Wiedmer: A homegrown hero no more, Chris Jones quits on South Pittsburg

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / South Pittsburg head football coach Chris Jones instructs players during practice on Wednesday, May 12, 2021 in South Pittsburg, Tenn.

SOUTH PITTSBURG - It was 8:20 Central Time on Monday morning when Bryan Robinson received the text from his son Taja during Bryan's shift at the Lodge Manufacturing factory.

"Chris is leaving," it read.

Bryan texted back: "Chris who?"

Replied Taja, a junior running back and linebacker on the South Pittsburg High School football team: "Coach Jones. He got an offer he couldn't refuse, so he's leaving."

Understand that this is the same Chris Jones who grew up in South Pittsburg, played for the Pirates, and not six months ago called this his "dream job," adding, "In my mind I have spent 30 years preparing for this opportunity."

He also said that April 3rd day: "I was raised right here right next to the school. Having the opportunity to go full circle and come back home, football's been good to me, and giving back to the kids that are here, it's going to be a lot of fun. People get up in the morning, and the first thing they talk about is South Pittsburg football, and that's what you want to be a part of."

Lastly, he added, "This is a special place. The community supports the team like nowhere else, and I know how important it is to maintain the consistency they're used to."

Apparently not as important as heading back north to the Canadian Football League, where he'll reportedly draw a six-figure salary comfortably north of $250,000 to keep him and his family warm in the frozen north.

It is a lot of money. And his resume from the 25 years he's spent coaching in college, the CFL and the NFL shouts of someone who probably deserves to be paid such a salary as opposed to the far smaller amount he would earn at South Pitt to coach, mow the football field and wash uniforms after Friday night games.

Still, the school didn't come after Jones. The 1985 South Pitt grad applied for the job. He all but begged for the job.

"It kind of hurt me a little," said senior center Michael Lewis, whose father Scott was once a Pirate teammate of Jones. "I wish he'd given us more of a reason why he was leaving. But it is what it is. I think we'll be all right."

Said assistant Wes Stone, who'll now be a co-head coach with athletic director Heath Grider for the remainder of the season: "One way or another, Whitwell is coming to play us in four days. No one's going to feel sorry for us. We have to be ready."

To help make them ready, or at least show how much this proud community of 3,051 cares about them, more than 30 cars filled with families, friends and fans rimmed the Pirates practice field on Monday to show support.

And at least a few folks, including Grider, are somewhat understanding.

Said one school employee who wished to remain nameless: "If the money's what I'm hearing it is, it would be hard for anyone to turn it down."

Added Grider, whose brother Vic retired last season after taking the Pirates to the state title game, "You always have to do what's best for your family. We'll survive, but I do wish it hadn't happened in the middle of the season."

Bryan Robinson somewhat echoed Grider, but with a bit more frustration.

"The man's got to do what's best for the man," Robinson said as he watched his younger son Bryson's middle school practice. "But in my heart, I think he should have stuck it out. He's lost a lot of respect in South Pittsburg. He's burned a lot of bridges."

Want a harsher take? One Pirates fan posted on Facebook: "Don't ever call yourself a Pirate again. You did what no commanding officer can do. You abandoned ship on your crew members."

Some would rightly argue that this happens all the time in college ball. Just ask any Tennessee Vol who signed on to play for Lane Kiffin. At that level, coaches are there until they aren't. But even then, Kiffin left in January instead of September or October.

You could say Tyrus Ward pulled a similar stunt at Tyner when he left after roughly a month on the job for an assistant's gig at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. But Ward exited in the winter, more than five months before the Rams' season would begin.

In reality, this gross lack of loyalty and character is unlikely to haunt Jones beyond the city limits of his hometown. He'll soothe his guilt with the argument that he was merely strengthening his children's college fund and his retirement nest egg. Maybe he can now build a new dream house for his wife or purcahse a dream car for himself.

And the Pirates will no doubt move past this, hopefully sooner than later. What do the parents who opt for divorce always say these days? Kids are RESILIENT. They'll get over it. It's as if society's decided the quicker one learns to be resilient the better, whatever the reason they were forced to learn it.

But loyalty and trust were also once viewed as something to strive for and embrace in our society far beyond quaint communities such as South Pittsburg. Loyalty to family. Loyalty to friends. Loyalty to country. Trust from others that you would honor your word and finish the task you were hired to complete, because as my father preached to me time and again: You're only as good as your word.

As Jones began to coach his 54-man squad this summer, he often used the following six words to strengthen his players in moments of adversity: "Keep punchin' no matter what happens."

Or, apparently, until a better offer comes along.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.