Itch Jones didn''t rush retirement decision

Itch Jones didn''t rush retirement decision

CHAMPAIGN – His team won a Big Ten championship, set a single-season school record for league wins and produced five major league draft picks.

Itch Jones, for 39 years a Hall of Fame college baseball coach, couldn''t think of a better way to go out.

"I''ve always said I''d rather quit a year early than a year late," Jones said.

The reigning Big Ten coach of the year retired Monday, signaling another Illinois search to replace a high-profile leader. Last week, men''s tennis coach Craig Tiley, who won an NCAA title at Illinois, resigned to take a job with Tennis Australia.

In his 15 years at Illinois, Jones compiled a 474-371-1 record. He ranks 13th on the NCAA Division I list with a career mark of 1,240-752-6.

Jones, who said retiring is some-thing he had thought about for a couple of years, is comfortable with his decision.

"It''s not real tough right now, because I''ve always said that at some point your career is going to come to an end," Jones said. "People get hired, they get fired and they retire. I was lucky enough to avoid the firing part, although I probably should have been at some point."

Jones'' final Illinois team was one of his finest <>at least during the regular season, the Illini winning the Big Ten (20-12) and hosting the league tournament. But Illinois went 0-2 and missed the NCAA tournament cut.

Darrin Fletcher, one of the more popular former Illini and president of the program''s booster club, said Illinois is in a position to remain competitive.

"Whoever they decide to go with I hope they understand the program is important and should be nationally recognized and should be able to bring in some of the best players," Fletcher said. "There''s a lot of tradition there, and the university is a selling point."

Jones said this season''s success should make it easier for athletic director Ron Guenther to hire a solid replacement.

While he says he will not campaign for one of his assistants to get the job, he said he wouldn''t mind seeing it happen. Guenther, who was not at Monday''s announcement, has not decided whether Illinois will conduct a national search.

"If I were asked, I would definitely give some input, but I don''t think (Guenther) will need any help. He knows what he''s doing," Jones said. "You''re always kind of prejudiced when it comes to who gets the job. I''ve always wanted to see someone I worked with get hired. We''ve got a number of guys coaching in the college and junior college ranks, so we''ve had a good reputation of producing some quality coaches."

One possible candidate is associate head coach Dan Hartleb, who has worked under Jones for 17 years and hinted at being interested in the job.

"I think there are a lot of people interested in this job," Hartleb said. "There is a good situation here at Illinois. I will sit down with Ron and discuss some possibilities about the future."

Hartleb said working under Jones for so long has helped.

"He is kind of like a father figure to me at times, and at other times he is your boss. That''s the way it has to be," he said. "He is like a mentor to me, and he is a great person on and off the field."

Said senior second baseman J.R. Kyes: "It''s a sad day to see him go, but you''ve got to go sometime, and he''s going out on top. He helps you on the field and off the field and goes above and beyond the duties of coach."

Jones, 67 and a cancer survivor, led Illinois to two NCAA tournaments.

"He''s given his whole life to the game," Fletcher said. "Maybe he''s like me and looking forward to stepping away from it and enjoying his kids and his grandkids."

Jones, who had successful stops at MacMurray College and Southern Illinois before coming to Champaign, will stay busy this summer.

"Well, my neighbors find things for me to do," he said. "I do a little carpenter work for people and help people out in the neighborhood, so I''ll find something to do.

"I''ll have some more time to spend with my two kids, one''s in Oklahoma and the other in Georgia, so we''ll find ways to spend our time."