on TV, and the (announcers) on TV had been forewarned and I guess mentioned it. And interestingly enough, it wasn’t like it was a huge rating for the American University and the college game, (but) there was a fair amount of donation that came in after people saw it on TV.”
Another positive: Jones’ Eagles rolled, 79-49.
“It just kind of took off,” he said, “and became an annual thing.
“That wasn’t something that I was promoting when I first came in (to ODU in 2013). But it’s something that I’m going to continue doing … and given that most of our games at (this) time of year are on TV, hopefully we can garner some attention and support for Samaritan’s Feet.”
In appreciation, Samaritan this past April named Jones its “Barefoot Coach of the Year,” presenting the trophy at the Final Four, adding him to a roll that includes John Calipari (2013), Brad Stevens (2011) and Hunter (2009).
“I’m humbled by being recognized,” said Jones, who’s still working to finalize a ‘barefoot’ date for 2016. “But quite honestly, my role with Samaritan’s Feet is a very small one. I just wanted to do a small part to try to give an assist.”
To lead with his heart. And sole.