NEW BRITAIN — Tebucky Jones thought he had something special back in camp when he passed out cards asking his New Britain football players to fill out what their individual goals were this season.
"Ninety percent of the kids were like, 'Playoffs … win a championship,'" Jones said Thursday night as his team prepared for its Class LL-Large state semifinal in the biting chill of Veterans Stadium. "Usually, you get, 'I want to be All-State. I want to be all-conference.' We didn't get any of those. Right there, I thought we had that team jell."
Jones said he knew he had something special in the ashes of a 7-0 opening loss to Northwest Catholic.
"First game, Northwest Catholic scored quick," Jones said. "Usually after halftime, in the third quarter in previous years, we always fell apart. In the fourth quarter, we'd gain it back. But when we came out after halftime and shut them out the rest of the way, I knew we had something here. This is a big difference from last year. There's no quit here. No quit."
Tebucky Jones quit last Jan. 10. Quit, of course, is a strong and irreversible word. So maybe it's better to say that Jones resigned after he said he heard that he was going to get fired after three years and a 13-17 record as coach of the Golden Hurricanes.
"There are a lot of fake people," Jones said when asked what he learned from a public ordeal in which he eventually was retained as head coach. "I always go back to when you are a kid and you are playing high school, there's all politics going on, and you don't really know about any of it. You're just playing. Then you come back, back to a place where you played and won a state championship, you see it. You feel it.
"At first, I'm like whatever. Resign. It's not such a big deal. But, man, I looked at the kids. That's what bothered me. I saw it in their faces. I'm like, 'I'm not going to resign. I can't resign.' But all that stuff that's already out there, it's deeper than that, way deeper. And a lot of the politics involved in this really has nothing to do with me. But, I'll tell you, in the end I stood my ground."
His players call him Coach Buck. It is both a sign of respect and a connection to the great player he was at New Britain and Syracuse and later as a safety in the NFL. Coach is the 40-year-old man they see now. Buck started for Bill Belichick in the Patriots' first Super Bowl championship in 2002 against the St. Louis Rams, The Greatest Show on Turf. Last January, the players rallied around both personas.
"I felt we came together as a family through it," said Alex Swaby, a force on New Britain's defensive line. "When we heard about it, when they told us he resigned, we brought the team together and said, 'We need to get him back.' We had one option. That was to go back downtown."
The players helped gather 500 signatures in support of Jones. When they attended the board of education meeting on Jan. 13, they were told they were not allowed to speak and would have to return Jan. 27 for the public comment portion. Jones had charged that there was a faction on the board of education, led by Carlos Pina, "slandering" him since his hiring and trying to get rid of him. He told The Courant, "It's like the Garden of Eden and [Pina's] the serpent."
"We didn't like it, we didn't feel he got a good enough chance," said senior Marcus Torres. "He's a good coach. We had a bad season. We did our hardest to fight to keep him."
It was ugly. It was political. And, it mercifully ended when a two-hour meeting with New Britain Superintendent Kelt Cooper and athletic director Len Corto resulted with Jones returning as coach.
"We both want to win. We talked about that, me being a role model for the players, players doing well now and in the future and promoting community involvement," Jones said after that meeting. "When I played here, the entire New Britain community was involved and the stands were filled. That's what we want again."
Maybe I'm looking for romance where this is little. Maybe it is naïve to believe that backroom shenanigans and reactive emotions of adults have much to do with success on a high school playing field. But, man, you put 500 signatures together in support of a guy, when a team bonds together, a community bonds together, something good can happen.
The good is an 8-3 season that pushed New Britain to a No. 3 seed in the Class LL-Large playoffs. And as Jones sat in the stands at Fordham last Saturday, watching son Tebucky Jr. make two touchdown catches in an FCS playoff victory against Sacred Heart, the good was that he could anxiously make phone calls, trying to find out where — Newtown? Norwich Free Academy? — exactly where and when his school would make its first state playoff appearance since Jack Cochran won back-to-back state titles in 2003 and 2004 with Mike McLeod.
"There is definitely a sense of satisfaction in this," Swaby said. "He is the one who pushed us to this extent. He sat us down and told us we can do it, over and over again. I feel they looked down on him and now he is showing us a different side.
"It wasn't Coach Buck, to be honest. We needed a new offensive coordinator. That's what we got. You look at a former [New Britain] player like him, seeing how he progressed to become an NFL player, he's everybody's inspiration."
This is the first state playoff game between NFA and New Britain, but both programs go back more than a century. These are leather helmet programs, folks, they go back to when the football was much rounder. Jones inherited a 1-9 team in 2011 and that couldn't stand in Hard Hittin' New Britain. Not with a program with such a rich heritage that it can count itself among the top 30 winning schools in our high school history.
"History! History!" Jones said. "A lot of our kids don't know that stuff. We get the clippings, let them see, let them understand football is important here, it goes back to the 1800s. I'm the old guy to them. We had a guy here the other day that played, he's in his 80s, they still come."
Is that a great weight on you?
"No, man, I won a state championship [in 1992, running over Greenwich]," Jones said, laughing. "I did my part. Now I've got to do it as a coach."
Jones' only regret this week is that Fordham will be playing in the FCS playoffs at New Hampshire at the same time as he's coaching.
"I wish they had a night game, I'd shoot right up to Durham," Jones said.
There is a certain intensity to Jones, an immediacy of emotion, only for him to let go, shrug his shoulders and say matters are behind him.
When Jones was a substitute teacher last year, he was popular. The students, the teachers, the front office, they enjoyed him.
"They'd be like, 'When you coming back?' They'd tell me in all the years, I was the best sub. I relate to those kids. It's a great feeling to be here, 10 years no playoffs. I'm here, focused, we're here with the kids. All that stuff with the board, whatever, it's their problem. I want these kids to have fun playing football, go to college and be productive men in society.
"It's like this. You're playing in the defensive secondary. You get beat for a pass. It's gone. I played for Belichick. He coached technique at all times. If you think about getting burned, you're done for the rest of the game. That's how I took that situation.
"I came back. That other stuff? It's gone."
When you think about it, if an NFL defensive back can't put something behind him and move on, who can?