Rookie coach Khari Jones has Alouettes flying high
The job under less than ideal circumstances and with an interim tag, but Khari Jones is having the time of his life as the Montreal Alouettes’ rookie head coach.
Montreal fired head coach Mike Sherman and promoted Jones from offensive co-ordinator on an interim basis a week before the start of the 2019 season. After a slow start, the Alouettes (7-5) will chase their eighth win in 11 games when they visit the B.C. Lions (3-10) on Saturday night.
“It’s been great, it’s been everything I hoped it would be,” Jones, a former CFL quarterback, said in a wide-ranging telephone interview. “It kind of started in a weird way ... but I’m loving it.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything more in terms of a team and group of guys and coaching staff. In my eyes, everything was in place to be successful even though probably people didn’t think that.”
Expectations were low and with good reason. Montreal had won a combined eight games the previous two seasons and hasn’t been to the playoffs since losing 40-24 to Hamilton in the 2014 East Division final.
An 0-2 start further dimmed hopes for the franchise, which the CFL took over from American businessman Robert Wetenhall before the season. Montreal, which still doesn’t have an owner, secured its 48-year-old head coach his first victory July 4 with a 36-29 home-opening win over Hamilton.
“I’ve never thought about (the interim tag),” Jones said. “They can call me what they want but I’ve always felt like the head coach of this team.
“I hope I can be for a long time.”
Montreal’s latest win was epic. The club rallied from a 24-point deficit — the largest comeback in franchise history — for a thrilling 38-37 victory over Winnipeg on Saturday. Afterward, Jones was brought to tears to tears while addressing his players.
“One of the things that made this a good time for me to be a head coach is I’m real comfortable in my own skin,” said Jones, a married father of two teenage daughters. “I must be who I am so if I feel like laughing, smiling, dancing, or jumping up and down on the sideline that’s what I’m going to do.
“I think the players see I’m genuine, that if I make a mistake I’ll own up to it. I want the guys to see the real me being vulnerable and if I feel like crying in front then I cry in front of them.”
Jones played 11 CFL seasons as a quarterback with B.C., Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Hamilton. He was the league’s most outstanding player in 2001 when he led the Bombers to a 14-4 record and Grey Cup berth.
Jones began coaching in ‘09 as Hamilton’s quarterback coach before becoming the offensive co-ordinator in 2011. He also spent time with Saskatchewan (quarterback coach 2012-13) and B.C. (offensive co-ordinator, 2014-17) before becoming Montreal’s offensive co-ordinator (2018). He won a Grey Cup with the Riders in ‘13.
“The fact he played before, he knows what players need, what buttons to push,” said Alouettes defensive lineman John Bowman, a 14-year CFL veteran. “He can sense laziness, he can sense complacency.
“I’m not declaring we’re world-beaters but we’re competing and that’s what he preaches. You’re not going to win every game, but if you fight and play as hard as you can for 60 minutes, you never know what will happen.”
Jones is one of three first-year head coaches enjoying strong seasons. Orlondo Steinauer is 10-3 with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Craig Dickenson is 8-4 with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Jones remains Montreal’s offensive co-ordinator and playcaller. He has shown he’s not afraid to think outside the box as a playcaller, and he doesn’t have to worry about what the head coach might think if things go wrong.
“I’ve found myself to be even more free with my play-calling than maybe I was as a co-ordinator,” he said. “I just trust myself to make the calls that I think are necessary to make.”
Jones often called his own plays as player, which has helped him as a coach.
“I used to tell guys I wanted the defence to think I was a little nuts,” he said. “So I’d throw a ball somewhere just to throw it or I’d go deep so they had to cover the whole field.
“I try to do things that are outside the box but you must have players who’re able to do it. Certainly with Vernon (Als QB Vernon Adams Jr.), he’s able to know how my mind ticks and goes with it. I have faith they can pull it out and fortunately this year we’ve pulled a lot of different things out.”
Adams has flourished this year under Jones. The 26-year-old has completed 206-of-317 passes for 2,953 yards with 15 TDs and eight interceptions while rushing for 332 yards on 68 carries with 11 TDs.
“I think it’s the right time for him,” Jones said. “He’s just taken the helm and a true leadership role with the team.
“It’s fun to see a guy mature and get into this role and the guys are behind him. I’m really happy for him.”
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Montreal will be without Adams this weekend. He’ll serve a one-game suspension from the CFL for a helmet-swinging incident involving Winnipeg linebacker Adam Bighill, so backup Matt Shiltz will start against B.C.
Jones feels being a former player has made him a better coach.
“I’ve been through the ups and downs of a season as a player and coach,” he said. “I think that allows me to have empathy for the guys, but also know when they need us to be a little bit more stern.”
Bowman said Jones hasn’t changed since becoming a head coach.
“His thing is he’s not going to praise us for winning because we’re supposed to,” Bowman said. “But he’s not going to change when we lose because losing happens.
“I’ve been around coaches who say, ‘Heck of a job, guys, you get tomorrow off.’ Not Khari. He comes into the locker room and says, ‘Heck of a job. See you at 9 a.m.’ He’s not going to change and as an athlete you can appreciate consistency.”
Although Montreal’s head-coaching job came up abruptly, Jones was more than ready to take it on.
“I’d been fortunate enough to interview for a few head-coaching jobs and felt like it was time in my mind and I was ready to take on that challenge,” he said. “I’m a big writer, I have notebooks full of things.
“I’ve always written things down so if I got this opportunity this is what I’d like to do and this is what I may not like to do from other coaches. I have a plethora of things from guys all over.”
Jones said he loves almost everything about his new job.
“Losing hits you hard,” he said. “You always think about what you could’ve done differently but must have the right tone when you’re talking to the guys to make sure they still stay together.
“Then you must be able to get rid of it quickly, go on to the next week and be the same person.”
Jones’ day typically begins about 6 a.m. and he tries to have everything wrapped up between 6-8 p.m. He often doesn’t think past Montreal’s next game but does believe this team can be special in 2019.
“It’s tough to put that out there but it’s already been special because of the journey we’ve been on,” he said. “I always tell (player) even if it doesn’t end with a Grey Cup, you still must appreciate the journey because you’ll go crazy if it’s just about the last game of the season.
“I think we have a ways to go and that’s exciting. Hopefully we get to a point where we don’t have to pull out so many games, maybe get some leads and we’re playing to our absolute best. That’s a fun thought.”
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