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ASU wrestling's head coach uses 25-year history with sport to inspire team

Zeke Jones found success as a college wrestler, respect as an Olympian, proficiency as a coach and is still determined to be the best

ASU's wrestling head coach Zeke Jones during the wrestling meet versus number 13 University of Illinois Fighting Illini in Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe, Arizona on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017. ASU lost the meet overall 26-9. (Josh Orcutt/State Press)
ASU's wrestling head coach Zeke Jones during the wrestling meet versus number 13 University of Illinois Fighting Illini in Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe, Arizona on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017. ASU lost the meet overall 26-9. (Josh Orcutt/State Press)

After more than two decades, ASU head coach Zeke Jones has regenerated his competitiveness and positive influence on the sport and is considered to be a guru by the wrestling community.

When Jones took over as ASU wrestling's head coach, the team was No. 61 in the country, and now they are among the best. This year, ASU accomplished its first top-ranked recruiting class since Jones began his coaching tenure. 

"(ASU) has had a long 65 years of history and tradition of success, national champions, Olympic champions and guys on the Olympic team," said Jones. "We want to continue that."

Although his players jokingly attribute the team's improvement to Jones' sleep shortage and constant planning, Jones credits the success to his years dedicated to the sport.

A Champion’s Establishment

In 1988, Jones was a star wrestler at ASU, helping it win its first national championship. Although he came up short from winning an individual NCAA national championship, Jones was a three-time All-American and a three-time Pac-10 champion.

After winning a team NCAA championship, Jones took the next step and represented the United States as an Olympic wrestler. 

As a four-time world champion, six-time national champion, Pan American gold medalist and an Olympic silver medalist, he dominated the Olympic stage. 

But Jones said his greatest learning experience came when he lost the 1992 gold medal match at the Barcelona Olympics.

“I have been blessed to wrestle in the finals of every wrestling world and national championships you can wrestle in,” Jones said. “I think when you talk about losing a tough match, it's like anything else: It makes you stronger, it makes you better.”

After his defeat, Jones said he found himself riddled with emotion but wouldn't realize until later the enormous window of opportunity that had opened. 

"It makes you decide when you get beat, what direction you want to go," Jones said. "It doesn’t define you, but it makes you who you are."

Jones said he uses his experiences to help athletes understand how a win and a loss are both learning curves, and the motivation to improve should be relentless.

From Olympian to Olympic Coach

After his Olympic stint as a wrestler, Jones' responsibility changed and he joined the Olympic coaching staff in 1996. Jones used his competitive mentality as a coach and helped wrestlers reach their potential at the Olympic stage. Later, he was awarded the National Freestyle Coach of the Year by USA Wrestling in 2001, but the highlights of his coaching career came in 2004 and 2012.

“I have sat in the corner of five Olympic finals and have won three,” Jones said. You use your losses to help them win, and you use your wins to help them win.”

Jones coached three of his wrestlers to Olympic gold medals — one at the 2004 Athens Game and two at the 2012 London Games. Jones said these experiences have shaped him as a coach and contribute to his craft when training his current wrestlers.

The Return to his Alma Mater

In April 2014, Jones returned to ASU to continue his competitive journey and construct a wrestling program that competes at the highest level. Jones said coming home to the Sun Devils was a dream come true.

Former ASU wrestling coach Thom Ortiz said the wrestling program evolved to an Olympic level with Jones in charge.

“It is an encouraging step for the wrestling program,” Ortiz said. “And within the word ‘encouragement’ is ‘courage’ and that’s what Zeke has.”

Current ASU sophomore Tanner Hall said Jones looks beyond the college level with his wrestlers.

“(Jones) says ‘Hey you know what, if you come here (ASU) we are looking to take you through college, on to the Olympics to win Olympic medals,’” Hall said. “He wants to make us the best of what we can become … not just the best in the United States but the best in the world.”

Former ASU wrestler and NCAA champion Anthony Robles, said he admires the passion Jones has for coaching the Sun Devils and believes that makes it easier for athletes to wrestler for him.

“He is getting the most out of his wrestlers … he is smart at recruiting the right wrestlers and knows how to peak them at the right time,” Robles said. “With his Olympic background, he knows what the elites do, and he knows how to train the elite and he knows how to maximize their performance.”

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