CRAWFORD | Remembering Harry Jones, a Louisville 'pillar'
Remembering the life and work of Harry Jones, a longtime leader in the University of Louisville community, who died Wednesday at the age of 85.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — This remembrance of Harry Jones, star football player at the University of Kentucky, pioneering trustee, leader and benefactor of the University of Louisville, took a while to finish. Turns out his friends couldn’t stop talking about him.
Jones died Wednesday night at the age of 85, just a few months after his wife Nancy passed away, four years after losing his twin brother Larry.
A great many people know just how great a loss this is to Jones’ family, his friends, the University of Louisville and, indeed, the city of Louisville. Those of you who don’t, read on.
My first experience with Harry Jones was during athletic board meetings at U of L. As a new reporter in town I’d lean over and ask somebody who knew their way around a question or two. I remember asking one of our reporters once, “Who’s that guy who is always smiling?”
That guy was Harry Jones. He could be watching the most mundane presentation you could think of, listening to a budget report, anything, and you could glance over at him and he’d look like he was watching a Broadway show.
In some ways, I guess he felt like he was. He was a key figure in the middle of the growth of the University of Louisville from city college to major metropolitan institution. And he found himself, somehow, in the middle of two of the most pivotal hiring decisions in University of Louisville athletics over the past 30 years, Tom Jurich and Howard Schnellenberger.
“He and Nancy, and I include them always together, loved life and enjoyed life as much as anyone I’ve known,” Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich said. “He was a positive force, no matter where he was. He was smiling. He was energetic. He was relentless. What quality, quality upbeat people they were. ”
Jurich should know. He never would’ve come to Louisville if not for Jones. When former athletic director Bill Olsen retired, U of L hired a search firm to identify possible replacements. The head of the search committee was Harry Jones. Former trustee and longtime friend of Jones Bill Stone told me the search firm came back with three names, none of whom excited the search committee. The list didn’t include Jurich.
But Jones and fellow board member Sam Rechter had been told about a young AD out in Colorado, and they decided to take charge. They went to see Tom Jurich after a golf outing at Colorado State, and started pitching. Harry Jones would not stop pitching until Jurich was named athletic director seven months later, after a half dozen “nos” from Jurich, and dozens of phone calls back to Colorado.
“I remember the exact date they came out, July 28 of ’97,” Jurich said. “We were at a big CSU golf tournament and fund raiser. Everybody’s in green and gold, it looked like a John Deere convention, and here come two guys in bright red. . . . They rented a condominium. You could see the passion in both of them. At the time, I was extremely happy. Terrilynn’s parents lived right there. But he was relentless. I’ve never seen anybody as relentless as Harry Jones over the next four months. I told him, ‘I’m sure it’s a great place, but I just don’t want to leave.’”
Jones never let up. Jurich estimates he got in the neighborhood of 75 calls from Jones over the next three months.
“He’d call, you could almost set your clock by it,” Jurich said. “He’d call at night, before we’d retire for the day. It was always something positive. It was always this fact about the city, or did you know this about the school? Just little things, but they stuck in your mind. That’s why Terrilynn and I kept listening. He always had a different tidbit. He’d never say the same thing twice.”
Four different times Jurich gave U of L an official “No.” The last time, Jurich remembers sitting in Denver before a season-opening football game, determined to make this his final stand. He told Jones he very much appreciated the school’s interest, but he had made up his mind he was staying out west. Jones thanked Jurich, said he respected his decision — then talked to him for 45 more minutes about the school and the job. When Jurich hung up, his wife told him, “It must be a special place, for him to care about it that much.”
Jurich wound up at Louisville for one reason — because of the passion and energy of Harry Jones. By the time he got to U of L, he half expected the sidewalks to be paved with gold, Jones had talked the place up so much.
“Every negative, he turned into a positive, and he had the power to do that, because he was a trustee, and because people here had so much respect for him,” Jurich said. “. . . We had some turmoil early on. But at board meetings, he was the E.F. Hutton guy. When he would talk — and there were some powerful people at that table — when he talked, people listened.”
If Jones had done nothing else for U of L in his long association with the school, that would’ve been enough. But it wasn’t even close to all he did.
Dennis Harry Jones was born in 1931, along with his twin brother, Larry. Both were standout athletes at Louisville’s Manual High School, and both went to the University of Kentucky, where they played football for Paul “Bear” Bryant, and were part of his best teams at Kentucky. Harry wore number 1A. Larry wore 1B.
Harry still holds the UK record for longest run from the line-of-scrimmage, 91 yards. He did a little of everything. In 1951, he led the Wildcats in scoring with five touchdowns an 29 extra points. He kicked, he ran, he caught passes. His scoring record stood until 1999.
He also played baseball at UK, and left with degrees in Engineering and Business. After serving as a Captain in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he came back to Louisville and, along with his brother, founded Jones Plastic and Engineering Corporation.
Back in Louisville, Harry threw himself into supporting the local university. Along with his brother, he became a founding member of Valhalla Golf Club. He was active at Hurstborne Country Club.
But most of all, he loved following football. He was close with then-U of L coach Lee Corso, and the two became lifelong friends. When Corso came to town for visits, or to broadcast for ESPN, he didn’t get a hotel. He stayed with Harry Jones.
So when Corso, in 1985, got a call from his friend Howard Schnellenberger, saying he might be interested in getting back into college football, and doing it at Louisville, Corso knew just who to call. He got Jones on the phone.
Jones worked some magic. Olsen did the heavy lifting with university and community headers. And the hire that would change the trajectory of Louisville football forever was made.
Stone remembered sitting at U of L preseason football camps with Jones, and at film sessions the coaches would do afterward, Petrino, or Charlie Strong, or John L. Smith, “And Harry would drink up every second of it,” Stone said. “He was a great guy. A man’s man. A wonderful, wonderful person. I will always remember his great smile, it was a smile of great happiness and contentment. I have a great picture of the two of us together at one of Charlie’s camps. He was a great believer in Charlie, and especially Bobby (Petrino).”
Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino said Jones was the first person he met when he came to visit the university after Denny Crum’s retirement in 2000.
“He was one of my biggest supporters,” Pitino said. “He was a guy who was always giving. He was always ahead of the ask. He was always positive, always encouraging. He was a great friend, not just to me, but to this university. His is a great loss to me personally, and to this university. He was a prince of a man.”
Jones served on U of L’s board of trustees, it’s board of overseers, and on its athletic board. He gave generously to a number of projects and causes. He was a great find to students, faculty, administrators and coaches.
“He was brilliant,” Stone said. “One day just out of nowhere he just started giving me mathematical theorems. Just out of his head, he could site you equations, calculus. I don’t know how many people knew that side of him. That great business they built was no mistake. Harry was hard-working and brilliant, and had a special way about him.”
In January, U of L president James Ramsey honored him with the school’s Presidential Medal, for special service to the university.
Bob Maxey, who was among a handful of guys who has been around the program for just about everything from the 1970s on, has watched more football practices with Jones and their friend Gil Sturzel than he can count. Jones took to calling them the "Three Amigos." When they got news of Jones on Wednesday, they were watching a spring football practice, and another close friend of Jones, former U of L coach John L. Smith was there with his staff from Kentucky State.
"We all knew his death was coming, but we still had a tear in our eyes as we talked about it," Maxey wrote in an e-mail. "He was truly a great man and he made everyone around him a better person by living his life as an example to them."
He did a lot of these things without a lot of people knowing. But for Jurich and others, he did a great many things they will never forget.
“He was a pillar,” Jurich said.
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