John Neal turns 62 this month, the age at which he’d planned to retire from coaching.
Neal assumed that would happen at Oregon, where he coached defensive backs under Mike Bellotti, Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich. When he found himself unemployed at age 59, let go as part of a staff purge in 2016, he had to decide between early retirement and another spin on the coaching carousel.
Neal opted for something in between. He accepted an analyst position at Alabama-Birmingham, where he coached for eight years before joining Oregon’s staff in 2003.
Unbeknownst to him, Neal was signing up to be part of one of the best stories in college football.
“It’s kind of, in a way, a miracle,” he said. “A football miracle.”
Neal’s history with UAB helped him land an interview for the school’s head coaching position in 2014. The night before he was scheduled to fly to Alabama, he informed the school he wasn’t the coming.
The reason? Neal had heard rumors that UAB was thinking about dropping its football program.
“When you’ve been somewhere, you talk to the right people and they know what’s going on,” Neal said. “I decided not to go. I said, ‘Hey, the guy you need to hire is Bill Clark.’ I think Bill was the best candidate.”
Clark was coaching Jacksonville State, an FCS school in Jacksonville, Ala., at the time. He coached one season at UAB before the school announced it was disbanding its football program in December 2014, sparking outrage and protests on campus.
The decision was met with widespread backlash and questions about an economic feasibility study used to justify the program’s demise. Facing pressure from politicians and local leaders, UAB reversed course six months later and announced that, thanks to an infusion of private donations, football would return in 2017 after a two-year hiatus.
At the time, it wasn’t clear there would be a program left to revive. Many of UAB’s best players took advantage of an NCAA waiver allowing them to transfer without penalty after the school announced plans to drop the sport. Clark had to rebuild the team virtually from scratch, using the 2015 and 2016 seasons to practice and scrimmage while recruiting players in preparation for the 2017 reboot.
Neal joined UAB as an analyst before the 2017 season. At the time, he didn’t see it as the chance to be part of a back-from-the-dead revival. He was burned out on coaching and, truthfully, just wanted to work two more years in Alabama to become vested in the state’s public employee retirement program.
“I was just tired of it,” said Neal, who has a daughter in Atlanta and a son in Hoover, Ala. “I was tired of football. I was tired of recruiting. I was tired of the lying that was going on in recruiting with players and parents, and in some cases even some coaches.
“I was getting tired of some of the coaching and decisions that are made in our profession, just getting disenchanted with the whole thing.”
Being part of UAB’s turnaround helped Neal reconnect with the best parts of his profession. He described UAB’s roster as a group of misfits, players rejected by other schools because of their size, their academic records or other issues. Little was expected of them in 2017, but the Blazers exceeded all expectations by winning eight games and appearing in the Bahamas Bowl.
This year, the story got even better. UAB went 10-3, won its first Conference USA championship and will face Northern Illinois in the Boca Raton Bowl on Tuesday.
“I don’t want to sound immodest. It was a big deal,” Clark told Sporting News after the outlet named him its national coach of the year. “It was a tough effort. A lot of things went into this, from fundraising to finding players all across the country to just be competitive, and then just to have a chance to win a championship really speaks to how hard this group worked.”
As an analyst, Neal is limited to breaking down film and offering suggestions about game plans. There’s no recruiting or on-field instruction, which is OK with him after nearly 40 years of the coaching grind.
“I was the good cop, man,” Neal said. “Everybody likes me. I don’t have to make any decisions.”
He did have one decision to make. After Tuesday’s bowl game, Neal plans to return to Eugene and start the next phase of his life. He hasn’t ruled out a return to coaching, but he’ll be 62 — the age at which he’d always planned to retire — and doesn’t feel the need to pursue another job.
“You can’t ever shut doors,” he said. “It has to be the right place, the right people.
“There’s a lot of guys out there in the business who I wouldn’t work for for any amount of money. I’m very sensitive to what time I have left and how I want to spend it.”
Neal wants to spend that time in Eugene, which became home during his 14 seasons with the Ducks. He didn’t get the send-off he’d imagined at Oregon, but if there was a silver lining, it was the chance to be part of one more football miracle.
“My goal was to make 62 at Oregon and retire and go out the way I wanted to,” he said. “It didn’t happen.
“I have no regrets.”
Follow Austin on Twitter @austinmeekRG. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.