‘Mission success is a team sport’: Col. Otis Jones shares priorities, leadership philosophies after 5 months in vice superintendent seat

  • Published
  • By Ray Bowden

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. – Col. Otis Jones might be best known as the all-star athlete holding the record as the Air Force Academy’s second-highest basketball scorer, but it’s easy to get the idea that the school’s vice superintendent is as skilled at juggling as he is making three-pointers.  

Simply said, the colonel has a lot going on.

-- He’s been vice-superintendent since July, assisting Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Richard Clark in directing cadets’ military, academic and character programs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

-- He’s a combat veteran and career pilot specializing in cargo and transport aircraft, and a national security expert with a masters’ in national security studies.

-- He’s a husband, father of four children, musician and jazz aficionado who says his guiding fundamentals are “faith, family and fitness.”

Jones, 47, grew up in Selma, Alabama, the middle child of parents he describes as “educators” and “disciplinarians.” He has an older brother and younger sister, and the more you learn about his childhood, you understand that Jones is very adept at juggling a busy schedule.

Too Competitive?   
Jones picked up a basketball when he was 6 years old and to this day, has rarely put it down.

“I would dribble to school, from school and everywhere else I went,” he said. “I did this in elementary school, junior high and high school.” 

Jones dribbled that basketball every day to Selma High on Broad Street, home of the Selma Saints, where he also played trombone for the school’s marching and concert band.

He often sprinted from band practice to get to basketball practice on time, he said, but all that sprinting seems to have paid off as Jones became the Saints’ all-star point guard and went on to be nominated by Congress to be admitted to the Academy as an athlete.

Jones also played baseball, football and soccer, but basketball became his calling.

“I loved the yelling crowd right there on the court,” he said. “The real reason I chose basketball was because it was a small team that came together for one goal and was supported by fans.

“I used to get up at 6 a.m. and walk from my house to the YMCA to practice,” Jones said. “I wouldn’t return until 6 p.m. and all I had in my pocket was enough money for a juice and a Honey Bun.”

Jones was so absorbed with “being the best I could be” on the court that he regularly ignored popular high school events. 

“I didn’t go to my prom. I practiced that night so I could get better,” he said. “All my friends were at the prom and I was in the street dribbling and in my back yard shooting baskets.”

Jones always had a competitive spirit, he said. His determination to win even got him yanked out of an elementary physical education class.

“My teacher called my parents and said I was too competitive,” he said. “I didn’t like to lose and I didn’t want to play with people who would not contribute to winning.”

Jones’ parents told the teacher that while they taught their son to be respectful, they would not try to curb his passion for competition.

“The most important thing was to always compete at a high level, which meant trying my best and our teams’ best at all times,” he said. “If I lost and gave it my all I was good, but if I’m going to compete, I’m going to give it everything I have.”   

Along with being the Saints’ all-star point guard, and those longstanding records he would later set at the Academy, Jones was a finalist for the 1995 Naismith College Player of the Year Award.

He’s also the only person in the Air Force to be named 1st Team All-conference three years in a row, and Best Player in the Nation 6’ and Under, beating out NBA players Tyrus Edney, Damon Stoudamire and Allen Iverson.  

“Even when I wasn’t the most talented or athletic, no one was going to outwork me,” he said.

 This might explain why it is almost impossible to walk through any athletic facility at the Academy and not see Jones’ photograph.

Finding Equilibrium
The Jones’ attended the First Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Street in Selma and the family was “musically inclined,” Jones said. His mother was a music teacher, so Jones balanced improving his athletic skills with learning piano and trombone. These days, he is learning to play the saxophone.

Growing up, Jones also sang tenor in the M.J. Summerville Memorial Choir in Selma.

“My mom was the choir director and we were very good,” he said. “I never wanted a solo because I was nervous singing in front of people. I did my job and joined with the others.” 

The vice superintendent lists John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” at the top of his favorite jazz compositions, a balance of structured composition and improvisation. Jazz helped the teenage athlete find his equilibrium.

“Before basketball games, I would get into a place mentally with jazz,” he said. “It helped me visualize what I was doing and where I was going. I tried to visualize everything that was going to happen on the court before it happened.”

The Team Concept, Not the Individual Concept  
Jones said one of his most consuming responsibilities as vice superintendent is helping align the efforts of the Academy’s mission elements: the Cadet Wing; Dean of Faulty; Athletic Department, 10th Air Base Wing, Preparatory School; and 306th Flying Training Group.

Most recently before arriving at the Academy, Jones commanded the 374th Airlift Wing at Yokota Air Base, Japan – the busiest transportation hub in the Air Force – attached to U.S. Forces Japan and 5th Air Force, and led today by 1988 Academy graduate, Lt. Gen. Kevin Schneider.

“Col. Jones is a superb officer and leader but what sets him apart is his humility and ability to connect with Airmen of all ages and experiences,” Schneider said. “He has the willingness and ability to engage with Airmen across a spectrum of backgrounds and these qualities set him apart as a role model and mentor.

“I watched him deal with tough leadership challenges during his time as 374th commander and I appreciated his thoughtful, deliberate approach to solving issues,” Schneider said. 

Retired Gen. Darren McDew, former U.S. Transportation Command commander, said Jones uses his life experiences to benefit Airmen and cadets.

“Air Force leaders bring former cadets back to the Academy because they’ve accomplished something in their careers and Otis is certainly accomplished,” McDew said. “The nature of the Academy hasn’t changed but what [the Air Force] does has changed. Whether becoming an all-star basketball player or working his way up to become a commander, his life experiences benefit the Academy.”

Schneider agrees.

“During our time at Yokota, I would see Otis around the base and I watched people go out of their way to talk with him,” he said. ”Otis has an energy about him and Airmen gravitate toward him. Otis never let a crisis consume him or allowed it to do the same to his team. He kept everyone focused on finding solutions and doing what was right.”

Jones said his two former bosses continue to inspire him.

“I’ve taken a lot from them,” he said. “Be humble; professional; an expert; give credit where credit is due; recognize others for their work; set the example; love your family; hold yourself and others accountable to standards; and push others to be the best they can be.”

Jones said all of his priorities as vice superintendent involve cadets.

“I want to stay engaged in their squadrons, classrooms and fields of friendly competition,” he said. “I care about cadets but I care about their futures as human beings first. I’m going to give them everything I can to help them develop into future officers.”

Jones said his experiences as an athlete formed the leadership philosophy he relies on today. 

“My philosophy is based on my time at the Academy. I believe in the team concept, not the individual concept,” he said.

Two of Jones’ failures became two of his biggest successes, he said, and it is not surprising that both involve sports.

Jones was captain of Selma High’s basketball team and the lineup had clinched a spot in the state championships. The team traveled out of Selma for the competition with little supervision, and several of the athletes decided to party.

“The team knew it was wrong but they didn’t stop. I knew it was wrong but I did nothing to stop it," he said. “Although I didn’t partake in the ‘festivities,’ I didn’t stop it.” 

Jones said the team was unprepared for the next day’s competition.

“I was the captain and leader of the team and I did not ensure the team was ready or fully prepared for our mission,” he said. “After failing to accomplish our mission, I vowed this would never happen again.

“The lesson learned is ‘take a stand’ when someone around you is doing something wrong. Let them know," Jones said. "Be personally and professionally accountable for yourself and others around you." 

Jones’ second lesson?

“I invested a lot of time in [basketball] every year at the Academy,” he said. “I was captain of the team during my junior and senior years, but I didn’t ensure my teammates were perfecting their own abilities. I did not help them. I did great individually but we didn’t do great as a team. Mission success is a team sport, not an individual venture.”

These lessons were “wake-up calls,” Jones said.

“Teams will never achieve success unless everyone involved is successful,” he said.

Look Forward, Lean Forward
Jones said promoting dignity and respect, helping Clark lead the school through the coronavirus that has swept across the U.S., and ensuring his alma mater’s legacy for generations to come all rank high on his list of priorities. 

Respect for all is the “bottom line,” Jones said, and there’s no excuse in his personal and professional world for any type of mistreatment.  

“I have absolute tolerance for mistakes because our job is to develop, but I have no tolerance for mistreating people,” he said. “Our diversity as the Air Force’s only academy is so important to our remaining the greatest Air Force in the World.”

When it comes to the coronavirus, Jones said his sights are set on “defeating COVID-19 and getting the class of 2021 to graduation.”

“We will continue to fight this pandemic with everything we’ve got and keep our cadets, ourselves and our community safe,” he said. “This is a ‘must do.’”

Jones said the answer to solving any challenges the Academy or U.S. might face rests with the talents of cadets and Airmen.

“As an institution, we can’t simply reflect on our past,” he said. “We have to look forward and lean forward. We need to continue to enhance our diversity and understand that the best ideas often come from someone who does not look like you, think like you or have the same beliefs. Diversity, inclusion, respect and tolerance are critical to our nation’s success as we enter this new age of global power and positioning.”