Written for the Louisiana Sports Writers Association
For someone who earned 21 All-American certificates and was a part of six NCAA championship teams, winning six Southeastern Conference and two NCAA individual titles along the way, former LSU sprinter Esther Jones is always surprised when she receives a major honor.
Jones, the most decorated male or female athlete in the rich history of the LSU track and field program, was shocked when she was selected as the winner of the 1990 James J. Corbett Award as Louisiana’s top amateur athlete.
More than 16 years later, Jones was stunned to learn that she had been elected to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. As such, she becomes the first member of the Lady Tigers’ great teams that claimed an amazing 24 NCAA indoor and outdoor titles in an 18-year span from 1987 to 2004 to enter the Hall in Natchitoches.
Jones and seven other Louisiana sports legends including football stars Pat Swilling, Brian Mitchell and Stan Humphries, local high school basketball coaching legend Joel Hawkins, the late Kim Perrot (who was coached by LSU women's coach Van Chancellor in the WNBA) and old-timers Willard Brown (baseball) and Warren Perkins (basketball) will be inducted Saturday night at 6 p.m. in ceremonies at the Natchitoches Events Center.
The ceremonies will be shown on a tape-delay basis beginning July 15 on CST.
But the people that recruited, coached and worked with the Milwaukee native during a sparkling four-year career at LSU from 1988-91 were never surprised at the honors the talented and classy sprinter won -- both during and after her brilliant career with the Lady Tigers.
“For a university that has built a sprint tradition like LSU has over the years, Esther Jones is truly one of the all-time greats to ever compete at the collegiate level," said present LSU Track Coach Dennis Shaver. "She is on a different level than just about anyone who has ever competed at this level of track and field. It says a lot about the kind of competitor she was here at LSU that she earned more All-America honors and scored more points at the NCAA Championships than anyone else in this program’s storied history. The thing I remember most about Esther is what a great team member and competitor she was. She was always about putting the success of the team ahead of her own.
“What’s even more impressive about Esther Jones is that she has gone on to be very successful in life. Her success wasn’t limited to the collegiate ranks as she went on to enjoy a tremendous career in international competition. Esther has been a tremendous ambassador for this school, this state and this country throughout her life, and there is no question that she is deserving of being inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. I only wish that I could have been there to see her receive such a great honor.”
“Esther really had a good work ethic, that was the first thing you noticed about her,” former LSU coach Pat Henry said of Jones, who represented the U.S. in the 1991 World Championships and ’92 Olympic Games. “The key to being successful is your work ethic and desire to be successful. Esther was very self-motivated, it just didn’t take much to get her going.
“She knew what her goals were and what she wanted to do,” he added. “Because of that, she was always fun to be around.”
Jones, tall and elegant with model looks, arrived on the LSU campus in the fall of 1987 -- just months after the Lady Tigers swept the indoor and outdoor national titles for the first time.
Even though the Lady Tigers had already experienced success earlier that year, Jones quickly became the cornerstone of a sprint program that would dominate the collegiate track scene for years to come.
Among those who took notice early was Sam Seemes, a longtime LSU assistant coach who served as interim head coach in 1987.
“Esther was probably one of the first -- and I’m hesitant to say the first -- big time national female recruits LSU signed out of high school,” Seemes recalled. “It was big for the program because she was a person who was nationally recruited by everybody.
“We were able to sign one or two of those kind of athletes prior to that, but we had not been able to sign a lot of the top-tier athletes everybody thought was going to be a shoo-in for greatness.”
That changed when Jones cast her lot with the Lady Tigers.
Seemes said Jones helped turn a solid team into a perennial national power with her work in a wide range of events from the 100 and 200 meters to the 400- and 800-meter relays. She even ran on the 1,600 relay when needed.
It was easy, Seemes said, to see how special Jones was as a person and athlete because she showed it so early and so often.
“She did everything you hope the student-athletes you bring to your institution will do,” said Seemes, who is now the CEO of the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. “Esther really did it in every avenue -- and more. Not only did she do it collegiately, but she did it nationally and internationally as well.”
While she ran fast and was a two-time All-American at Bay View High School, which carried over to her freshman season at LSU, Jones said she didn’t find out what being a sprinter was all about until the summer of 1988.
After her freshman year, she ran in the U.S. Olympic Trials. Competing against legendary American sprinters like Florence Griffith Joyner and Evelyn Ashford made quite an impression on the 18-year-old.
“I was sort of like the little girl looking up at all the big girls,” Jones said in a 1991 interview. “I think I was more interested in being around them than I was the races.”
Even though she was star-struck by her first Trials experience, Jones never lost sight of the fact that she was part of a team at LSU in more ways than one.
In addition to her individual titles at the SEC and NCAA meets, she was invaluable as a member of the relay teams. Jones helped LSU win the SEC 400 relay crown for four consecutive years and ran on winning 400 relay teams at the 1989 and ’90 NCAA meets.
She was part of a team that set an American record in the 800 relay in 1989 with a time of 1 minute, 32.57 seconds and that same year anchored LSU’s 400 relay team that set a collegiate record in a sizzling 42.50 seconds -- a mark that still stands.
Jones’ best times in the outdoor 100 and 200 were 11.11 and 22.49, respectively, marks that remain high on LSU’s all-time lists. But Henry said she was even better with a baton in her hand, winning a gold medal with the U.S. women’s 400 relay team at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.
“That’s where Esther was really good,” he said. “Individually, she did great things. But our relays always ran great. She was a solid personality in the mix and was one of the stabilizing forces whether she realized it or not.
“The relays were very important to our program. They’re the center point at the national meet or any big meet. It kind of gets the ball rolling and things start to happen. In my opinion, the relays are critical. We ran well in the relays, and Esther was one of the reasons why we had great teams.”
Seemes recalled how Jones made sure that nothing would change that, especially in 1989 when Dawn Sowell transferred to LSU and went on to set collegiate records in sweeping the sprint titles at the NCAA meet.
“Esther was a sophomore when probably the best female sprinter in the world at that time transferred to LSU,” Seemes said. “It would have been real easy for Esther to get jealous and to go undercover and take a step back.
“But she showed the class person she was. She may not have been the best sprinter on her team that season, but she used that experience to grow. She didn’t go sit on the sideline when that would have been very easy to do.”
Off the track, Henry said Jones was a solid student.
“That’s part of the reason she was so successful on the track,” he said. “She was very stable and was committed to being successful in the classroom. If you’re doing well in the classroom, you’re doing well on the track. Esther was a balanced student-athlete and was able to do good things because of that.”
Henry chuckled when asked about Jones being a quiet leader.
“She wasn’t a big talker. She never liked to talk about her accomplishments,” he said. “She was a very quiet, humble young lady -- and that suited her personality. That’s how she carried herself.
“She was very ladylike, but she was competitive when she got on the track. Esther was just very determined to be successful, and she always had an air of confidence about her.”