Jan. 28, 2015

Note: This is the first in a series of five features profiling the assistant coaches of the University of Notre Dame track & field program.

NOTRE DAME, Ind. — One bold step is one huge gain for the Fighting Irish.

Pristina Jones stepped down from her head coaching position at Jackson State University, a place where she oversaw a program (cross country, indoor track and outdoor track) that achieved a perfect score of 1000 in the Academic Performance Rate for three straight seasons (2011-12, 2012-13, 2013-14), to become the newest track and field assistant coach at the University of Notre Dame.

“I just applied, and after I did, [Irish head coach Alan Turner] called me and said, `Pristina, are you sure you want to leave being a head coach to come be an assistant coach?’ and I was thinking, `Yeah!’

“Sometimes when you have these opportunities, it’s not about the title that you have, it’s about what you’re able to do,” Jones said. “I’m able to still do what I had done in my previous coaching position here, just not the title. It’s a refreshing position.”

Jones will be focusing on sprints and jumps at Notre Dame, events in which she herself was a standout athlete.

She was an 11-time All-American at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, and a three-time NCAA Division-III National Champion. As a senior in 1999, she claimed the indoor and outdoor long jump titles, as well as a title in the 4×400-meter indoor relay. Jones holds school records in outdoor long jump, the outdoor 4×100-meter relay and the 4×400-meter indoor relay. Jones earned seven College Conferences of Illinois & Wisconsin championships, including three straight CCIW long jump titles from 1997-99.

In 2000, she joined the Indiana Invaders, an Amateur Elite Track & Field Club, where she spent five years competing, as well as mentoring high school and college-aged student-athletes. That’s when her coaching path began to be paved.

“It started to become a gratifying thing when athletes say this is what I want to do and you help them with a couple of things and after they compete, they are calling you ecstatic telling you their improvements,” Jones said. “Helping others is something that I love to do, especially when it’s helping someone achieve their goals.”

Jones said she would joke saying that one day she’ll go into coaching, but never really meant it. One day at a meet at her own alma mater, some of the coaches overheard her and took things into their own hands.

Jones started receiving emails about coaching, but she didn’t take them seriously. That is until she got one from a conference rival coach, Steve Ray.

“He sent me this email saying, `Pristina, since you were a freshman in college, you’ve been kicking my team’s butt. Now I’ve seen you go through college and post-college and you’re still kicking our butt. It’s time for us to be on the same team. I’ve taken a position at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Alabama, and I need you to come down here and be a coach with me.’

“My first thought was, `Coach, I’m not going to Alabama, I’m a city girl. I can’t do it.’ But I prayed about it and decided to go on a visit.”

But everything went wrong, and she never made it to the school. Thinking that was her sign, she went home. Coach Ray, though, stayed adamant for a week.

“I took position, took a cut in pay, and I can honestly tell you that was the best decision of my life. I don’t regret it one day,” Jones said.

Jones spent one year at Jacksonville State before moving on to guide the Chicago State University’s women’s program and coach the men’s jumpers. After three years, Jones spent nearly two years as an assistant coach with the girls’ track and field team at Warren Central High School in Indianapolis while working toward her master’s degree in Applied Management from Indiana Wesleyan University. She is currently working toward a second master’s in Organizational Leadership from Indiana Wesleyan.

At Jackson State, the Tigers saw their cumulative GPA climb each year under Jones, rising from 2.778 in 2011 to 3.25 after the fall 2013 semester. She oversaw a third-place finish in the Southwestern Athletic Conference for the cross country team in 2013, while coaching two-time SWAC discus champion Sharonda Bryant and sprinter Raina Sanders, who claimed SWAC outdoor titles in the 200 and 400 meters.

Now at Notre Dame, she ultimately wants to coach short sprinters and jumpers to become conference champions and compete through the NCAA Championships. She also hopes to help with recruiting, filling holes where the Fighting Irish are lacking on both men’s and women’s sides.

“Me being the person I am, I’m so determined,” Jones said. “I never want to be a non-factor. I’m such a team player but I always want to make sure I am a factor in the program some way, whether it’s recruiting or progressing a student-athlete to the next level.”

Jones is excited about growing personally and professionally during her time with the Fighting Irish.

“So far, it’s been extremely awesome,” Jones said about being at Notre Dame. “It’s a great opportunity to be part of a great program and a great institution. It’s been known to create history and have legacy, and I think what Coach Turner and the new staff is trying to do is create more history.”

Student-athletes like that Jones is a transformational leader. She has a way with communicating with student-athletes for their best understanding, meaning she never changes her message, but changes her delivery. She also focuses on the technical part of the sport.

“If my student-athlete has the technical parts in my events and has the strength, they can pretty much make it through,” she said. “The rest comes naturally.”

Anyone that talks to Jones can see how much she cares for her student-athletes and wants to see them excel both on the track and in the classroom.

“If it’s not seeing a student-athlete achieve the next level or achieve a PR when they thought they couldn’t, it would be seeing them walk across the stage and graduate,” Jones said when asked what her greatest accomplishment as a coach has been. “Or seeing that first generation student- athlete make it when they thought they couldn’t make it. That’s the most gratifying thing.”

And for the Fighting Irish, she has high hopes.

“I don’t hope, I know that we will definitely one day be a conference championship team and have a lot of student-athletes at the national level competing for a national championship one day.”

By Staci Gasser