Almost a decade ago, the Arizona State wrestling program was on the verge of extinction before a booster’s group rallied to find the funding it needed to continue operating.
Now the Pac-12 school is trying to once again resuscitate a program that was a conference and national power back in the ’90s. And it has turned to one of its own to lead the hoped-for resurgence.
Zeke Jones, a two-time Pac-10 champion when he wrestled in the maroon and gold in the mid-90s, has returned to Tempe to replace Shawn Charles, who resigned from his head-coaching position just a week ago. Charles, also a standout at ASU as a four-time All American and twice a national runner-up, enjoyed some early success when he took the program over in May of 2009. The Sun Devils finished sixth at the NCAA championships two years later, but haven’t had a top-50 finish since that 2011 season.
ASU’s new athletic director, Ray Anderson, acted quickly in making the hire, which is the first major coaching decision since he was announced on January 9 as the new AD following the departure of Steve Patterson.
But Anderson didn’t exactly go out on a limb on his first high-profile pick. Based on Jones’ background, this was a pretty safe bet.
The 47-year-old Michigan native had a stellar college career at ASU, where he was a three-time All American and was later inducted into the ASU Hall of Fame. Wrestling at 118 pounds, he finished his ASU career in the No. 4 spot in the school record books for overall victories (134) and dual victories (59) and set a school record for dual match victories (22) in a season. And he also represented his country by winning a silver medal at the 1992 Olympics and was the 1991 World Champion.
From there, he went on to a successful career as a coach and will now be just the seventh head coach in the 52-year history of the ASU wrestling program.
Jones was an assistant on the coaching staffs at three different universities, including ASU, before being hired as the head coach at the University of Pennsylvania. He posted a 33-17-1 record at Pennsylvania and was named the Amateur Wrestling News Rookie of the Year.
He is a Distinguished Member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and coached at the 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2012 Olympic Games. Jones left USA Wrestling, where he was the national freestyle coach, to take the ASU job, saying he had always planned to return to college wrestling and was “ready for a new challenge”.
Jones is one of those rarities in sports that is so well-known and widely-respected that he is recognized in wrestling circles by just his first name. Anderson knew that when he hired him, and also had the added support of his associate AD, Don Bocchi, who has known Jones since his days wrestling in a Sun Devil uniform.
“I’ve certainly been proud of his accomplishments throughout his coaching career and his career as a world-class athlete,” said Bocchi in commenting on the announcement of Jones’ hire. “He is one of the most accomplished coaches in the sport.”
The new head coach arrives in Arizona this morning to meet the media. And with him comes hope for a return to national prominence for a program that was given new life once before – and now needs a new shot of adrenalin.