Wilbert Ellis, then an assistant baseball coach at Grambling, used to welcome the most uncommon of sights.
The school president would leave his office, like clockwork, just before 3 p.m. and change into his cleats, his ballcap and his uniform.
Then Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones would coach the baseball team.
“He had a great energy,” said Ellis, who was an assistant to Jones for 17 seasons before serving another 25 years as his successor. “We would practice until 6. This was before NCAA regulations. Back then, we just practiced until we were ready.”
Jones’ teams rumbled through conference play, winning seven titles between 1958-67. He earned induction into the NAIA Hall of Fame after leading the Tigers to the national NAIA baseball tournament in 1961, ’63, ’64 and ’67 — earning runner-up honors in 1963 and ’64 and national coach of the year honors in 1967. In all, Jones (called “Prez” by teachers and students alike) coached 11 All-Americans, even while he helped establish the Grambling brand as school president.
Perhaps most famously, he hired a youngster named Eddie Robinson to coach the football team in 1941. Coach Rob would go on to set a still-standing Division I record for career wins, with 408, in a remarkable career that lasted until 1997.
“Boy, oh, boy, he was some kind of guy,” the late Robinson once said. “There were many times I thought that if he hadn’t come along to hire me, that I might have gotten caught on the streets in Baton Rouge. I thank God that Dr. Jones just grabbed me and took me. … President Jones was my teacher, even when I did not realize it.”
“Prez” took over as president at Grambling in 1936 when the school was a segregated teachers institution. By the time he retired in 1977, he had added four colleges to elevate the school to university status. Jones also composed the school’s alma mater, and was the driving force behind creating the Tiger Marching Band.
“He had a unique style in serving both as president and as a coach,” Ellis told TheDerisoReport.com. “He cared about people. No matter what the color the skin, he just wanted to reach out and help people. That’s what he came to Grambling to do. He wanted to build an institution that would reach out, not only to the various area communities, but to the nation.”
A former Negro Leagues player, Jones knew the value of work — and was used to making do with little.
“I shall never forget,” Ellis said. “It rained all night and rained all day then stopped about 12 o’clock on a day when we were to play Southern. They had packed up, but ‘Prez’ would have none of that. He had dirt moved in, and we played. Bob Lee was coaching Southern at that time, and he couldn’t believe it. For so long after that, he’d say: ‘Don’t go to Grambling and expect not to play.’ ‘Prez’ was able to get the most out of you.”
That never-quit attitude helped spread the word about this emerging historically black college and its consistently successful athletic programs.
Jones and then Ellis mentored dozens of players who signed major league contracts, notably fellow Grambling Legends inaugural Hall of Fame inductee Ralph “Gator” Garr — the National League’s best hitter in 1974.
“Those men turned out to be great men. Some played ball but others went into other professions. They’ve done extremely well,” said Ellis, a 1959 graduate of Grambling who earned the nickname “The Dean” after winning 715 games in his own right, while advancing to three NCAA Tournaments and winning three SWAC titles.
“He had a way of talking that made you feel like you were the best,” Ellis said of Jones. “He made a believer out of you — just by saying: ‘You can do it.’ If you listened to him, you just knew you would make it to the top, whatever your profession.”
But while Jones worked tirelessly, often getting up before the sun for his workdays, Ellis is quick to note that he was dedicated to his loved ones.
“He was a family man,” said Ellis. “He believed in the family unit. One thing about ‘Prez,’ he maintained the character that he wanted you to exemplify. He earned respect.”
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For more on the Grambling Legends’ Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, to be held July 18 at the Civic Center in Monroe, visit http://www.gramlingsportshof.com.