OXFORD, Miss. - Brian O’Neal is home and living his dream.
The new Ole Miss head track and field coach will tell you as much when you talk to him. And it only makes sense. Before he left Oxford for the University of Florida in 2008, O’Neal had spent nearly two decades with the Rebels as a student-athlete and assistant coach. He grew up in nearby Pontotoc.
To say he has hit the ground running since his return is an understatement.
“A few months in and I can definitely say that I am still living the dream,” O’Neal said. “Being the head coach at my alma mater is definitely fulfilling. It has been a mile a minute. My staff and I have hit the road recruiting, and we are working with each and every one of our young men and women to get them to understand what an elite team looks like.”
O’Neal is the successor to longtime coach Joe Walker, who built the Rebel program from the ground up, and has served as O’Neal’s closest mentor. Walker made the decision in late February to step away from his head coaching position to serve as an assistant coach at Louisville, where he can work alongside his son and spend time with his grandchildren.
“What Joe meant to this program and the leadership that he provided both on and off the track to not only athletes, but also to his assistant coaches, is something I am trying to live up to,” O’Neal said.
O’Neal learned those lessons as a four-year letterwinner for the Rebels, running primarily middle-distance events. He was a member of three relay teams that finished in the top three at the Southeastern Conference Championships, including the 1990 SEC runner-up 4x800-meter relay team. O’Neal graduated from Ole Miss in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in public administration.
He feels that his experience as a student-athlete at Ole Miss will help him both on the recruiting trail and in his relationships with his student-athletes.
“I can go into a home and say I believe in this program and this university,” O’Neal said. “I know what happens when you come here and I can speak to you from first-hand knowledge. I can give you examples of what to expect four years later after you come and graduate from here. When you come to Ole Miss and you’re telling me you want to be a doctor, attorney, or whatever career path you choose, I can show you decades of examples and point you in the right direction for mentors to guide you on your career path.”
The experience of all those years in Oxford also allows O’Neal to clearly see the unique strengths that his alma mater possesses and the advantages that it brings to student-athletes.
“One of the things we pride ourselves on here at Ole Miss is our academic reputation,” O’Neal said. “When you look at the success we’ve had here, particularly to be a public institution, with 25 Rhodes Scholars. To also know that, since 1988 Ole Miss has produced six Truman, eight Goldwater, and six Fulbright recipients, speaks volumes about the academic prowess of Ole Miss.
“Combine that with the great athletic tradition of our athletes in all sports at Ole Miss and throughout this great state, particularly in track and field with for Olympians that represented the United States, and you have what true amateurism is all about,” O’Neal continued. “Ole Miss was one of only three schools in the SEC to have a gold medalist in track and field competing for Team USA in an individual event. That’s something we are very proud of along with the fact we have a 2012 Olympian on our current roster in Isiah Young.”
O’Neal first joined the Ole Miss coaching staff in 1994 and, during his time as an assistant, he coached 12 athletes to top-four finishes at the NCAA Championships, mentoring 18 athletes to 39 All-America honors and seven SEC individual championships during that span. In his final three years, he was the school’s associate track and field coach.
Prior to the 2008 season, O’Neal decided to accept a new challenge that he knew would help him grow as a coach. He left Ole Miss to become an assistant coach at Florida, working with sprints, hurdles and jumps. He was part of four NCAA Championships with the Gators, including the school’s first-ever men’s indoor and outdoor national titles.
“There is absolutely zero doubt in my mind that going to Florida at the time that I did was the absolute best thing for me and my family,” O’Neal said. “I was able to learn what championship teams look like. I couldn’t help but be a sponge and learn. I owe a lot of gratitude to Florida and the coaches who helped shape my philosophy.”
That experience of coaching championship teams and working daily with elite-level athletes has fueled O’Neal’s desire to take the Ole Miss program to heights he knows it is capable of achieving.
“We want to create a balanced program – with strong cross country teams along with strong indoor and outdoor track and field teams for both men and women,” O’Neal said. “My vision is creating that belief system that we can be an elite team and compete with the upper echelon in a league that is arguably the most dominant league in the NCAA. Right now, our current kids have never tasted that, so they’re relying on me to provide that.”
Successful recruiting is also a key to O’Neal’s plan for success. He wants committed athletes at Ole Miss who embody the ideal of a well-rounded student athlete who is willing to push him/herself to the limits.
“To compete for the Ole Miss Rebels, an athlete has to be very strong academically and they also have to be people who are very secure in who they are and what they do,” O’Neal said. “Coach Holloway used to always say, ‘You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.’ Particularly in regards to training, when you’re working out, you need to know what you’re working out for. We’re preparing the body for life on and off the track. It is my responsibility to impress upon my staff that they are to look anywhere on earth for these types of athletes and bring them to Ole Miss.”
O’Neal has big goals for the Ole Miss program, but because he has achieved great success in his coaching career, he knows what it will take to attain those goals.
“I promise you this, I’m going to roll up my sleeves and go to battle every day,” O’Neal said. “We will bring a level of toughness, but in this league, it’s not just toughness though, you have to have athletes. My staff will hit the ground running in recruiting every single day to get better.”
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