How Zeke Jones has rebuilt the culture for ASU wrestling

Jones' impact on the program far exceeds results on the mat

Zeke Jones had a vision for ASU wrestling.

He wasn't just looking to win titles, he wants to make a difference for his wrestlers as well as the community at large at ASU. 

And after just five years of coaching, Jones has helped the program achieve a number of accomplishments.

Two straight Pac-12 Championships and Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors. A No. 1 recruiting class. A top-10 NCAA finish and one individual national champion.

The program's reinvention has elevated it to heights reminiscent of Jones’ wrestling days in Tempe back in the late 1980s. Jones’ legendary wrestling background has been well-documented. He was a part of ASU’s 1988 national championship team before compiling an outstanding Olympic career, both as a wrestler and coach.

Those experiences made the transition of leading his alma mater a smoother one.  

“It gave me the foundation to understand what it takes to get to the top,” Jones said. “To be the best in the world. The best in the country. And then, taking that information and then sharing that with others.”

During the recruiting process, that perspective resonated with now redshirt junior Josh Shields, one of the headliners of that prized No. 1 ranked class in 2015.

“He knew the aspirations that I had, and I knew the aspirations that he has for his program and Arizona State was a place that I could really see that coming to fruition,” Shields said. “He expects the most out of people but he pushes you like you’re an Olympic-level athlete and so we just had to raise the bar with the bar that Zeke was bringing in.”

Like Jones, Shields’ mindset was to aim higher than success at the college level. That idea has been at the forefront of “rebuilding the culture” of ASU wrestling, assistant coach Chris Pendleton said. 

Pendleton’s relationship with Jones goes back 15 years, but when he joined the staff alongside Jones in 2014, he quickly realized that his new boss was one-of-a-kind. 

“Zeke’s biggest strength is his vision,” Pendleton said. “He’ll be able to map out a one, two and five-year plan and get everybody organized and excited about the plan and getting the community to believe in his visions.”

Jones’ vision also translates off the mat for his athletes. Shields pointed out that his coach has “sharpened” him as a man just as much as a wrestler. He said Jones has become a “mentor” and that their relationship will continue long after he leaves the program.

“He loves to throw everything at us,” Shields said. “In the wrestling room, he’ll try and catch us off-guard by throwing a scenario that we weren’t expecting. That’s definitely transitioned to life because life almost never goes the way that you want it to go. There’s nothing that can shake us.”

Shields has one year of eligibility remaining, but Jacen Petersen, a redshirt senior, performed in his last home dual meet last week. As Petersen moves onto his next endeavors, he said he appreciates Jones' efforts to help him with that transition.

“He also talks about (how) he wants to have us set up for the next 10 years,” Petersen said. “He wants us to get in contact with the right people. He does a great job of trying to find connections. I think it’s great.”

Regardless of how the Sun Devils fare in this year’s postseason, Jones recognizes that it's not all about how his wrestlers perform on the mat. He wants to make an impact in their lives. 

For Shields, that is what he will remember most about his coach during his time at ASU.

“It’s not just about performance for him," he said of Jones. “He wants to be the best but at the end of the day, on your gravestone, it’s not going to say, ‘Pac-12, NCAA champ, world champ’ and those are things that he knows. He cares so much about the athletes. He’s trying to set the athletes up for the future. It’s a genuine relationship between a coach and a wrestler.”

Jones’ work at ASU is not done. Of course, winning at a team and individual level is a priority, but his imprint on the program goes far beyond results in the rafters of Wells Fargo Arena or on the walls of Riches Wrestling Complex.

He is continuing to implement his vision and to him, ASU is the best place to do it. 

“It’s not just wrestling and school but a foundation of who you are, how to manage yourself, how to live the right lifestyle, how to walk down the street with confidence and compassion for other people, understanding that this is truly a gift we’ve been given,” Jones said.

“(ASU) is a place where you have a foundation for life. It gave me the opportunity to have a family, to be employed, to help others, to provide life experience for my son, to reach the community, to be able to include people in what we do, to hope that we’re elevating Arizona State like its elevated us. It’s made me who I am.”


Reach the reporter at kmgianco@asu.edu and follow @Kaleb_Mart on Twitter.

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