Preston Jones wears an unvarnished expression, barking instructions out from underneath his oversized floppy hat, the full-length sleeves of his shirt flailing as he directs his high school players around the torn-up gridiron behind the baseball field at Perry High School.
Like a general, Jones breaks his post-practice huddle, uttering a concise yet understood message to his team before returning to his office within the brick-laid locker room complex beyond the North end zone of the Pumas’ John Wren Stadium.
At his desk, situated nearest the blue metal door in the corner of the single-space room Jones and his staff call home, the Perry head coach is surrounded by pictures, most depicting his 10 as the first and only coach Perry has ever known.
Just one win stands between his team and a first state championship in school history. It’s taken a decade of unwavering work to develop the budding program into a state power. Even with 96 career wins under his belt, Jones has stuck to his core beliefs, trusting his discipline and morals based coaching philosophies to literally build the school’s football team from the ground up.
On this day, a Tuesday before his team’s eventual quarterfinal rout of Chandler Hamilton, a handful of his players were in trouble for not cleaning their cafeteria lunch table. It provided another opportunity to remind his group of what really matters, of what they need to focus on even as they develop as football players:
“You are the leaders of the school,” he tells them. “Can’t do anything about that. That’s not my choice. You’re the football players, you’re the football team. You’re the biggest, strongest, most physical kids on campus, in the biggest numbers. You are the leaders.”
“How are you going to lead?”
It’s a question Jones has been holding himself to his entire life.
STARTING A NEW PROGRAM
When the Perry football team reunited at the end of this past summer – preparing for a season with state title expectations – its freshman coaching staff lost its offensive line coach (a policeman who had to leave town for several weeks to help hurricane relief efforts in the Southeastern United States).
So, the always eager-to-teach Jones stepped into the temporary role of coaching the first-year linemen. It meant waking up at 6 a.m. to teach the most basic of lessons along the line of scrimmage, a task not often performed by a high-profile head coach at one of the state’s power programs. But Jones loved every minute of it.
“I had a blast man,” he said. “Just worrying about those kids, worrying about the position and not worrying about anything else.”
It was the first time Jones had worked with a crop of players that young since 2007, when he, then an established name at an established school, decided the opportunity with the upstart Pumas was one he couldn’t pass up.
“I thought it was the best move for our family,” he said, especially as he and his wife were expecting their first child.
A fresh start, but a monumental challenge.
Jones was always destined to be a football coach. His dad, Jim, became something of a legend in the Arizona High School football community during a career that spanned four decades and included two state championships and an induction into the Mesa City Sports Hall of Fame.
Jones played for his father’s program at Red Mountain from 1988-90 before becoming a collegiate all-conference defensive back at Tennessee-Martin.
When his playing days were up, Jones traded in his cleats for a play card. After assistant coaching stints at Red Mountain, Tempe McClintock and the University of Missouri, Jones became the head coach of Highland in 2002 and led the Hawks to a state semi-final in 2004.
But, he has come to be defined by his tenure at Perry.
Before taking the job at the just-opened school, Jones sought out the advice of others who had previously taken on the task of starting a program. He reached out to the likes of Tim McBurney (the first-ever coach at Basha), Karl Kiefer (Mountain Pointe), and of course his dad, who was in charge of the inaugural squad at Red Mountain when that school opened its doors in 1988.
He received an identical message from each.
“They all said they would never do it again, but it was one of the neatest things they ever did, to start a school,” Jones recalled. “They all said it was awesome.”
So, with five of his ex-Highland assistants by his side, Jones began the prodigious task of building a program from scratch, one painstakingly slow step at a time.
“It’s tough and it’s hard and it sucked at times,” Jones said. “We wanted to try putting our stamp on something out here.”
At the center of that imprint was Jones’ staunch commitment to team and discipline.
“We were really hard on those kids,” he says now.
For starters, no one on the team could wear gloves or sleeves as part of their uniform. Each players’ cleats were colored white, even if it required a few coats of spray paint to make them that way.
Chase Richardson, a freshman on Perry’s first ever football team, can still clearly recall his early impressions of Jones.
“He just came across as this military type, so strict, rigid,” Richardson said in a phone interview. “But I really grew to respect him the more I got to know him and see why he did everything that way.”
Richardson was much like the rest of the players on Perry’s original junior varsity team, an outfit that was “JV” only in name. Almost the entire roster was made of freshman, many of whom had never even played the sport before.
“It wasn’t like my intention was to love football. It just kind of happened,” Richardson said, one of those first-time players. “I didn’t even know if I’d be good at it. I just started playing. Coach Jones put me at tight end and I started catching a lot of touchdowns and said, ‘Okay. I like this.’ It just progressed from there.”
For Jones, the experience tested a whole new side of his coaching abilities. Instead of devising tactical game plans, he was spending time teaching kids how to put on gear. Instead of chasing state titles, Jones had to lay the most basic of fundamentals.
“I had coached JV football, but I had never done freshman football. We were dealing with freshman stuff,” Jones said. “I’m trying to run this huge program with this big vision. If I was to go back and do it over, I wouldn’t take it as serious and as hard.”
When Jones’ daughter was born in early September of that first season, he missed just one practice, a prime example of the crazed commitment to his new job. He says looking back, there is a lot he would change. But in the moment, Jones coached the only way he knew how – hard.
It wasn’t much fun for his players.
“Coach Jones’ thing was always the discipline,” Richardson said. “We out-disciplined teams that were much more athletic and bigger than us… People were so sick of practices and football that they were quitting because they just hated it so much. He made it hell sometimes for some people.”
There was no budge from Jones on his rules though.
“I told the administration when I took the job, ‘This is what we are going to do,’” he said. “They stuck by it and they were okay with it.”
BUILDING A POWER
The San Tan mountains can be seen from the Pumas’ sideline in their home stadium, a collection of peaks and cliffs that represent the southeastern-most boundary of the Valley. It was in their shadows that Jones faced a mountain of his own challenges.
Creating an authoritarian culture proved tough enough, but was dwarfed by a more confounding issue that plagued Jones’ initial efforts to build competitive teams.
The areas’ most talented players weren’t coming to his school and filling out his roster became a laborious task.
“Every time we would try to do something [to attract more players], we got shut down,” he said.
His freedom to talk to prospective high school players was hampered by the checkered history of questionable football recruiting tactics in his district (the Chandler Unified School District) prior to his school’s opening. His honest efforts to add to his squad were shut down by administrators.
“I just wanted to get kids in our neighborhood, kids in our boundaries,” he said. “Neighboring schools didn’t like that. We were told we weren’t allowed to even talk to kids within our own boundaries. It set us back. It was crazy that we got reprimanded for trying to get kids in our own boundaries.”
His hard-nosed rules also didn’t do Jones any favors when it came to public opinion either.
“A lot of people looked down upon us for quite a few years when we first opened, saying we would never win because we cared too much about [discipline],” he said.
The outside pressure had no effect on Jones, or his style. A shortage of talent was no excuse for a shortage of character in his locker room.
“It’s one of those things where you’ve got to decide as a person, are you comfortable with yourself? Am I defining myself and my success on wins and losses or am I going to define my success on growing young men to be positive and good people in society?” he said.
His message was noticed by those within in the school.
“Ultimately, what I know he is trying to do is turn high school boys, so when they graduate they will go on to be good men,” Perry athletic director Jennifer Burks said. “I’ve heard him say it a hundred times, he talks about how they need to treat their wives in the future or talks about how they are going to treat their families.”
Eventually, the external narrative about his program changed too. Jones and his staff got out in the community, from neighborhood-wide events to backyard barbeques, and built-up the program through word of mouth, from kid to kid, parent to parent, community leaders to community members.
They started consistently winning games too.
It took just two seasons for Perry to make the playoffs for the first time in 2009. In 2011, the Pumas won their first ever postseason game. Things were looking up.
“We established a foundation as far as our work ethic and our values and how we act in school and the expectations and behaviors, effort and attitude,” Jones said. “Those all started years ago. We had some unbelievably awesome kids.”
His sometimes-stubborn devotion to discipline and development started paying dividends.
“Football is hard-core because of our coaching staff and how disciplined they are,” said Perry weightlifting coach JoElyn Boone. “Their tempo is upbeat. Their practices are the same way they like the weight room to be.”
Though improved, Perry was still lagging talent-wise behind its cross-town rivals. Once again, Jones relied on lessons he drew from his father’s experiences to keep his obstacles in perspective and to keep driving his program forward.
“I’ve seen [my Dad] when he was a loser in people’s eyes because they didn’t win enough games and I saw him when he was running for mayor of Mesa because they won back-to-back state championships and all of sudden he is the best coach around,” Jones joked.
So, he stayed patient. As Perry’s campus and student body grew, he hoped so too would the number of elite athletes who would share a sideline with him on Friday nights.
GOING FOR GLORY
After a disheartening 2-8 campaign in 2013, Jones received a welcome surprise the next fall. It came from a flashy group of youngsters on his program’s freshman team, a squad that went undefeated in 2014.
Led by a quietly humble, but quick-moving and strong-armed quarterback named Brock Purdy and an ensemble of versatile playmakers and defenders, Jones realized his program had been infused with the skill level required to become a serious state power.
“Their sophomore year, we had a bunch of them up playing varsity and you could see,” Jones said. “We’ve never had kids in the weight room that could do what they could do, on the track do what they could do. We had never coached kids like that.”
It changed the way the Pumas prepared and game-planned. They could now win with superior talent in addition to their superior discipline.
“Instead of looking at how we can trick someone, we’re looking and saw our kid is bigger and faster than that kid, so let’s run this play,” Jones said.
As Perry’s talent level increased, so too did Jones’ comfort level with his players. After years of unrelenting rules, the coach began to relax and trust his team a little more.
“The types of kids we have – their backgrounds, where they played youth football, what schools they are coming from, what neighborhoods they are living in – its broadened quite a bit here at Perry,” Burks said. “Our coaches have done the same thing. They have expanded what they see or what they’ll tolerate in what they realized isn’t impacting football.”
Last season, the Pumas won a school-record 11 games and got Jones back to the doorstep of the state championship game, before losing to Chandler in the semi-finals.
They’ve taken it a step further this year, hitting the 12-win mark with a 56-31 win over Mountain Pointe two weeks ago to punch a ticket to the school’s first ever state championship game.
“It’s amazing, hopefully [the program] can keep rolling for years to come,” Purdy said earlier this month. “We’ve got a championship mindset right now. We just have to finish it off.”
They will have to win a rematch against the Wolves in Saturday night’s title game to do it.
Whether or not his team returns to Phoenix with a championship trophy though, achieving a trip to the championship game has given Jones confirmation that his oft-questioned style could produce a winning team.
“We kinda wondered if we had talented kids, would our system work?” he said. “It’s good to see that we are using the same system, we have different kids in and its working. It’s cool to see that validated.”
Of course, Jones would love to add a championship ring to his collection of accomplishments. But he insists the result on the scoreboard still isn’t the most important thing to him. It never has been.
The development of his players into men will always be how he judges his success as a leader.
“Just like I tell our kids all the time, ‘Don’t say you didn’t have a successful season because you didn’t have 5 touchdowns or you didn’t get 10 carries or 1,000 yards.’”
“It was the process. Where you started, where you got to.”
Jones would know a thing or two about the value of a productive process. His own personal path as a coach has led him – and his program at Perry – to unprecedented success in creating leaders off the field, and maybe, champions on it,