Tulane baseball coach Rick Jones retires

Tulane baseball coach Rick Jones is leaving with the most wins of any coach in school history, but that fact would be much less significant without four of those victories in particular.

On Friday night, Tulane announced Jones’ retirement because of health concerns after 21 years on the job.

“I didn’t feel like it was in my best interest to come back because of the physical issues I was having,” said Jones, 60. “It was anxiety and panic and all of the things that cause a blood pressure issue. The bottom line is it was from stress. The stress came from our program not being where I wanted us to be and it manifested itself on me and I was waking up at 4 a.m. with an attack because I was worried about what was going to happen to us.”

The stress allowed Jones to coach only 20 games of the 2014 season before having to step back, with assistant Jake Gautreau eventually being named interim head coach.

Now, a nationwide baseball coaching search is underway at Tulane for the first time since 1993, and the only known candidate at this point is Gautreau. Jones said he believes the program, despite playing at a disadvantage due to a $60,000 tuition and only 11.7 scholarships to cover it, is in position to find a worthy successor with the ability win at the highest levels as the Green Wave enter the American Athletic Conference next season.

“There are challenges,” he said. “I can tell you that it is a young man’s game and the right guy, in the right situation with the right energy and right work ethic, I believe anything is possible for this program. You have a great facility, great weather and play in a great city. I really believe it can happen.”

Jones’ top achievement was guiding the Green Wave twice to the College World Series. Those trips to Omaha, Nebraska, came courtesy of four pressure-packed super regional wins after Tulane started out in a hole.

In 2001, Tulane hosted LSU in a super regional at Zephyr Field and lost the first game in heartbreaking fashion 4-3 in 13 innings. There would have been no worse way to end the best year in Green Wave history than by losing in New Orleans to LSU. The Tigers were a win away from returning to Omaha for the 12th time in 16 years under legendary coach Skip Bertman, who already had announced he would step down at the end of the season.

Bertman’s retirement came earlier than he expected. The Green Wave wrote their own script, getting a home run from Jonny Kaplan on the first pitch of the next game and outscoring the Tigers 16-5 to win two straight over two days, clinching the school’s first College World Series berth.

Four years later, heavily favored Tulane dropped the first game of a super regional 9-5 to Rice at Turchin Stadium. Ranked No. 1 for most of the season, the Green Wave would have been crushed without a College World Series appearance to show for it.

This time, Tulane responded with a 7-0 shutout in game two before scoring three runs in the ninth inning to finish off the Owls 9-6 in the deciding game.

Omaha is the measuring stick for college baseball. Although the Green Wave went 1-2 in both CWS appearances, Jones validated his program’s elite status by getting there twice, going 4-0 in elimination games along the way.

The rest of his résumé is pretty special, too. After missing all but the first 20 games this season due to his health concerns, he finishes with an 818-445-2 record at Tulane and 1,094-538-3 overall, including stops at Ferrum (1982-84) and Elon (1985-89).

“We had some pretty special players come through this program and so many of them have been so gracious in reaching out to me and making sure I was okay as I made this transition,” Jones said. “It’s a special place to be.”

He guided Tulane to an NCAA regional berth in 12 of his first 15 years, including nine in a row from 1998-2006. He won the regular-season Conference USA crown four times in the Wave’s first 10 years in the league, capturing the tournament title five times in that span.

In contrast, the Tulane men’s basketball team had two winning records in Jones’ glory period — 1998-2006 — and won zero postseason games. The football team has finished above .500 only five times since Jones arrived.

Other Jones highlights:

In 1999, Tulane earned its first No. 1 seed in an NCAA regional, advancing to the championship game before falling to host Auburn.

In 2004, the Wave entered the Oxford regional as the No. 3 seed and won three straight to advance to a super regional, where they lost to eventual national champion Cal State Fullerton.

Along the way, Jones racked up the individual awards. Baseball America named him Coach of the Year in 2005. He was selected Conference USA Coach of the Decade in 2005 after being picked as the league’s Coach of the Year three times in its first 10 seasons. He also was a five-time Louisiana Coach of the Year.

Seven times in his tenure, Tulane boasted the Conference USA Player of the Year: Chad Sutter (1999), Jake Gautreau (2000, 2001), James Jurries (2002), Michael Aubrey (2003), Micah Owings (2005) and Mark Hamilton (2006). The Wave had three C-USA Pitchers of the Year — Jason Navarro (1997), Josh Bobbitt (1998) and Shooter Hunt (2008) — and six players named Freshman of the Year.

Five Tulane players went in the first round of the MLB draft under Jones: Jason Fitzgerald (1997), Gautreau (2001), Aubrey (2003), Brian Bogusevic (2005) and Hunt (2008).

Before Jones arrived, Tulane thrived under coach Joe Brockhoff, who was 641-350-2 in 19 seasons and had a winning percentage of .647, barely lower than Jones’ .649.

The difference was postseason success. Brockhoff’s teams reached seven regionals but won more than one game in them only one time and never made the College World Series.

Tulane’s super regional win over Rice was Jones’ pinnacle. The Owls joined Conference USA the following season and have dominated it ever since, winning eight of nine regular-season titles while beating the Wave 21 of 24 times. Tulane plummeted below .500 in league play during that span, failing to make a regional for the last six years.

Crowds have dwindled at renovated Turchin Stadium, which reopened in 2008 for the first time since Hurricane Katrina flooded the campus and forced Tulane to play at Zephyr Field for two seasons. The Green Wave flirted with Jones’ first losing record in 2013 before winning its last two games to finish 30-28.

After a 6-0 start this season, Tulane dropped to 10-10 by the time Jones had to leave. He thought he would return, but his stress-related health problems forced him to sit out the rest of the way as the Wave went 23-29 and failed to qualify for the Conference USA tournament for the second time in five years.

Ranked 293rd of 296 Division I teams in batting average, Tulane was light years away from the 56-13 and 56-12 records it produced in Jones’ College World Series years.

The combination of Katrina and NCAA rules changes for transfers and minimum scholarship money prevented him from living up to his own legacy in his final six seasons.

For those reasons and his unprecedented success through 2005, he will be an incredibly hard act to follow.

Advocate sports correspondent Scott Kushner contributed to this story.