Gary Jones, Steelers Safety, 1990-1994
First, can you let readers know about your coaching career – how you got started coaching post-NFL and what you enjoy about it most?
I’m coaching high school football and track now. I’m working with the safeties on the football team and coaching long-distance runners in track.
I got started after I retired playing for New York. I went back and got my degree after I retired – I had thirty hours left – that was in ’97. I became a graduate assistant for Texas A&M and did that for a season.
After the year turned, I decided in January to live back in Dallas to spend more time with my wife. I think I just got burnt out from football as I think about it now. I had a moving company for a couple of years there before getting back into coaching in 2001 coaching high school football at a private school.
What coaches and coaching lessons – especially from your Steelers days – do you find yourself falling back on now as a coach?
LeBeau was my defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh. He used the secondary to blitz a lot. I always liked that and the way he used safeties in the nickel and dime. I found myself doing the same thing with my safeties. Otherwise, they just sit back and get bored.
You were drafted by the Steelers in 1990 as a 9th round pick. What enabled you to make the squad – what about you as a player do you think caught the coaching staff’s eye and helped you secure a roster spot?
Well, I was kind of known as a big hitter in college. In Pittsburgh, I was the only defensive back drafted that year. They had Carnell Lake, Woodson, Everett, Delton Hall, D.J. Johnson…it was going to be hard to make the team, so I just hit everything that moved and I hit it with aggression.
I picked up stuff well too – the schemes. I did lots of man-to-man and blitzes in college. I had to realize the game in Pittsburgh and be aggressive.
Who helped mentor you as a rookie – what players or coaches helped you adjust to the NFL both on and off the field?
Thomas Everett was another East Texas guy. It was natural for us guys to help each other out. Woodson would say some things to me from time-to-time as well. He’d help out sometimes.
It was mostly scheme stuff – not so much on technique. There wasn’t much motion in college but in the NFL they do it a lot screw you up on defense. They helped me with that kind of stuff.
You were there when Coach Noll retired. How was Coach Noll to play for and how did you and the rest of the team handle his retirement? What was the mindset of the team?
I was there for three years and Chuck was like an NFL God to me. I was a Cowboys fan and the Steelers always beat us. He was on another level and I was afraid to talk to him. He would let me know when I did something wrong – not in a rude way. He’d just get your attention
We were losing then – we were like 7-9. I remember Dwayne Woodruff thought he had seen some changes in Chuck. He wasn’t the Chuck Noll of the 70′s – he was more distant. Maybe he lost some fire.
I hated to see him go but we weren’t making it to the playoffs. When he decided to step down it was probably time. We were the Steelers – we needed to get back to doing the Steeler thing and winning Super Bowls.
What was your and the rest of the the team’s initial impression of Coach Cowher? His demeanor was such a departure from Coach Noll’s…did the team have a hard time adjusting to that?
We respected Cowher. He was from the area. Pittsburgh had hard-working people and that’s the way Cowher was. Chuck never said a whole lot. Bill never over-spoke, but he got his message out.
He played linebacker, so he wasn’t a rah-rah guy. Just get the job done – that’s how linebackers are. It didn’t matter who you were – if you didn’t do well he’d let you know. He was one of those guys that could push the right button to make you run through walls for him. He was fair and up and up. He was in control – he was no puppet – he ran the show.
What changes did Coach Cowher initially make and how did you and the rest of the team receive those changes?
There wasn’t much difference between them in terms of what we did. He didn’t change much. Both were disciplinarians and the practices were intense - lots of focus needed.
One thing – Noll on Fridays used to have goal line scrimmages. I thought it was weird to do that on Fridays before the game. I remember having to take on Haselrig on in those scrimmages. But Bill didn’t do those.
Who were some of the biggest characters on those Pittsburgh teams and what made them so? Any examples?
Lots of guys respected Everett and he could make them laugh. Lloyd would joke around too but knew when to get serious. Worley was funny - he would mock people and always had a smile on his face.
I can’t remember who did it, but someone played a joke on Carnell Lake. Carnell always dressed real preppy - khaki pants, loafers, button down shirt.. Well, we were coming out of a meeting and we saw that someone hung his shirt on a hanger from the ceiling, with his khakis tied to the bottom and his shoes on the floor beneath them. It looked like an invisible mannequin!
You left the team in ’95 and played for the Jets. What brought on the change and how difficult was that change for you?
I loved Pittsburgh – I still love it and the people. East Texas was a working area too. But I was a free agent. I played on third downs, but Perry and Lake were still playing well and I knew, barring injury, I wouldn’t have a chance to break into the starting lineup.
I had a good enough reputation to get good offers elsewhere. It was just the situation – I needed to go somewhere else to start.
How was your experience in New York and how did it differ from Pittsburgh?
Well, we were 4-28 the two years I was there. At the time I didn’t realize how much I missed Pittsburgh. New York was so big, and stuff was going on all through the week. We had models and broadcasters on the team. In Pittsburgh, two-thirds of us after practice would go to the Clark Bar and get drinks and shoot pool. In New York, it was like a beehive was disturbed – everyone would go in different directions after practice. You wouldn’t see guys until the next day.
It just wasn’t close-knit like it was in Pittsburgh. And losing wasn’t fun either.
What are your favorite memories of your time in Pittsburgh?
The atmosphere – being in the playoffs, the city abuzz…. It was such great energy. In the game it was awesome. The playoffs were totally different. In ’94, we lost to San Diego in the playoffs – we should have won that game. After that I left in free agency and the next season they won the Super Bowl. That was hard to take.
Any last thoughts for readers?
When I am teaching, kids will often ask me who my favorite team is, and I tell them I watch the Steelers. If Dallas is America’s team, the Steelers are really close. The fans are everywhere.
I’ll always remember being there. The Rooneys are great – so fair. They help out so much and were respected by everybody. It was a privilege to have played for them. The older I get, the more I feel that. I’m part of a club, and I’ll always cherish that.