By: Aliocha Perriard-Abdoh
SFU wrestling team head coach Mike Jones has retired after 41 years of coaching at the university. Since coming to SFU in 1976, he has become a legendary figure in the sport of wrestling.
Jones has coached male and female Olympic champions from both Canada and the United States. One of his students, Daniel Igali, became Canada’s first wrestling gold medalist in 2000 and Carol Huynh won gold in the 2008 Olympics, the first female gold medal for Canada in the sport of wrestling.
He also coached USA’s Helen Maroulis who earned the first Olympic gold medal for the US women’s wrestling team in 2016. Inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame in 2011, Jones is described on the organization’s website as “Canada’s greatest wrestling coach of all-time.”
— Simon Fraser Univ. (@SFU) May 17, 2017
The wrestling great announced his plans to retire earlier this year, following the national championships.
When Jones first came to SFU from Lebanon, Oregon he was only 25 years old. He did not believe at the time that he would be staying for long. In fact, he joked to his wife Donna not to unpack their bags because they probably were not going to stay.
Like many coaches “especially coming out of the [National Collegiate Athletic Association] division in the United States, I kinda thought that I would be moving back that way after a few years [of] experience,” he said.
What convinced him to stay? “I think it was probably the freedom,” Jones said. “[SFU] wanted a good program on the university level, the national level, and eventually the international level so it was pretty much an empty canvas. You could kinda develop the program the way that you thought was necessary and was needed and that had become very enjoyable.”
He credits his success to his philosophy to get “the best people around you that you possibly can, and that means the athletes, but that also means coaches and [he] was blessed to have some outstanding people step up to assist and help coach.”
“The thing that I think I’m most proud of is [. . .] that there was good talent and good athletes everywhere, and if you develop a good system that would allow [the athletes] to go from A to Z, then you could have success at whatever level that talent should reach,” Jones noted.
According to Jones, the biggest feat he achieved was successfully challenging the culture and the mindset of athletes who did not believe that they were able to compete, and win, on an international level. He said that when he first started, the mindset among the athletes was that “[they] were pretty happy just to go.”
Jones said he was sure that this shift in confidence would be realized in the wrestling team. When “one of [the team’s] biggest benefactors, and probably the father of wrestling in BC, a guy by the name of Paul Nemeth kept asking me if Canada would ever have a world champion, I kept saying ‘before the millennium,’” he said.
His prediction came true. Canada had, at that point, a couple silvers and bronzes, but when the year 1999 came along, it was the last shot at gold. SFU’s own Daniel Igali pulled through with a gold medal at the world championship that year, just the sort of breakthrough that Canada needed. He continued on to capture Canada’s first wrestling gold medal at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
“What’s interesting about that is that the very next chance that we had at the world championships, Canada had their second one. So, it’s kinda like once you break that barrier, then it can be done,” Jones reflected.
In 2004, the women had their first chance to compete when women’s wrestling became an Olympic event. Jones said that the main difference with coaching women was that “we kinda started at the beginning [of the sport], so it was a completely different world than on the guys side. [Coaching these women] was fun, and different, and very enjoyable.”
According to current varsity team member Payten Smith, “Mike Jones will always be known for his workouts, his life lessons, and his crude comments.”
Aliocha Perriard-Abdoh is a former wrestling student of Mike Jones.