REGINA — Chris Jones comes from the southern United States, where football is akin to religion. He sees the same dedication to the sport in his new CFL home.
Jones was introduced Monday as the new head coach, general manager and vice-president of football operations of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, ending weeks of speculation about the Grey Cup-winning coach’s future.
Jones, who led the Edmonton Eskimos to a CFL championship this season, says he’s looking forward to working in Saskatchewan, which boasts a fervent fan base.
“I’m from a little, small place down in Tennessee, town called South Pittsburg … and to have this opportunity, I woke up this morning with a smile on my face,” Jones said at a news conference at Mosaic Stadium in Regina.
“Football matters a whole lot down south, and it matters a whole lot here, and that hinged a lot on my decision.”
Jones will have his work cut out for him, inheriting a Roughriders team that struggled mightily last season en route to a league-worst 3-15 record.
Saskatchewan spent half of last season with interim tags on both its head coach and GM after the organization fired coach Corey Chamblin and GM Brendan Taman in September.
Jones wouldn’t speculate on his vision for the Riders’ future.
“I’m not going to sit here and make any bold predictions or anything like that,” he said. “I can you that we’re going to put a really high quality, high character staff together that enjoys being around each other. We’re going to bring in good people first, that happen to be good football players and we’re just going to go to work.”
He says there are good players on the roster and it’s a matter of adding to an already good product. However, he adds the salary cap “will dictate who can stay and who has to go.”
Riders president and CEO Craig Reynolds said Jones is a winner.
“He’s a great leader and he’s had a track record of success wherever he’s been,” said Reynolds.
Jones has had success at each of his CFL stops since entering the league in 2002 as a defensive line coach with the Montreal Alouettes. After the Alouettes won the Grey Cup in 2002, he was defensive co-ordinator Calgary’s championship-winning team in 2008, and defensive co-ordinator, assistant head coach and assistant GM of Toronto’s Grey Cup team in 2012.
He has already demonstrated his ability to turn around a troubled team. The Eskimos had just posted a 4-14 record when Jones took over after the 2013 season. Two years later, they defeated the Ottawa Redblacks 26-20 to win their first Grey Cup title in a decade.
“I thank Chris Jones for his work over the last two seasons. This is an opportunity for him to grow professionally and I wish him well in his future endeavours,” Eskimos GM and vice-president of football operations Ed Hervey said in a statement.
“The search for our new head coach begins immediately. Over the next few weeks, I will interview several qualified candidates and select the right head coach for our team and community.”
Jones says he debated staying in Edmonton, but the decision ultimately came down to the chance to do his own thing in Saskatchewan.
“When an opportunity like this presents itself, you have to jump at it,” he said.