Minium: Two ODU Coaches Who Overcame Cancer are Candidates for Conference USA Coach of the Year

March 10, 2019
By ODU Athletics
ODU Athletics

Harry Minium

This isn’t a story about NCAA corruption, college coaches being clandestinely taped by FBI agents or teams squaring off for a fight. Plenty of those out there.

Instead, it’s about two Old Dominion University coaches who have been persevered through some of life’s most difficult hardships. They’ve both suffered through the heartache and pain of cancer and have watched their mothers suffer as well.

And they’ve both put together what I believe to be stellar resumes for Coach of the Year in Conference USA.

If you’re an ODU fan, bear with me. You probably know most of the the story.

But for those outside of ODU, especially the media who will cover the Monarchs in postseason play, takes a few minutes to read this. Jeff Jones and Nikki McCray-Penson both have life compelling stories

Jones has coached this season with prostate cancer, and it’s incurable. McCray was treated for breast cancer six years ago and was at her mother’s side this past summer as she died of the cruel disease.

Come along with me as I tell you their stories.

Jones, a former University of Virginia star and coach, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2015. He had his prostate removed and underwent radiation treatment and went on coaching two seasons with no ill effects

Then he shocked ODU fans by announcing in October that his cancer had returned. It actually returned in 2017, and he’d been silent about it. After all, there’s no rule requiring coaches to talk about their health. He didn’t have to tell anyone. He chose to in order to raise the awareness of prostate cancer.

Danielle and Jeff Jones.

There was no way to sugarcoat the news for Jones, who had recently become a grandfather.  The cancer can be managed with drugs,  but there’s no cure.

The drugs he’s taking are working far better than anyone thought. There’s no sign that the cancer is growing.

I’m a prostate cancer survivor and took the same drugs and they have painful side effects. I watched him at practice and in games and he hasn’t slowed down a bit.

If anything, Jones is coaching harder and better than ever. I’m in awe that he’s done so.

Don’t take my word for it. Ahmad Caver is ODU’s senior point guard, and says if Jones hadn’t told them, the players wouldn’t know anything was wrong.

“He approaches things the same way he did my freshman year,” he said. “He doesn’t yell as much, but that’s the only thing that’s changed. We don’t even think about it. It’s hard to believe he’s going through something like that. He doesn’t let on.”

Taken on its face, without any emotion involved, Jones, has been by far the best coach in Conference USA. He lost two starters and two key players off the bench from last season before 6-foot-10 center Trey Porter announced in the late spring he was transferring to Nevada.

He scrambled to fill the giant hole in the middle and brought in transfer Elbert Robinson III from LSU. He charged his remaining starters, Ahmad Caver and B.J. Stith, with leading the team, and got bountiful contributions from a good freshman class.

The Monarchs (23-8) enter the Conference USA tournament as the No. 1 seed having clinched the regular-season title two weeks before the season ended. The Monarchs defeated VCU, the Atlantic Ten champion, and upset No. 25 Syracuse on the road.

One of the reasons Jones has been so strong is because of Danielle, his wife.

He told her as soon as he learned his cancer had but waited to tell his kids until his daughters both gave birth. When his mother visited, he intended to tell her right away. Instead, she began the conversation by saying, “I have breast cancer.” They both cried.

Jones doesn’t feel sorry for himself. When I sat down with him for 90 minutes in October, he teared up only twice, when I asked him how his mother is doing and about his wife.

“She’s doing chemo and lost her hair,” he said as his eyes moistened. “It’s no fun.”

As for Danee, as his wife is nicknamed, it’s clear that this is a great marriage between two people who are dedicated to each other.

Once she learned he had cancer, Danee threw herself into doing research. And I couldn’t imagine having a smarter or more dedicated advocate to watch my back. She’s a graduate of Norfolk Academy and Virginia and a former Politico editor who now works for Axios.

She sent him to the best specialists and went with him to every doctor’s appointment. When Jeff was asked if treatment should be aggressive or something milder, she answered for him. “Aggressive.”

“Having somebody that’s your best friend, closest confidant who is going through that with you means so much,” Jones said. “When I say Danee has been with me every step, that’s a big deal.”

At Danee’s suggestion, they started a fund to help provide housing for cancer patients. They did so in part to help meet the $100,000 goal the wives of coaches pledged to raise at last season’s Final Four for the Coaches Vs. Cancer fund.

But they also did so in part because of their frustration of dealing with insurance companies.

Anthem refused to cover an Axumin scan for Jones even though it is more precise than a PET or CT scan. Jones wrote a check for $13,280 to pay for it. Doctors used it to direct their treatments.

“How many people don’t have the $13,000 to drop on one test,” Danielle said. “That’s when the rage got to me.”

Thanks to that rage, people who must travel for cancer treatments are staying for free at the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge Nework. So far, Danee has raised nearly $80,000. Do the math. She nearly met the goal for all of the coaches wives by herself.

Jeff Jones on Prostate Cancer Awareness Day at ODU

ODU held a prostate cancer awareness game, in which players dressed in Columbia blue, the color for prostate cancer. Jones wants to raise awareness for prostate cancer, because had he been informed about getting tested earlier in his life, he might not be dealing with the disease now.

He also did it because men being men, prostate cancer isn’t something they like to talk about. The prostate gland is an important sexual organ and treatment can have side effects that no man wants to deal with. But the reverse is true, too: no one wants to die earlier than necessary.

Jones learned he had prostate cancer only because he was trying to purchase life insurance. That required blood work. The blood work came back fine, except for an elevated Prostate-Specific Antigen, or PSA. It wasn’t too high, but doctors suggested he get a biopsy.

The PSA in an inexact test. Factors other than cancer can cause it to rise. But in his case, it was cancer, and he needed surgery. Doctors expected a full recovery.

During surgery, it was found his cancer had spread. Doctors removed as much as they could and then he underwent eight weeks of radiation treatment. Everyone hopes he had been cured.

But he wasn't.

“We want to raise awareness because I am so frustrated that his cancer had already spread by the time he got treatment,” Danee said.

Jones has raised awareness by boldly speaking out while also winning a conference championship.

McCray was an assistant at the University of South Carolina about six years ago when she felt a lump on her breast. She was breastfeeding her son at the time, so she assumed it was a clogged milk gland.

She made a routine trip to the doctor and was stunned to learn it wasn’t a milk gland, but breast cancer. Serious breast cancer.

She would need surgery, chemo and radiation. Her mother, Sally Coleman, was often by her side, because she had also been treated for breast cancer.

“She was my rock,” McCray said.

McCray persevered, in no small measure because of her husband, Thomas Penson, who has sacrificed his career and his time so that McCray can coach at a major college level.

When you’re a coach and have kids, it takes a great spouse at home, one with great patience, because you are away from home so much. Thomas Penson was at her side right after surgery and through each treatment.

“He’s been so strong and provided me with so much support,” she said. Like Jones, she teared up as she talked about him.

She shaved her head rather than watch it fall out. She never missed practice or allowed her players to know she was hurting.

But she talked about her cancer openly, and South Carolina fans, coaches and players gave her massive amounts of support.

Nine months later, she was told she was cancer free.

McCray has tirelessly worked to promote her program in an effort to win back disenchanted former ODU women's basketball fans. 

McCray was an All-American at Tennessee, a WNBA all-star, a Gold Medal Olympian and a member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. South Carolina also won the 2017 national title.

So when ODU was looking for a coach in 2017, she was at the top of his list.

She came to ODU two years ago and took over a program that, for various reasons, had little talent. Recruiting had dipped and many of the team’s best players left the program.

The fact that she won eight games in her first season was miraculous. Her team played hard, but the Monarchs were outmanned.

She rolled up her sleeves and recruited nine newcomers, including several junior college transfers, prior to this season. ODU was picked to finished 11th in the 14-team league this season, meaning coaches had little faith that she could mold a winner. But she made the most of good but inexperienced talent and won 20 games. The Monarchs are seeded fifth in the C-USA tournament. 

The amazing part of her story is that just prior to the season, she lost her Mom to cancer. Last April, her Mom was told her breast cancer had re-emerged and that she had but months to live.

McCray was torn about what to do. Her mother was home at bed in Tennessee and needed her daughter by her side. But nine new players were days away from coming to campus and needed their coach.

When she told athletic director Wood Selig what was going on, he told her to get on a plane and go be with her mother.

Selig is a good guy, but in this case, he wasn’t acting only because of his innate decency. He knew from first-hand experience what it’s like when you lose your mother.

Betsy Selig died in 2017 at about the same time Selig was hiring McCray.

Selig hired a coach while quietly grieving death of his mother.

“When Nikki told us about her Mom’s illness, we knew it might be somewhat lengthy,” Selig said. “But I also knew, having lost my Mom, that any time Nikki would spend with her Mom would be more important than anything else she could do.”

McCray went to see ODU President John R. Broderick, who gave her a similar message. “Family first,” he said.

And, yes, that speaks very well for ODU.

McCray flew from Memphis to Norfolk a few times, but for the most part, left taking care of the newcomers to her assistant coaches. She said her players called her every day. She worried it would be a distraction, but it helped bring the team closer together, knowing what McCray was going through.

“I’m so glad that that I had that time with her,” McCray said. “That’s something I can never replace.”

If you’ve lost a friend or loved one to cancer, you know it’s not pretty. It’s often harder on family and friends than it is to the victim. Modern drugs limit the pain. But it’s hard to watch a loved one succumb.

“I’ve never seen people suffer,” McCray said. “Your hear about it, but to finally see it, you don’t want that for your loved ones.

“She’s in a much better place. She’s not in any pain.”

She prefers to remember the good times with her Mom, who was a chef, and someone who gave her life to her church and family.

Nikki McCray with athletic director Wood Selig. 

"Around the holidays, people would ask, 'What's Sally going to make?' She made fried corn, pound cakes, spaghetti, dressing, potato salad. She made everything," McCray said.

"She was such a hard worker. She was my hero. I got so much of my strength from her. She was a wonderful, wonderful human being.

"At her funeral, church members talked about her spirit, when they were around her how good she made them feel. If my mom was mad, you never knew it."

It's been a particularly difficult couple of years for McCray. Her father died two years ago and her grandfather died in October.

McCray and her team have attended a number of cancer survivor events, and raised thousands of dollars for cancer research.

"It reminds me that I'm not alone," McCray said. "I met a woman who said after 20 years, her cancer came back. But she was lucky. They caught it early.

"Everything is not all sad at those events. It's a way to honor the survivors and everyone who has been affected by cancer."

McCray has betrayed little emotion this season, but that wasn’t the case during ODU’s annual Hoops for the Cure game, in which there was a cancer walk that featured breast cancer survivors.

ODU won the game, and players gathered with McCray at center court afterwards to sing the ODU alma mater. Afterwards, she broke down in tears and her players surrounded her with a group hug.

McCray lives each day knowing that cancer could return or start growing again. Every doctor’s appointment is stressful. If you’ve had cancer, you get it. You cherish every day.

“As a survivor, you can’t think about that because if you do, it consumes you,” McCray said. “So I just try to put my energy into my family and my team.

“You spend as much time as you can telling people that you love them because you never know."

Jones, thankfully, hasn’t lost his mother. Cancer treatment took her hair but not her life. She’s been declared cancer free.

Jones will live with cancer the rest of his life. But it’s not a curse, he says.

“You’re never going to hear Danielle or me say, ‘oh, woe is us,’ “ he said. “I’m truly very lucky. I’ve got the test done years ago. Who knows where I would be if I hadn’t been tested? I’m lucky enough to be able to financially pay for the best care possible.

“I’m lucky to be coaching a great bunch of kids at a university that I love very much.

“And I’m lucky enough to have a wife like Danee. I’m truly very blessed.”

As is everyone who’s had the pleasure to watch Jones and McCray field outstanding teams under extraordinary circumstances.

Contact Minium: hminium@odu.edu

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