The first time I met Zeke Jones was in 2008 soon after Arizona State announced it was cutting the wrestling program.
The university he represented and help win the 1988 national championship was dropping the program 20 years later when Jones was in town as coach for the U.S. Olympic freestyle team.
It was a somber, hard to fathom time.
Ten years later, he sat on dais Wednesday among the top programs in the nation for a press conference in advance of the NCAA national championship in Cleveland.
He was proudly wearing Sun Devil colors as Arizona State is getting close to being a national contender again.
Quite the juxtaposition.
“Our sport is about struggle,” he said. “And I think that on that day we felt that struggle. The lowest of the lows. And to now we’re at the point where we’re sitting at the table with the greatest programs in the nation, which is more of the highs, right?
“We tell our guys: Be careful; don’t get too low with the lows or too high with the highs. Stay steady. I think that’s what happened with Arizona State. It stayed steady. Art Martori came along and three days later the program was reinstated. It was 72 hours, in essence. But after that, it was a long progression to this place.”
The progression has the Sun Devils ranked inside the top 10 in the nation behind a No. 1 seed in the Zahid Valencia at 174. They have a handful of All-American candidates and the program is as healthy of a program it has ever been other than possibly in the late 1980s.
Arizona State is probably a year or two away from being considered a top contender, but a great weekend could push the Sun Devils into the top five.
“I don’t know that we’re in the team race necessarily,” Jones said. “It’s going to take an extraordinary effort to be great here. Extraordinary like hearing about people who have lifted cars off of people that are dying in the street. It is going to take that type of extraordinary effort this weekend to compete.”
– Jason P. Skoda is a senior writer for MyNewsMesa.com. Send Mesa-based story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.