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This is a 2019 photo of Chris Jones of the Cleveland Browns NFL football team. This image reflects the Cleveland Browns active roster as of Monday, April 22, 2019 when this image was taken. (AP Photo)

SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. — The question he gets asked most often — and the obvious one for anyone who doesn't know him — has also been the easiest to answer for Chris Jones.

After an accomplished career in which 25 of his 29 years as a football coach have been spent at the professional or collegiate level, Jones has returned home, where on Saturday he was named the new head coach at his alma mater, South Pittsburg High School.

Even before the job was officially his, Jones was peppered repeatedly with the same question, "Why leave the highest level of the game to coach high school football?"

"I've spent all the time I want to away from home," Jones said. "I want to be back closer to my family. I have a daughter in college and another playing high school volleyball, and this allows me to be closer to them. Football-wise, it might sound odd to people who aren't from South Pittsburg, but this is my dream job. It's where I've always wanted to coach.

"I told the committee when I interviewed for the job that the 45 minutes they were giving the candidates wasn't enough time for me to explain how much I love my school and my community. I grew up in this town, in the midway projects and never forgot where I came from and how much my roots meant to me.

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Ottawa Redblacks head coach Rick Campbell, left, shakes hands with Edmonton Eskimos head coach Chris Jones in Winnipeg, Manitoba on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015. The CFL Redblacks and Eskimos will play in the 103rd Grey Cup on Sunday. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP)

"The game was my way out, and I've always tried to use it to help others make a better way for themselves too. All I want to do is help kids, help my school win games, and I can't wait to get started."

A former all-district tailback and 1985 South Pittsburg graduate, Jones began his coaching career as a volunteer assistant at his alma mater before joining the staff at North Jackson (Ala.) High, where he helped that program claim a Class 4A state championship in 1993.

In a decision that wound up elevating his career, following the 1994 season at North Jackson, Jones drove to Tennessee Tech University and sat outside Golden Eagles then-coach Jim Ragland's office for more than eight hours before being granted a meeting that led to a job on the staff.

That diligence paid off and became the trademark of his coaching career.

After college stints at Tennessee Tech, Alabama and UT-Martin, Jones began a 17-year career coaching in the Canadian Football League, where he helped four different franchises claim Grey Cup championships and appeared in seven total championship games.

He was the defensive coordinator for three CFL Grey Cup champions, then led the Edmonton Eskimos to another Grey Cup as head coach and defensive coordinator in 2015. He finished his CFL career as head coach, defensive coordinator, vice president and general manager of the Saskatchewan Roughriders and was named the 2018 CFL Coach of the Year.

He spent the past two years as a defensive assistant on the Cleveland Browns staff.

Evidence of the impressive list of contacts Jones has made through his career, two of the three references on his resume are NFL Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells — a two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach — as well as Bruce Arians, a two-time NFL Coach of the Year who led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to last season's Super Bowl title.

"We had some really impressive resumes submitted, but one of them stood out above the others obviously," said South Pittsburg principal Tim Bible. "How can I, in my right mind, turn down someone who has deep ties to our community and has not only coached at the professional level but has been a general manager and ran professional franchises? That's pretty unique.

"Chris is also someone who, because of his ties to the community, we felt confident would stay here for the long term, and that's very important."

Jones steps into a program that was placed on two years probation by the TSSAA in March after it was reported that the school's Quarterback Club had paid the rent for a player's family in December. Although the probationary period does not affect the team's ability to qualify for the playoffs, the Pirates will not be allowed to scrimmage or participate in 7-on-7 competitions this year. The team also had the number of spring practices reduced from 12 within a 15-day period to five within a 10-day period and had its fall scrimmages cut from four to two.

Jones takes over for Vic Grider, a fellow 1985 SPHS graduate and former Pirates teammate who stepped down on March 1 after compiling a 232-54 overall record that included six Class 1A state championship game appearances — including last season — and three titles.

Jones becomes just the sixth head coach for the Pirates in the past 61 years, and that consistency at the top has helped them maintain their status as one of the state's premier small-school programs. South Pittsburg has reached at least the semifinals in 15 of the past 30 years and won 714 games all-time.

"This is a special place," said Jones, who played in college at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "The community supports the team like nowhere else, and I know how important it is to maintain the consistency they're used to.

"We're going to work to make sure all of our players reach their potential in the classroom and on the field, and I'm looking forward to getting to know all of them. The process took longer than I hoped it would, so we're behind where we need to be, but we're going to get to work and be ready when the season starts."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis

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