Robert Jones has taken a unique path towards towards leading Norfolk State basketball’s historic start to the ’21-22 season.
Robert Jones has always had a penchant for the spotlight.
He was there when Norfolk State shocked Missouri in the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
He was there, too, when rap icon 50 Cent was putting on the biggest concerts in the country.
Currently, Jones is settling into his 15th year at Norfolk State — his ninth as head coach. Prior to Saturday’s last-second defeat, NSU’s 9-1 record marked the best 10-game start in MEAC history.
But as recent as 15 years ago, he was leaving his mark in different arenas.
An entrepreneurial upbringing
An alum of SUNY New Paltz in New York, Jones organized his school’s concerts, developing connections in the music industry and learning life as an entrepreneur and subcontractor along the way.
In 2002, a year after receiving his business management degree, Jones began working with Violator Management, 50 Cent’s management company at the time of his debut album “Get Rich or Die Tryin'” — one of the highest-selling rap albums ever. Jones was responsible for organizing college tours for 50 Cent and his hip-hop collective G-Unit.
At the same time, he was also transitioning from his playing career to birthing his coaching career. Jones’ first post-playing season was spent as a D-3 assistant at Bard College, 30 miles north of New Paltz. He returned to his alma mater soon after and later became head coach at St. Mary’s High School in Manhasset, N.Y., in 2005.
The equation changed two years later.
“(My son) was born in 2007, and even though I worked exclusively with Violator Management and G-Unit from 2002 to 2005, I was still doing my own concerts and was basically a party promoter and a high-school basketball coach,” Jones said on the Field of 68 AFTER DARK podcast.
Supporting a newborn became financially straining due to the ups and downs of the concert promotion industry.
“Some months you might make a lot of money, and some months, if there weren’t any tour dates, you wouldn’t make anything,” Jones said.
Coaching was calling Jones’ name, and a familiar voice was on the other line.
Rolling the dice
Enter Anthony Evans, who was an assistant at New Paltz during Jones’ playing career. When Evans was named interim head coach at Norfolk State in 2007, he took Jones under his wing and added him to the staff.
“I kind of rolled the dice when my son was born and realized that I needed a more stable income,” Jones said. “I’m basically transporting a newborn from New York City down to Virginia, a foreign land, and it happened to all work out.”
Evans and Jones led the Spartans to their first-ever NCAA Tournament in 2012.
“I told Coach Evans that I wanted that scout no matter who we played,” Jones said. “People don’t believe me . . . from the moment we were selected on Selection Sunday, I said that we were going to win that game.”
Jones saw things differently against the 21.5-point favorite, and it was largely thanks to a future pro the country hadn’t yet met.
“With Kyle O’Quinn, I knew we were going to have the best player on the floor at all times.”
In front of a packed CenturyLink Center crowd in Omaha, Neb., Norfolk State pulled off the 86-84 upset, destroying the nation’s brackets in stunning fashion.
O’Quinn’s final line: 24 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks.
Evans followed up the Big Dance splash with a 16-0 MEAC record the following season before heading to FIU. Jones was the next man up, being named interim head coach and then earning the permanent job in February.
Robert Jones has been at NSU ever since.
Leaving his mark
The Spartans haven’t waned since the Mizzou upset. Norfolk State is 151-121 under Jones’ lead since 2013 — the .555 winning percentage is better than 24 high-major teams during the same span.
In March, Jones returned to March Madness — this time as head coach — and beat Appalachian State in the First Four, again as an underdog.
Jones’ sustained success is making waves. He was tabbed No. 50 overall in Heat Check CBB’s 2021-22 Season Preview head coach rankings.
Best seasons by winning percentage in Norfolk State history
This year’s team, despite hefty offseason turnover, has potential for another special season.
“We did lose four starters from last year, so to start off 9-1, that’s been tremendous for this group,” Jones said.
Kris Bankston, a 6-8 forward, has drawn the eyes of a few NBA teams due to his performance in the inaugural Chris Paul HBCU Challenge. The Little Rock transfer is averaging 11.8 points and 6.6 rebounds, ranking seventh nationally in effective field-goal percentage. While second on the team in scoring to Joe Bryant, Bankston’s athletic presence is felt mightily on both ends.
NSU’s thunderous start to the season commands more respect nationally, regardless of program history or conference affiliation. The Spartans finish nonconference play with four tough tests: at Wichita State, at Loyola Chicago, at New Mexico and at Campbell.
“We’re just as good as any mid-major across the country and people need to see that,” Jones said.
At this point, it’s a losing proposition to doubt Jones’ work ethic and network — two pillars that have guided the party-promoter-turned-head-coach.
“There might be people that might be better than you right now,” Jones said. “But if you stay the course and keep working, you’re going to end up being better than them in the long run. Everybody’s path is different.”
After all, no two careers are ever the same.