Feb. 19, 2014
By Jack McCarthy
It’s been a whirlwind five months as Xavier’s Brian Neal went from assistant to interim head coach to full-time women’s basketball boss while guiding the Musketeers through their inaugural BIG EAST season.
Last October’s surprise resignation of head coach Amy Waugh, a Xavier legend as a player, thrust Neal into the top job just weeks before a new season was set to start. He had a 171-31 record in seven seasons as Thomas More women’s head coach before becoming a Xavier assistant in 2011.
Neal reflected about the the changes and challenges of returning this historically strong program to prominence while his team prepared for a weekend road trip to Marquette.
Despite an 8-16 overall record and a six-game losing streak, he’s optimistic the Musketeers are on the right track as a mostly underclassman team — including eight freshmen — learn together while a potentially strong recruiting class waits in the wings.
What have the last five months been like for you?
It’s been a blur. It’s been every emotion I think you can come across — I’ve had them all. It was emotionally shocking when she (Amy Waugh) stepped down and then I had to prepare to get the head coaching job. They didn’t just give to me. … It was a whirlwind and after I got the full-time job it took about five or six weeks and things settled in and we could concentrate on the team and get to a routine. We did some good things early but we’re terribly young.
Do you feel comfortable now as coach and where you’re at?
Absolutely. I was a head coach for seven years and I’ve been through some great moments, I’ve been through some real adversity. This is a process, it doesn’t happen overnight. We’re prepared as a staff and a program to do this the right way and build this. We recognize it’s not going to happen in three or four months.
What are you impressions of the BIG EAST so far?
It’s relentless. I love the intensity, every team is there to fight you every night. The athleticism is on you every night. There’s never a team that rolls in with a bunch of kids that don’t belong. So you have to be on your ‘A’ game or you’re going to lose.
Were you familiar with BIG EAST teams prior to joining and were there any adjustments you had to make?
We have never played any of them. We played a lot of BCS schools but never played anyone from the BIG EAST. It’s not so much we had to adjust to the BIG EAST (but) we have to get more talented, which we were working on anyway in this rebuilding process. So we have a good recruiting class coming in next year. We’re very small, so we adjusted our style but we adjusted because of our personnel. The way I look at it is they (other league programs) didn’t know us, so who has more of the advantage? (But) we have to get to know nine teams. There’s probably a little more work. In fact, your whole non-conference schedule you don’t know those teams so you’ve got to scout those guys. So scouting (BIG EAST) teams was not an issue.
With like-minded private schools and a similar basketball focus, the BIG EAST seemed such a natural fit for Xavier.
From the moment it was announced here it was tremendously exciting and galvanized our university. I think as we move forward it’s only going to be more important and impactful in years to come. It’s already had an impact. If you’re recruiting players who want to go somewhere competitive and want to play against the best that puts us up there, that puts our foot in the door. It’s an established league with a lot of great coaches and play exciting basketball. That’s pretty easy to sell.
Xavier has had some struggles this season with just two seniors and otherwise a very young team. How have your younger players coped and are they battling through adversity and learning?
It’s been hard. I’ve had kids thrown into roles and it’s a great learning experience but it’s also maybe a little bit unfair because we’ve been asking them to perform like upper classmen. There are some days they’ve done great and there are other days they haven’t done so well. But in general I’m happy. When we have good energy and are focused we’re a competitive team. When we don’t we’re not competitive. We’ve also hit a little bit of a wall with an injury bug. For the last couple of weeks I’ve had anywhere from one to three starters out and it’s a tough time right now. But our attitude’s good, our chemistry’s good and we’re going to keep learning and improving every day.
What’s the immediate future look like with recruiting?
Considering the situation that we inherited I’m ecstatic. We’re very fortunate. We’ve got good kids coming in and a class with a little bit of help at every spot.
Historically Xavier has had a very strong women’s basketball program. What are the steps you have to take to restore that reputation?
You’ve got to get experience, we’ve got to bring in talent, we’ve got to build our culture. We’ve laid some foundation. We’ve got everything we need here. We’ve got a great institution, we’ve got a great location and tradition. There’s no quick fixes so you’ve got to put the pieces in place and take those steps in a process. I think we’ve taken some positive steps this year.