Keith Jones is the University’s longest-tenured coach, as well as one of the most successful.
Given all the signs in his back story, it’s surprising that it took Keith Jones so long to arrive at Wilmington University.
To start with, says the school’s longtime cross country coach, “I’m about as local as you can get.”
True. He grew up in New Castle — Penn Acres, to be exact — and his mother still lives just a couple of streets south of the WilmU campus. “Sometimes I invite recruits to her house for dinner,” Jones says. “We get a big laugh out of it.”
What’s more, long before Keith was born, his late father, Ken, was a bellhop in the early-1960s at the Tour Inn Motor Court on DuPont Highway — which would become the original location of Wilmington College in 1968.
Jones’ pre-WilmU résumé also includes stints as track and cross country coach at several Delaware high schools, including Ursuline Academy, where he coached indoor track along with Stefanie Scalessa — the future Dr. Stefanie Whitby, WilmU’s current director of Athletics.
But it wasn’t until 1996 that Jones himself arrived on campus — as an adjunct instructor. A 1985 graduate of St. Mark’s High School, where he was a four-year letterman in outdoor track and cross country, he held a bachelor’s in Psychology and a master’s in Physical Education with a concentration in Sport Psychology from the University of Delaware.
It was his belief in the role of psychology in athletics that brought him to WilmU. In 1995, he designed a course on the subject and pitched it to the University’s administration. It was approved, and Jones taught the course every spring for 25 years. Among his first students were Associate Athletic Director Erin Harvey and Vice President of Student Affairs and Alumni Relations Dr. Tina Barksdale (then Tina Scott).
A few years later, the hyper-energetic Jones — who was competing in road races in Wilmington and Philadelphia — took a look at WilmU’s sports programs and noticed that cross country was not among them. So he suggested that the University sponsor a team.
Jones reasoned that cross country is a relatively inexpensive sport, and the school’s booming enrollment might include some promising runners. Plus, he wanted to coach the team. “I took a shot,” he says.
In May of 2001, the Athletic Department added a cross country program, to begin that fall. “So I only had that summer to recruit a team,” Jones says. When describing that period, he sometimes resorts to humorous hyperbole: “I would go around campus and if people were walking without a limp I’d tap them on shoulder and say, ‘Hey, would you like to run?’”
“I got five guys and two girls that first year,” he says. “Two of the guys were ex-Salesianum football players who had no intention of running. But we got through that first season.”
Twenty-two years later and counting, he is the University’s longest-tenured coach, as well as one of the most successful. His men’s teams won the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference (CACC) championship in 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019, and he was named CACC Men’s Coach of the Year in 2012, 2013, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019, and Women’s Coach of the Year in 2009.
His athletes have also excelled individually. WilmU has turned out 80 All-Conference runners (50 men, 30 women), nine CACC Rookies of the Year, eight Conference runners-up, seven Conference Champions, 14 All-Regional runners, and three National qualifiers.
His teams have included student-athletes from as far away as Georgia, Arizona, and Texas, but his usual recruiting area is Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.
While the Wildcats’ winning record helps attract runners, Jones also assures prospects that “they will have time to train, time for academics, and time for themselves.”
Distance running, Jones points out, is not for the weak. “Cross country takes discipline, and they become experts at dealing with pain. I think it leads to doing well in the classroom.”
He and his assistant, Megan Buranen, take a personal interest in each team member. “We’re very involved with them,” he says. “We reach out to them all the time, checking in often and being encouraging and letting them know we’re here to help.”
“We reach out to [the athletes] all the time, checking in often and being encouraging and letting them know we’re here to help.” — Keith Jones
Both Jones and Buranen regularly join the women’s team on their weekday afternoon and weekend morning training runs. “Running with them, they can see how fired up you are and how passionate you are for the sport,” Jones says. “And in this sport, that’s the key. If you’re not hungry for it, it can quickly fade.”
“We talk about everything,” says Alexa Crowell, last year’s CACC women’s 5K champion. “Classes, what running shoes to get, life.”
Now studying for her MBA, Crowell finished her eligibility last year. “I’ve loved every minute of being on the team,” she says. “I’m very sad that it’s all over. The coaches have supported me academically and in my sport. I absolutely love Coach Jones. He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever had. He’s more than willing to listen to any concern you may have. He supports you, and he challenges you.”
Of all his teams, there’s one that Jones is most proud of. “In 2013, we had a men’s squad that was phenomenal,” he says. “We swept the entire conference that year. The team finished one, two, three, four, five, and got a perfect score of 15. That was never done before or since. We went to the Regionals in Boston, with 30-plus teams. We finished third, qualifying for the National Championships — the only time in the history of the conference that any team has taken a full squad to Nationals.”
Reflecting on his more than two decades at WilmU, Jones is most impressed with the school’s tremendous growth, both in academics and athletics.
“Enrollment has exploded,” he says. “The faculty, especially on the adjunct side, has increased a ton. The Pratt Student Center used to be our gym; now we have a beautiful athletic complex on Route 40 in Bear, and we have a turf field there.
The coaches have supported me academically and in my sport. I absolutely love Coach Jones.” — Alexa Crowell
“And our sports teams have really taken off. The number of teams has probably doubled. Talent-wise, it’s amazing how well we do.”
He points out that for the 13th time in the last 14 seasons, WilmU won the CACC’s Alfred R. Restaino Sr. Cup for overall excellence in male sports. The Restaino Cup is awarded annually to a conference member for men’s sports and for women’s sports. The Wildcat men first captured the trophy in the 2009–10 academic year and never relinquished it, winning it 11 straight years before Concordia captured it in 2020–21 — only because WilmU athletics were suspended that season due to the pandemic.
Jones, who has taught Phys Ed and Health at Mt. Pleasant High School since 2004, lives in Newark with his wife, Michelle. He says he has no plans to retire from either teaching or coaching in the near future.
“We’re poised to do really well this year,” he says. Then, using one of his favorite terms, he adds, “I’m still fired up. And I want to get back to the Nationals.”
— Bob Yearick