Gary "Tank" Jones is going to need a serious adjustment to his body clock.
A physical education teacher and football coach at Amboy High School for the past 43 years, Jones arises at 4 a.m. each weekday, gets his act together, then heads over to the school at 5 a.m. to open up the weight room for not just football players, but all AHS athletes who want to pump iron.
Soon, he won’t have to do that. Jones coached his last football game for the Clippers on Oct. 25, a 34-16 victory against Ashton-Franklin Center. At the end of the school year, he’ll be done as a teacher as well.
“I doubt if I’ll be able to sleep in,” Jones said. “Every day since they invented rope, I always get up at 4 and come over here to open up the weight room. That will be different.”
Jones graduated from Amboy High School in 1972 and Eureka College in 1976, then came back to Amboy that fall to begin a career that would last his entire adult life.
On the football end, he stepped in as defensive coordinator in 1976 under head coach Don Wyzgowski and helped the program rise to prominence. There were back-to-back second-place finishes at state in 1979 and 1980; six undefeated regular seasons in 8 years from 1979-86; and a state title in 1984.
When Wyzgowski stepped down after the 1993 season, Jones took over as head coach. He guided his 26 teams to a overall record of 134-126, including 12 playoff appearances (1994, 2000, 2002-2010 and 2012). Jones is the winningest football coach in AHS history, surpassing Wyzgowski by three.
When asked about games that stood out as head coach, Jones pointed to a pair of them in the 2007 playoffs. There was a 24-13 road win against PORTA in the second round of the 3A playoffs, after PORTA had allowed a mere 50 points in winning its first 10 games.
The next week, Amboy fell 32-26 at Aurora Christian in a game that was dubious for its ending. The Clippers had driven deep into Eagles territory, and following a fourth-and-1 run, appeared to pick up a first down. Prior to the measurement, however, an official picked up the ball and moved it backward, and the Clippers came up inches short.
Then there were a series of memorable contests against Newman, when Amboy was still a member of the Three Rivers Conference. (The Clippers went to the NUIC in 2016).
“Everybody got keyed up for those games,” Jones said. “We don’t really have a rivalry with the new conference we’re in.”
Newman coach Mike Papoccia always had a good working relationship with Jones, and each noted their coaching staffs got along great over the years. Papoccia has fond memories of their teams knocking heads.
“Tank was always a consummate coach when he was an assistant under Don and when he was a head coach,” Papoccia said. “He loved the game of football. I always remember the one year we played them the last game of the season [in 2010] and killed them, and then in the playoffs, a lucky break made us win that game. He could get the kids up. They played hard for him. Being of Amboy blood, since he played there and went to school there, he had that little added incentive of getting the team better. I always knew when we played Amboy, we were going to have to beat their fundamentals.”
Times have been tough, however, for the Amboy-LaMoille co-op for a while. Declining enrollment and participation made the move from the Three Rivers to the NUIC necessary, and the Clippers have gone 3-6, 3-6, 3-6 and 2-7 against a new slate of opponents. Those circumstances took a toll.
“I guess it started to become a job,” Jones said. “It was fun all those years, but I always said when it started to become a job, it was time to get out. It started to become a job. … Maybe they need somebody with younger blood in this. I’m not as feisty in practice as I used to be.”
Sterling athletic director and former head football coach Greg King was a two-way starting lineman on Amboy’s first two teams that went to state, and had a longtime connection to his former coach.
“First of all, that means I’m old, because I can remember him coming in and teaching PE when I was in seventh grade,” King said. “I can remember playing for him, and he was a no-nonsense guy. You were going to do things, but at the same time he’d stay after practice and work something with you. I’m glad to see him go out with a couple of wins. He’s a great guy, a great coach, and an Amboy guy through and through.”
Jones has no plans to leave Amboy come next summer. He’ll miss the daily interaction with his players and coaches, the preparation for games, and the games themselves.
“It’s been an honor and a pleasure to be here this long,” Jones said. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I’ve had opportunities to go to other schools, but when we were getting 40 kids out and having success, why would you want to leave? The administration has been great to me the whole time, but it was just time for a change.”