Reaching his 500th career coaching victory came earlier than expected for New Mexico Highlands University baseball’s Steve Jones.
A home sweep of Adams State on the weekend of March 1-3 had bumped Jones’ record to 496-354, putting him within four games of history.
But with a four-game road series ahead at a very tough Colorado State-Pueblo club, it looked safe to schedule the Win No. 500 party for the following week.
“We thought if we got a split in Pueblo, we’d be in pretty good shape,” Jones said. He had his mother Sheila catch a flight for the Albuquerque Sunport on Monday, with the idea being to have her present for the milestone — either Tuesday against Eastern New Mexico or this coming weekend, when the Cowboys host Metro State.
But the Cowboys stormed to a four-game sweep in Pueblo, and Sunday’s series finale — a 14-3 romp — gave Jones Win No. 500.
“I’ll take it,” the coach quipped.
Jones, who took the helm at NMHU in 1997, said he views the 500-win plateau as “a program milestone more than a personal milestone.”
“No. 1, and I told the guys this, out of the 500 wins, I haven’t thrown one pitch or hit one baseball ... I’ve gotten a ton of (congratulatory) e-mails from guys who’ve played for me, and I’m as proud of the players as anything.”
Lengthy coaching tenures are increasingly difficult to come by, something not lost on Jones.
“Longevity is a key factor,” he said. “Trust me. From the first day, we’ve wanted to do it the right way. And that involves discipline, taking responsibility for everything you do ... The structure we provide — and my assistant coaches have had a lot to do with that — is responsible for that consistency.”
Particularly in the early days, Jones tapped into his recruiting pipeline he’d established while an assistant at Cal State Chico and California-Davis. He brought players in and had them work within the structure of his system.
As time has gone on, Jones has diversified his recruiting, aided by word of mouth from several former players-turned-coaches and the growing reputation of the NMHU program itself.
“A lot of it takes care of itself because of the consistency of the program,” he said. “Stability is a huge thing.”
“Aside from (NMHU cross country and track) Coach (Bob) DeVries, we’re the only ones who have had success and stability over a long period of time.”
Jones said he’s taken pride in running a clean program that works to develop players into better people.
“We want to do things the right way. We want our guys to do well in the classroom, and represent the community and school ... If you don’t have the foundation, you don’t have success.”
Jones said hitting his 500th win, and all the kudos he’s been getting from former players, has jostled his memory.
Santa Fe’s Ronnie Jaramillo, he said, was on the pitching mound for Win No. 1 in a game against College of the Southwest back in ‘97.
But that came after six humbling losses to open the season. It was a quick reality check.
“A lot of young coaches think they’re everything,” Jones said. “But we got humbled in a hurry. We lost our first six games. I remember that more than most of the wins. We had to work hard every day and do all the little things the right way.”
The lesson was learned quickly enough. That season, the Cowboys finished two games under .500 and made the RMAC playoffs.
A couple seasons later, the team won the RMAC title.
There have been exceptionally strong Cowboy teams here and there in the years since. The 2010 club may have had the most pure talent and potential. The 2000 version notably won 17 of 20 games late in the year, exemplifying the will to win. The current team reminds Jones of that 2000 group.
“We’ve had really one bad year,” he said of his tenure, now in its 16th season. “That’s it.”
With so many Ws in the ledger, inevitably a few will stand out as especially memorable. Jones mentions a gritty postseason battle at archrival Colorado Mesa (then known as Mesa State) a few seasons ago that required extra innings, a make-or-break game vs. national power Fort Hays State in 2001, and a 2005 conference tourney win at Mesa.
Sweeping CSU-Pueblo over the past weekend has to be in that mix, too, he said.
Jones said he tried to keep the historical significance of Sunday’s last game a secret from players. With the game well in hand, he said, “we told whoever had the last ball to stick it in their pocket. As it turned out, they knew more than we thought they knew.”
2010 talent; 2000 won 17 of 20 late; 2001 scrappy found way to win.