An unexpected path
All-Big Ten linebacker planned to spend his college years in Minneapolis before program took new turn
Junior linebacker Greg Jones didn’t plan on coming to MSU. He originally committed to Minnesota before their head coach was fired. When that happened, Jones turned to Mark Dantonio, from whom Jones had declined an offer when Dantonio was the coach at the University of Cincinnati. Jones and Dantonio have proved to be a perfect fit in East Lansing, as Jones is tied for first in the nation in tackles with a total of 97.
Greg Jones is a prized piece of the MSU football program. The junior linebacker leads the nation in tackles, was the preseason Big Ten defensive player of the year and is an All-American candidate. But when the Spartans’ offense takes the field Saturday, it just as easily could have been across the line of scrimmage staring at him.
It was the winter of 2006 and Jones was about as happy as a high school kid could be. He was enjoying his senior year at Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati and he was the school’s football star.
And he was committed to play football for the University of Minnesota.
But while out to eat one night late in December, Jones received a phone call that changed his life.
Junior linebacker Greg Jones attempts to take down Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien during a Sept. 26 game at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis. Jones was the lead tackler with a total of 14 tackles during the game.
Senior linebacker Brandon Denson jokingly interviews junior linebacker Greg Jones after the Spartans’ 24-14 victory Oct. 17 over Northwestern. Jones has recorded 96 tackles, 55 assists and five sacks since the 2009 season began.
“I was pretty good friends with a guy on (Minnesota) named Ryan Collado — he’s from Cincinnati,” Jones recalled. “He called me up because we had been training together because we were both going to Minnesota at the time. He told me to turn on the TV and my mouth just dropped.”
Glen Mason, the head coach at Minnesota to whom Jones had committed, had been fired.
Jones immediately called the Minnesota coaching staff to see if it was true. It was.
The high school senior had built a relationship with Mason and was looking forward to playing Big Ten football.
“They were my first offer at the time and the only Big Ten offer,” Jones said. “I really liked the staff and, on my visit, I really liked the city. Those were pretty much my main factors for going there. I thought it was my best bet at the time.”
But with Mason fired, Jones reopened his recruiting process with less than two months until signing day.
“It’s real hard because everybody that you said ‘No’ to knows that,” Jones said. “We started that whole entire evaluation (of) ‘What I do or don’t like’ and it was really hard.”
Bob Crable, Jones’ high school coach, had talked with Mason numerous times and knew he and Jones had bonded.
“Glen’s a great guy. Unfortunately in college football, you’ve got to be in a position where you win football games,” Crable said. “Once he got fired, that’s when Greg kind of took a step back and so he wanted to reevaluate his commitment.”
Three hundred miles north of Cincinnati, one coach whose offer Jones had declined also was beginning a new chapter in his life.
Mark Dantonio was hired as MSU’s football coach on Nov. 27, 2006.
Dantonio had recruited Jones while he was the head coach at Cincinnati. But Jones declined the offer in favor of Big Ten football and, of all things, the Mall of America.
“What I remember about Greg is that we recruited him at Cincinnati; we had him at camp and he was a great young man and everything,” Dantonio said with a smile. “But in the recruiting process, when coach Mason left, he was still committed to Minnesota in some way, we didn’t know how strong. I remember finally getting to the heart of the problem as exactly why he wanted to go to Minnesota. (I asked him), ‘Why Minnesota?’ He said, ‘Coach, Mall of America.’ I just remember that. He likes going to malls, hanging out, stuff like that.”
While Dantonio joked about Jones’ shopping habits this week, Jones said, at the time, Dantonio wasn’t thrilled with that reasoning.
“I really don’t remember a whole lot, what Coach D said about that, I just know he walked away very pissed off,” Jones said, laughing. “I’m just very, very thankful that I didn’t burn that bridge because I feel like I have a really good relationship with Coach D and the rest of the staff.”
Jones did have a brief conversation with current Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster, but Jones was done with the Gophers.
“He was fairly adamant that he wanted to move in another direction with his recruitment,” Brewster said.
“I certainly don’t want to have to try to talk a kid into coming if that’s not necessarily what he wants to do.”
Jones said he saw many similarities between Mason and Dantonio.
“It was the attitude that, ‘Hey, we’re winning here and we’re going to a bowl game every year and that’s what we want to do,’” Jones said.
“That’s what I looked for in the head coach. Every coach wants to win but I could feel it from coach Mason and Coach D without a doubt, without him having to say a thing about winning. It’s just I can feel it from the attitude. He knows how to do it.”
Crable and Dantonio had a relationship from their days in Cincinnati and Crable said Dantonio was a great fit for Jones.
“Mark is one of the best coaches out there,” Crable said. “If there was ever a head coach in college football that I would be compelled to coach for, it would be Mark Dantonio.”
‘A respectable kid’
Jones’ success hasn’t surprised Mason, even if it hasn’t come in Minneapolis.
“We were extremely high on Greg,” Mason said. “Let’s face it — even now, he’s not the biggest linebacker out there, but his performance, the way he made plays, the way he handled himself, he was one of those guys that we went into the state of Ohio to try recruit and we thought, ‘Gee, why aren’t more people recruiting him?’ We were delighted that no one was, because when he committed to us, we knew we really had a good one.”
Mason remembers driving through an ice storm to visit Jones’ family, coming away impressed with the young man as a person, not just as a football player.
“You talk about a guy that sat on the couch and looked you in the eye and asked all the right questions,” Mason said. “He was very respectful, very serious, (asked) very good questions. The comprehensive decision, not just about, ‘Tell me if I’m going to play or not. Tell me about the education, tell me about your philosophy about how you run a football team.’ I remember that distinctly.”
Still, as Jones prepares to line up across the line of scrimmage from what could have been his teammates, the hypotheticals still creep into his mind from time to time and he wonders what it would be like to be a Golden Gopher.
“Sometimes you do,” he said. “But I kind of forgot about that after my first year here. I’m still happy to be here no matter what the outcome is, because I’m here for teammates. I’ve made friends here, I feel like these guys are my family, so I love it here and I’m not ever going to regret it.”
Jones was drawn to Minnesota because of Mason and his love for the city of Minneapolis.
“Just the city atmosphere, (campus) being really close to the city, seeing the lights,” he said.
“I’m from Cincinnati and that’s all I look at night. My dad works downtown so I’m used to seeing it all the time. I guess that’s what made it seem like home, just a little bit, for me.”
But the biggest thing East Lansing had to offer to Jones was that his parents could come see him play.
“That was the one thing that they didn’t like about Minnesota was how far away it was and how much I would see them,” he said. “They can come to every game here and they have been for the most part. It worked out good.”
Long, strange journey
Jones has come a long way from being a three-star prospect only recruited by a few Big Ten schools.
“I learned a long time ago in recruiting that a lot of times, your most highly rated guy in recruiting doesn’t do much and the last guy that jumps in the boat becomes your best player,” Mason said. “To be able to say, ‘When I looked at him, I knew he’d lead the nation in tackling’ — I don’t think anybody can do that.”
Jones said he still is shocked that Mason was fired almost three years ago.
“When I think about it, it’s still, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that happened,’ but it happened for a reason,” Jones said.
So while Jones’ journey hasn’t taken the path he originally expected, he has found success in East Lansing.
And two malls.
“I try to (shop). I don’t get to that much now, but I try,” he joked. “That was just something I said to (Dantonio). It wasn’t the reason. The reason why was Glen Mason. Glen Mason was a great guy, he was a great coach, I really believed in him and his staff at the time and when his staff went away, I didn’t really feel like I needed to be there anymore.”
So when Jones came to MSU, Dantonio went the extra distance to make sure his newest linebacker was in East Lansing to stay.
“He came on a visit here and we got him out to the malls and we got him to be a Spartan,” Dantonio said. “You never know what’s going to turn a guy.”