Springfield College alum Russell “Rusty” Jones (’76, G’86) had a solid job in Pittsburgh working as a strength coach and coordinating supervisor for three professional sports teams, the NHL’s Penguins, the USFL’s Maulers and the MLS’s Spirit in 1985, but it had always been his dream to coach in the National Football League. On a Thursday night of the same year, he received a phone call from the Buffalo Bills’ defensive coordinator, Hank Bullough, which changed his career.
“I got a call…from Hank Bullough, and he said, ‘We want you to come up here tomorrow morning for an interview for the strength job with the Buffalo Bills,’ and I was just floored,” Jones said.
Jones would not only get the job as the team’s strength and conditioning coordinator, but own it for the next 20 years, serving the team during its iconic stretch of five AFC Championship appearances in six years, and four consecutive Super Bowl appearances (and losses) from 1990-93. He then worked for the Chicago Bears for eight seasons before retiring this past year.
For Jones, his path to the professional ranks began at Springfield College. While attending Noble High School in his hometown of Berwick, Maine, Jones heard about the school from several connections, including his school principal.
“I was aware at that time of its reputation and for what I wanted to do then, teach Phys. Ed. and coach football, I knew that that would be a place for me,” Jones said.
Jones was so sure of his decision to join the Physical Education program at SC that he refused to apply to any other schools. It was Springfield or bust.
After spending his freshman year on the baseball team, Jones hung up his cleats and pursued his real passion: coaching. As an undergraduate, he helped coach the men’s freshman baseball team for two seasons, gaining valuable hands-on experience.
“I learned that not everybody can be the player that you think you’re going to be coming out of high school,” Jones said. “I learned at that point that I wanted to get on with my career.”
Upon graduation, Jones continued to gather coaching experience, teaching at Dover High School in New Hampshire and serving as an assistant football coach for two years. For Jones, coaching at the high school level was just the start.
“My dream was to be a football coach. I loved football; I just didn’t have the tools to do it. I was a very undersized offensive lineman in the state of Maine, and didn’t have the quickness and the running ability to play a different position at Springfield,” Jones said. “I wanted to be a coach in a fall sport, and I wanted to coach football.”
After several years at the high school level, Jones discovered that his aspirations were slightly changing.
“When I was in high school coaching, I realized then though that more than just the football end, I enjoyed conditioning athletes,” Jones said. “So I knew then that I wanted to go back to become a strength and conditioning coach.”
Bolstered by this new dream, Jones returned to SC as a graduate in the Exercise Physiology program, and worked as a graduate assistant with the football team. Although he realized that there was not a large demand for strength and conditioning coaches in the NFL at the time, he strongly believed that he could benefit a NFL team if given the chance.
He paid his own way to the American College of Sports Medicine meetings to stay in touch with the changes happening in the field, and at one meeting in Hawaii made a connection that would get him started in the professional sports world. Jerry Attaway was a strength and conditioning coach at the University of Southern California who Jones had the privilege of interacting with at the meeting.
Attaway later joined the San Francisco 49ers, who were owned by Edward DeBartolo, Jr. and Edward DeBartolo, Sr. They owned three professional Pittsburgh teams, and Attaway put in a recommendation for Jones to get a job. After landing the job with the DeBartolo Corporation in Pittsburgh in 1983 working with the Penguins, Spirit and Maulers as the company’s conditioning supervisor, Jones received his fateful call from Bullough, who was the former head coach of the Maulers whom Jones had worked under. Jones’ dream of working in the NFL had come true.
“It was just the first thing I could do to call my family and tell them I was now with the Buffalo Bills,” Jones said. “For all the work, and all the studying, and all the schooling, and all the hoping…it had finally paid off.”
During his time with the Bills, Jones got to work under Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy and with more than 25 different Pro Bowlers, including Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and James Lofton. He also had the chance to develop relationships with NFL stars on a personal level, something that most people can only fantasize about.
“The people that you meet were really something. Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith, Brian Urlacher, guys like that that just were great people too. To have a rapport with them, and laugh…I will miss the players and the camaraderie with the coaches and all that more than anything else,” Jones said.
Jones admitted that it took some time to get accustomed to being surrounded by stars that he had previously only seen on television.
“After a while you realize they are just like you,” Jones said. “You try to do your job and to do your job you have to have a grip on what you’re doing and not the awe of it all.”
Even with this mindset, there were moments of unavoidable awe that Jones experienced at the start of his 28-year NFL career.
“I remember the first home game my first year, I was nervous,” Jones said. “That first time you walk out into a stadium with at that time at Buffalo they sat about 80,000 people, it was a long way from Berwick, Maine and the small little high school that I went to.”
Now 60-years-old, happily married with a son in college and recently retired, Jones took the time to return to Springfield College on April 5-6 for the Exercise Science and Sport Studies Reunion and Academic Symposium. The event was hosted by the departments in conjunction with the Office of Alumni Relations, which works to provide career networking and professional development opportunities to students and alumni. Jones gave a keynote address on April 6 as a way to give back to the college.
“My first foot I ever stepped on that campus was almost 40 years ago, so to come back after I’ve retired and be able to give a keynote speech…I actually was a little shaken in the beginning of the talk, realizing that I no longer was a strength coach in the NFL, but I was back to where it all started was very moving for me emotionally because that school gave me all the basics to move on and become what I wanted to be,” Jones said.
“You always try to remember where you came from, and who you were, and what really is important in life.”