By JEREMY HINES
Howard Jones is, without a doubt, the face of Jennings County wrestling. Jones has coached the Panthers for over four decades (41 years to be exact). And during those 41 years he’s always had to do things the hard way. That’s all about to change.
Jennings County has started the construction of a one-of-a-kind wrestling facility. Jones believes this might be the only dedicated wrestling venue for a high school in the Midwest, and possibly even the entire country.
The new, five-million-dollar venue will feature seating for over 800 fans. It will have four full-size mats down with the ability to remove some seating and go up to six full size mats. The 24,000 square feet venue will also have two locker rooms and a coaches’ office.
“We expect this to make our wrestlers feel like first-class athletes,” Jennings County Athletic Director Cory Stevens said. “They are going to have a facility that no other wrestlers in the region or in the state will have. We hope this attracts others to use it as well, for camps and things of that nature.”
For Jones, this is a dream come true. His wrestlers have practiced in a balcony overlooking the basketball gymnasium. The school has two balconies on each side of the gym, and the wrestling team was often so large that it had to split the team up and use both sides.
“I was lucky enough to have real good assistant coaches over the years,” Jones said. “I would go on one side and the assistants would go on the other. Sometimes we would divide by weight class. Sometimes we would divide by varsity and junior varsity.”
The wrestlers would also have to move the 800-pound mats that were stored in various places throughout the school down to the gym floor for invitationals or dual meets.
“Needless to say, it was an inconvenience, at the minimum,” Jones said. “We didn’t get the lighter mats until about four years ago. We always had to end practice early if there was a girls or a boys basketball game.”
Jones didn’t much believe that the program was getting its own venue when he was first told about it. He had heard similar talk before. One time the school was going to build a 4.7-million-dollar facility that would house three basketball courts, a weight room, a track and a wrestling room. Ultimately that got voted down by the community.
This time around school superintendent Teresa Brown told Jones that it was going to happen.
“One day she told me ‘Coach Jones, we’re going to get you that wrestling room.’,” Jones said. “I didn’t believe her. That was about three years ago. Then, at the first of the year, she steps into the gym and said to me ‘Don’t you doubt me coach Jones, don’t you doubt me’.”
Jones has had a hand in the design of the facility. He has looked at places like Purdue for inspiration and has tried to emulate what he knows works.
“It’s been a very emotional time for me,” Jones said. “I have thought our kids deserved something better, but maybe not this elaborate, for years. I questioned why it was going to be so good. The principal at the time said ‘Howard, why can’t we have the best for our kids?’ That made sense to me. I think this state-of-the-art facility will be what’s best for our kids.”
For Jones, the principal’s statement got him thinking.
“I’m pretty conservative with things,” Jones said. “When he said that to me, I started thinking differently. I started thinking why not. The school wants to be greedy for the kids and it really shows.”
The wrestling facility isn’t the only thing to get a major upgrade at the school. The baseball and softball fields got a multi-million-dollar upgrade. The weight room doubled in size. The football field got new turf. The tennis courts are getting a facelift. But, the largest change, is the wrestling renovation.
According to Stevens, this might not have ever happened if it weren’t for the influence Jones has had on the students and the community through wrestling.
“They say it has a lot to do with me, but it’s really for the kids,” Jones said. “The kids deserved better and we’re getting there. The educators care for the kids. But since this announcement I’ve had hundreds of people call or contact me about how much wrestling has done for them. That was done without this kind of facility. It’s not that we create champion wrestlers. It’s important that we realize we’re creating champion kids.”
This has been an emotional journey for Jones. Former wrestlers are working on the building of the new facility and even the companies that put in the bids for the construction were ran by some of Jones’ former wrestlers.
“Each of our six elementary schools have former wrestlers of mine that are coaching,” Jones said. “All but one of my assistants were coached by me. The middle school – all but one of the coaches was coached by me. It makes me very proud. One of the things that probably puts things in perspective for me the most is that I had a principal at one of the elementary schools come up to me and said ‘Howard, I’m tired of going to principal meetings and hearing about your wrestling program.’ But wrestling is a fraternity, not just within the school, but it creates a strong bond for life.”
Stevens hopes to see other schools build similar facilities for their programs in the future.
“We hope this inspires other schools to do something similar,” Stevens said. “Everyone is going to benefit from this – not just the high school, but the younger kids as well. Wrestling is a sport that does great things for kids. The more we can inspire other kids, the better. I was not a wrestler, but I see the value the sport offers for kids today.”