Coach Donnie Jones leads Stetson to 1st NCAA Tournament while being 'intentional' with prayer

When Donnie Jones took over as head coach at Stetson University in 2019, he knew the rebuilding process would take time. The team went 7-24 the previous season, and the program had never won a conference tournament championship or reached the NCAA Tournament.

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But through his numerous stops as an assistant and head coach, he learned the blueprint to success. Jones spent 11 years as Billy Donovan’s assistant at Florida, where he helped coach the Gators to back-to-back national championships in 2006 and ’07. He became the head coach at Marshall University and then the University of Central Florida, then later worked as an assistant under Gregg Marshall at Wichita State and under Anthony Grant at the University of Dayton.

Slowly and methodically, Jones started to piece together the building blocks at Stetson to do what had never been done in the school’s history.

“I’ve been blessed to be around some great character guys, some coaches who understood how to build people first, which become teams,” Jones said on the Sports Spectrum Podcast in 2020. “Our whole focus has been from the individual and growing guys individually, socially, spiritually and growing them physically.”

Five years on the job, that work resulted in the best season in program history with a 22-12 record, an Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament championship, and the program’s first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament. On Friday, the Hatters will attempt to add to that by winning the school’s first NCAA Tournament game.

Standing in their way, however, is No. 1 overall seed and defending-champion University of Connecticut. It’s a tall task in what is also Jones’ first NCAA Tournament game as a head coach.

Given how the Hatters are playing, and the fact that two No. 16 seeds have knocked off top-seeded teams in recent years, there’s plenty of belief in the locker room that Stetson could add its name to that list. But no matter the result, Jones now sees everything through the lens of his faith in Jesus.

When coaching at Marshall, he met Roger Adams with Nations of Coaches, an organization that ministers to college basketball coaches. This is where Jones says he “really found his faith.”

“I really found the true meaning of God and the impact it can have, not only on my life but in other peoples’ lives,” he said on the podcast.

He opens each day in prayer, focusing on what he’s grateful for. His favorite band is worship group Casting Crowns. He even uses his social media presence to share about his faith, including how he approaches prayer.

“I’m intentional with it,” Jones said of prayer. “I know that’s the strength that’s going to equip me through any challenge that’s coming. There’s nothing we can do ourselves … there’s only one person that can really get us through that.”

In the world of college athletics, it’s easy for both coaches and players to get their priorities out of line. Pressure to win can cause people to behave in selfish ways, and both success and failure can negatively affect one’s identity.

So it’s important for Jones as a coach “to sell hope and vision and what success looks like,” which he attempts to do by modeling a life that points first to Jesus.

“I think it’s important that every day it starts with us and our relationship there,” he said. “I think you have to be intentional every day because there’s so many distractions. That’s what the devil wants to do — distract us, distort us, disturb us.

“If you’re not being intentional to feed your soul every day with what you’re reading and what you’re praying about, you’re not going to be equipped for what the daily battles bring to you.”

The No. 16-seeded Hatters tip off against top-seeded UConn at 2:45 p.m. ET Friday on CBS.

– SS PODCAST: Donnie Jones – Stetson University Men’s Basketball Coach
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– Coach Hubert Davis leads UNC, steadied by ‘my relationship with Jesus’