Adrian Jones showed up first, decked out in a Shaw University polo and black pants. He informed the crowd that Trei Oliver would be there shortly.
Jones, a Durham native, arrived from N.C. Central, where Oliver, the Eagles’ new football coach, just wrapped up a camp. Jones, who played at NCCU, was an instructor at the camp, but got out early to prepare for the event.
Seven coaches from Historically Black Colleges and Universities from North Carolina had gathered at Zweli’s Kitchen in Durham for the fourth annual BOXTOROW Countdown to Kickoff event on Saturday.
About 30 minutes later, Oliver arrived, wearing typical coaching gear of a gray NCCU shirt and khakis. He shook hands with all the coaches before settling in at the head of the table, taking time out to hug Jones’ wife, who was sitting nearby. Oliver and Jones met twenty-five years ago, when they both came to Durham to play in the Eagles’ secondary, where they teamed up from 1994-97.
Now they are both back in the Triangle as head coaches. Jones has been at Shaw since 2016, after serving as an assistant at NCCU. Oliver’s coaching career includes stops as an assistant at Delaware State, North Carolina A&T, Grambling State and Southern. He was also an assistant at NCCU in the early 2000s and returned there as the head coach in December.
After being almost inseparable for four years in college, then coaching in different parts of the country, the close friends are back in the Triangle together, 25 miles apart.
When Jones and Oliver played together they saw qualities in each other that led them to believe the other would one day be a great coach. But neither was thinking about coaching back then.
“Never,” Oliver told The News & Observer when asked if the duo ever talked about being coaches. “Back then we all thought we were going to the NFL. We were trying to graduate and get to the next level. Unfortunately for me I got injured my senior year, but A.J. had a chance to play several years of arena league football.”
In fact, Jones and Oliver were so sure they were headed to the NFL that they had already started scoping out their first big purchases. Jones told a story about the two of them in Hampton, Va. one weekend after the season ended. Jones went to visit Oliver, who is from Yorktown, Va., and the duo went to a local Mercedes dealership to pick out their future rides.
“We went to a dealership right by my parents’ house,” Oliver recalled. “We were trying to figure out which color we wanted.”
When they played together, NFL dreams weren’t that unrealistic. Jones and Oliver were part of one of the best secondaries in Eagles’ history. In 1996, along with Michael Wall, Buddy Crutchfield, Chris Thompson and Travis Sadler, Jones and Oliver were part of a group that led the nation in pass defense, with an efficiency rating of 62.1.
That same year, Jones led the team in interceptions with eight. Oliver (tied with Crutchfield) led the team in interceptions the following year.
Jones is No. 8 all-time in pass break-ups (31) while Oliver is 12th with 24. They both played under Sam Washington, who was the N.C. Central defensive coordinator at the time, now the head coach at North Carolina A&T.
“Our motto was ‘second to none,’” Washington told the News & Observer via phone on Tuesday. “We finished first in the nation in pass defense for many years with those two guys.”
But even if Jones and Oliver didn’t see it right away, Washington knew he had two future coaches on his hands.
Need to know
Coaches on all levels have an extension of themselves on the field. Offensive coordinators put that trust in their quarterbacks, to know what everyone is supposed to be doing and leading the team.
On the defensive side of the ball that responsibility usually falls to the middle linebacker, who calls the plays and sets everyone up.
Washington, who played four years in the NFL, explained that most players don’t need to know, or even want to know, what’s going on other than their position. Oliver and Jones, however, were different.
“They both had the need to know,” Washington said. “They wanted to know what everyone was doing and why. They had that ‘why factor’ as players.”
Jones, who played cornerback, said Oliver, the safety, made sure everyone was lined up correctly, and if someone wasn’t, Oliver didn’t mind getting on that player. Part of the reason the duo clicked was because they held each other accountable. They roomed together at NCCU and away from the field they talked about two things: football and graduating.
Oliver went into coaching almost immediately after graduation, beginning his career at Delaware State as the defensive backs coach. Jones got into coaching later and was a graduate assistant at NCCU in 2003, the same time Oliver returned to Durham for his first coaching stint at his alma mater.
“A.J. got mad because I used to always get on his butt,” Oliver said with a laugh. “I would tell him what I need done and everything.”
Jones’ first head coaching gig led to a championship. He was the head coach at Southern Durham High School and led the Spartans to the 3AA state championship in 2013. He went back to NCCU as an assistant for a few years, helping lead the Eagles to a pair of co-MEAC titles. Since he’s taken over at Shaw, the Bears have improved in each of his first two seasons, including a 4-3 mark in CIAA play last season.
Throughout their coaching careers, they remained in constant communication, about football, about life, about families.
Washington used to tell his secondary they should be a close group and the best man in your wedding will probably be one of the other four guys you played with. Washington was right. When Jones got married, Oliver was his best man. Jones was also in Oliver’s wedding.
“If it wasn’t for Coach Washington we probably wouldn’t be tight,” Jones said. “But he made sure we did any and everything together.”
Right up the road
Now Jones and Oliver will both be coaching in the Triangle. A game between N.C. Central and Shaw isn’t out of the question, either. Shaw and NCCU last played against each other in 2017.
But being in closer proximity with each other doesn’t guarantee a game, or that they will even talk more. Oliver, the first-time head coach, has reached out to Jones for advice on little things, like scheduling when to lift weights or have breakfast. They’ve crossed paths on the recruiting trail, and at camps. The rare events like the BOXTOROW Kickoff was a chance for them to catch up in a more relaxed setting.
Throughout the entire hiring process Oliver was in constant contact with Jones, and one of the first calls he made after he was hired was to his former teammate.
They’ve always bounced ideas off each other -- drills, strategies, game plans -- from miles away. Now they are a short drive down the road from one another, something that goes beyond football talk.
“It’s great, and that’s one thing about me having the opportunity to come back is I’m around a lot of my friends,” Oliver said. “My family and his family, I’m close with them. It’s good to be back and spend time with your friends.”
Washington has followed Jones’ and Oliver’s careers, and is proud to see the success they’ve had as coaches. He still talks to both of them, even though he admitted he probably won’t hear from Oliver as much about football now that they coach at rival schools. However, he knows that Oliver and Jones being in the same area is a good thing.
“That has to be a very special relationship and special time for the both of them,” Washington said. “When someone is that close to you and you have the opportunity to share their success with each other, that has to be special, it has to be. I’m just proud and grateful that they’ve prepared themselves for this opportunity.”