FOLEY, Alabama — The city of Foley and surrounding communities lost a true legend on Wednesday, Feb. 3 when longtime educator, administrator and coach Ivan Jones died at his home. He was 94.
A graduate of Jackson High School, Jones played football at Troy State University before being involved in a bus accident that ended his career in the late 1940s.
Shortly thereafter, he came to Baldwin County where he would spend 35 years as a teacher, coach and administrator at Foley High School, including 14 seasons as Foley’s head coach, leading the Lions to two state championships.
His 1961 and 1962 teams would go 20-0, with the 1961 Lions outscoring their opponents 433-6.
“It’s hard to put into words what he meant to me and my family,” said Lester Smith, quarterback and a captain on the 1961 squad who would go on to follow Jones as head coach of the Lions. “He was such a great student of the game, attending conferences at Alabama and other places, and his teams were always well prepared. He knew how to coach and he know how to get the best out of his players. He always knew how to make us feel like we were better than we were. It was just such a great joy to play for him and to work with him.”
During one stretch, 1960-64, his teams won 47 of 50 games. His record of 108-28-3 still ranks as the highest winning percentage (79.4) among those who coached more than one season.
His total of 139 games coached and 108 wins ranks second in school history, both behind Smith (127 wins, 214 total games).
“He gave me the opportunity to come back and coach at Foley,” Smith said. “I learned so much working under him and had the opportunity to succeed him, not replace him. I was just the one who followed him as a head coach.
“He was just a legend in this community and well thought of throughout the area. Gene Stallings was once asked about coaching at Alabama, he said ‘Bear Bryant will always be The Coach at Alabama, the rest of us are just tolerated.’ That’s the way I feel about Foley. Coach Jones will always be The Coach, the rest of us were just tolerated and he will be sorely missed for years to come.”
All 14 of his teams finished with winning records. He stepped down as head coach at Foley following the 1968 football season but could still be found around the school and the football stadium for practices and games for years following the official end of his coaching career.
The football stadium was dedicated in honor of Jones in 2004 and he is a member of the Foley High School Athletic Hall of Fame. He also served as president of the state coaches association and coached in the North-South all-star football game in Tuscaloosa.
He was named Coach of the Year by the Birmingham Post Herald in 1961. He is also a member of the Alabama High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame.
Smith said one of his greatest joys was when Jones agreed to help his son, Keith, coach the middle school football team, first from 1993-99, then again from 2007-13, his last year coaching at age 87.
“I think that shows you what kind of person he was beyond just being a great coach,” Smith said. “One thing about him is that he never lost his passion for the game. As long as he was able, he would not only help coaching, but also would attend games, even attending games that didn’t involve Foley schools.”
Keith Smith, now head football coach at Snook Christian Academy, said he was grateful for the opportunity to coach with Jones on those teams.
“When I started coaching the middle school in 1993, he came by and talked to me, offered words of encouragement and offered to help in any way that he could,” said the younger Smith. “It just amazed me how sharp he was. He had a brilliant mind and was just so good at teaching and coaching the fundamentals.
“What I’ll remember most about him is that he had such a servant’s heart. So many times, I would come in late because I had a meeting or something and he would be there washing clothes, or he would sit down after the kids turned their uniforms in and make sure all the cleats were tied together, or so many times I would go by the practice field and see him out there with ant poison, making sure the kids didn’t step in ants when they were out on the practice field. It’s those type things I will remember the most.
“His loss will be felt for many years to come. His legacy will be felt for many years to come. He will be severely missed in this community.”
In 1962, Lester Smith would be followed at quarterback by another legend, Ken “Snake” Stabler, who led the Lions to a 19-1 record in the 1962 and 1963 seasons. Stabler would go on to win a National Championship at Alabama and a Super Bowl championship with the Oakland Raiders.
“Foley is certainly where it all started for Kenny and for the Stabler family,” said Stabler’s sister, Carolyn Stabler Bishop. “He always had such great respect for all of his coaches at Foley, but Coach Jones was the head coach so it all started with him.”
Throughout his career, Stabler had coaches that kept him straight, his sister said, including Coach Bear Bryant at Alabama, and Coach John Madden with the Raiders, but it was Jones who started it all.
“I attended his 90th birthday party a few years ago and was amazed that the room was filled with people who couldn’t wait to hug his neck and shake his hand,” she said. “He meant so much to this community, not only as a coach but as a teacher, guidance counselor and friend.
“When we honored Kenny by retiring his jersey a few years ago, it was the same thing. Everyone wanted to talk to Coach Jones and shake his hand. The city of Foley has surely lost a lot with his passing and he will be greatly missed.”
Stabler’s teammate, Tim Russell, said he had the opportunity to travel with Stabler, introducing him at speaking engagements, and said he always had the utmost respect for Jones.
“Snake would always say how blessed he was to have strong coaches throughout his career that guided him on the path to success,” Russell said. “He would always begin by talking about Coach Jones and he never failed to mention that he believed he would not have had the success he did were it not for Coach Jones.”
For Russell, his relationship with Jones, like so many of his players, went beyond the football field, saying that it began, like so many other, with youth sports including taking swimming lessons from Jones at the city pool.
Jones began his career as the junior high basketball coach, leading the team to multiple county championships, coached baseball for one year, and helped start the school’s track program.
“He was so invested in his players, in every aspect of their lives, not just in sports and it stayed that way throughout our lives,” Russell said. “I remember every year he would line us up and go over everyone’s report card. He took so much of a personal interest in each of his players, not just athletically, but making sure we each got good grades and stayed out of trouble.”
This developed into lifelong friendships, Russell said, not only for him but for all of Jones’ players.
“He would always call me ‘No. 60’ (referring to Russell’s high school jersey number), and he would do that for a lot of his players,” Russell said. “His attention to detail and ability to remember every detail about a particular play or player always amazed me. He even told me one time he remembered my playing weight.”
Russel said his relationship with Jones would continue later as president of the Quarterback Club and as Foley’s mayor and called Jones a true ambassador for the city.
“I had the opportunity to introduce Coach Jones at several public functions and invariably when I traveled representing the city of Foley someone would ask about him,” he said. “He was such a presence in this community and always represented the community in a positive way wherever he went.
“I always thought the world of him and am deeply saddened by his loss. In my opinion he was the Bear Bryant of Alabama high school football and his influence will be greatly missed.”
Foley High School graduate and longtime voice of the Foley Lions on WHEP AM Radio Clark Stewart called Jones “larger than life.”
“The thing that struck me through the years is that the stories his players told about him oftentimes mirrored the stories you would hear about Coach Bear Bryant,” Stewart said. “He was just such a strong influence on everyone’s lives in this community.”
While he was well known as a football coach, like any great coach he could coach any sport, including baseball, track, tennis, and for the younger generation he taught swimming lessons at the Foley Pool.
He also served as principal at Foley Middle School and an assistant principal at Foley High School.
“His impact on this community has been immeasurable and will certainly be missed by all who knew him,” Stewart said.
For Foley High School principal and former athletic director/head football coach Russ Moore, his relationship with Jones spanned generations. His father, Norm, played football for Jones in high school. Jones would later coach Russ Moore in youth baseball, then his son as an offensive lineman for the Foley Middle School team.
“There are so many families here that experienced that same relationship with him,” Moore said. “A lot of people use the word icon and I wouldn’t use that word for anybody else but Coach Jones. Just his longevity and the way he could stay focused on the lives of his players year after year was remarkable.”
When Moore served as athletic director at Foley High School, he said, Jones was always available to talk and help out wherever he could.
“It was never staged or contrived,” Moore said. “Most of the time he would just be driving by and see my vehicle at the field house, so he would stop and talk. I asked his advice, but our conversions were not always about football, but about life in general. He was someone I looked up to and admired.”
As principal at Foley High School, Moore said, he always made it a point to introduce new coaches to Jones, take them by his house and spend 30 to 45 minutes talking.
“I think he definitely made a big impression on Coach Tad Niblett and I know he met with (current Foley head coach) Deric Scott when he was here before, but because of the pandemic we weren’t able to get together,” Moore said. “I have been in communication with Coach Todd Watson since learning about his passing and he had a lot of kind words to say about Coach Jones and his influence during his time at Foley. I will always be grateful I had the opportunity to help pass on Coach Jones’ knowledge and wisdom and he always served as a positive influence in every way.”
Survivors include his wife, Julia Bristow Jones; and two sons, Darrell Jones (LeeAnn Leiterman Jones), and John B. Jones.
Visitation will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 8 at Wolfe-Bayview Funeral Home in Foley. Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 9 at Ivan Jones Stadium.
The family requests donations be made to the South Alabama Education Foundation Ivan Jones Extra Effort Scholarship, P.O. Box 1600, Foley, AL 36536. List Ivan Jones Scholarship in the info line.