There are big Vandy fans, and then there is Don Jones.
Jones, who recently retired after 41 years working for the Vanderbilt Library, has traveled to all but one of the Commodores’ 10 bowl games. And that one blemish was only because he didn’t have much say in the matter, being just three years old when Vandy played in the 1955 Gator Bowl.
He’s followed Vandy basketball since the mid-60s, when Clyde Lee’s Commodores advanced to the Elite Eight. He’s been to Hawaii five times in his life, each time to cheer on Vanderbilt in a basketball tournament.
And he’s followed Vanderbilt baseball ever since Larry Schmittou became coach in 1968; Schmittou, after all, had taught Jones’ 10th grade health education class in nearby Goodlettsville, and had briefly been his Sunday school teacher.
It would be hard to find a more devoted Commodore fan than Jones, a season-ticket holder in men’s and women’s basketball, football, and baseball and a frequent traveler to Vandy road games.
All of which played a part in Vanderbilt athletics director Malcolm Turner surprising Jones last week, informing him that the Commodores were providing airfare, hotel and game tickets for Jones to attend the College World Series as a guest of Vanderbilt Athletics beginning on Thursday.
Turner said it is a fitting tribute to a man who embodies a vitally important element of the Vanderbilt family, the loyal fans who give their most valuable assets, their time and their unwavering devotion, to the program.
“Omaha is a special place not only for our baseball program, but also its loyal fans. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Vanderbilt fan more loyal than Don Jones,” Turner said. “For decades, Don has traveled across the college baseball footprint to support the Commodores, and we could not imagine being in Omaha for the College World Series without Don by our side. We were delighted to gift him an NCAA Super Regional title on June 11, when he celebrated his 67th birthday. Like so many of our Vanderbilt Athletics supporters, we sincerely appreciate Don’s unending passion for our Commodore student-athletes.”
Jones, who made it his goal in retirement to attend more Vanderbilt road games in all sports, said the invitation to Omaha came as a complete surprise.
“What an honor,” he said. “I was shocked when I got the email to contact the athletic department. At first I thought something must be wrong.”
Jones’ knowledge of Vandy sports history is encyclopedic. He remembers buying a special $14 football season ticket package available to high school students in the 1960s. He remembers a grand slam that beat Tennessee in the 1970s. He remembers a men’s basketball NCAA Tournament consolation game in 1974. He attended 33 straight football games in the 1980s, home and away, and can recite the details. He recalls the Mai Tais on the beach in Hawaii.
He was there for a reception welcoming Tim Corbin to campus his first week on the Vanderbilt job. Jones and his buddy, Harville Hooper, were among many supporters to introduce themselves to Corbin at the event. Two weeks later, when Jones and Hooper were out to eat at Sportsman’s Grille, they were shocked when Corbin came over to say hello and remembered their names.
Another time, Jones followed the Commodores to Birmingham for the SEC Baseball Tournament. He was dining alone when Corbin and his wife Maggie approached his table and thanked him for his devotion to the program. When Jones got up to pay his bill, the hostess informed him his bill had been taken care of.
“Vanderbilt has been good to me,” Jones said, recalling the kindness shown by Corbin, late athletics director David Williams — who selected Jones to drop the anchor before a football game last season — and Turner’s surprise invitation to Omaha. “It’s the reason I keep following Vanderbilt — the special people. The student-athletes are the best. The baseball team this year is loaded with not just super talent but super human beings. Our athletes who don’t make it in professional sports make great contributions to humanity and society.”
Vanderbilt student-athletes, coaches and administrators would argue Jones has been pretty good to them, too. His unwavering loyalty comes with results, too. The baseball team is undefeated away from Nashville this year when he’s traveled to games.
Here’s to keeping that streak alive in Omaha.