Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi once said, “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Rob McNeely has that in common with Lombardi in that he likes to win. Always has. Even from a young age.
McNeely, 46, is the new head varsity football coach at Fort Mill and will lead the Jackets after 16 years at Lake Norman High, which opened in 2002. McNeely was head coach from 2010 through last season and posted a 54-44 career record there.
For McNeely, his earliest memories of football ingrained in him the seriousness of the game, but also how life changing it could be as well.
“I always loved it,” he said.
“I always played it with the neighborhood kids. I can take it back to elementary school. Even in elementary school, we met at the elementary school and drove to the games together. Our coaches were our dads, but they treated it like an older team. It wasn’t everybody gets to play. We were there to win. I had great coaches growing up that really helped me and were good, positive people in my life.”
McNeely grew up with the game playing at West Iredell High before heading off to play in college. He went to North Greenville University to play football when it was a junior college in 1990 and 1991 and then finished up his college football career at Newberry College his junior and senior seasons, though he didn’t graduate from Newberry.
“I actually found out you had to go to class to graduate,” he joked. “Newberry being a private school, tuition wasn’t cheap so after football was over, so was my scholarship. So, I transferred up to Western (Carolina University) to graduate.”
A second-generation Tar Heels fan, McNeely started pulling for the University of North Carolina because of his father. McNeely started coaching at West Iredell in 1997 and from there went to Lake Norman in 2002. He and his family — wife, Ali and two daughters, Loch, 13 and Grier, 10, came to Fort Mill in January after he got the varsity football coaching job.
“It has been a true blessing,” he said. “Being able to get to know the kids and them getting to know me and establish that trust. It’s been big. From the administration to co-workers here, it has been really good. I haven’t felt like the new guy.”
While similar in proximity to Charlotte, McNeely said Fort Mill had something that Lake Norman didn’t and that was tradition. Lake Norman High opened in 2002 and, unlike Fort Mill, is still a relatively new school.
“Fort Mill has so much tradition and it’s a small town,” he said. “There have been so many generations to come through Fort Mill and Lake Norman was built in 2002 and we established some traditions and things like that, but it wasn’t that generational thing like Fort Mill is.”
McNeely said he enjoyed his time at Lake Norman, but wanted a new challenge. When the Fort Mill job came open, it allowed him to take that challenge without changing too much in his life. He had lived in Huntersville, which is just 15 minutes north of Charlotte. Now a Fort Mill resident, his family is just 15 minutes south of the Queen City.
“I grew so much as a person and a coach there (Lake Norman),” he said. “And the people were great up there, but Fort Mill is different. It is a great school district for my kids, it’s a great town and my wife can keep her job in Charlotte. That in itself made it attractive.”
McNeely has big plans for Fort Mill football, and the first thing is to try and replicate the success he had at Lake Norman. While there he was able to take the program deep in the playoffs, so when the team would have an 8-4 season, it would be considered a down year leaving fans, coaches and players wanting more.
“I don’t think I overstayed my welcome,” he said. “It was like home for me. Sometimes you need a change of scenery and you need something new. It has definitely been an energizing boost to my career. Not that I didn’t give them my whole heart up there, but it is exciting to see if the model you took from one place will work at another. The way we run our program, it is going to stand up.”
His expectations for this season he said are simple, despite it being his first year in Fort Mill. The Jackets open the season this Friday at River Bluff.
“I feel like we deserve to win every game,” he said. “So that us as coaches and the players should know that what we do from Saturday to Friday at 7:30 p.m., we should get out of that what our work deserves.”
A self-proclaimed history buff and a fan of Navy SEAL books and , McNeely has a very structured approach to his coaching and said it is necessary to teach the players how to better themselves in not just the game, but in life.
“I have always been proud of having to develop our kids,” he said. “Showing up and getting off the bus isn’t enough. Showing our guys how to play their position. Really teaching them how to play their position and working our rear ends off in the off-season. If you don’t run a structured program, it is going to look chaotic and it will look chaotic on Friday night.”
Having been a coach for over 20 years, McNeely said when it comes down to it, the players are the same and so is the game, despite how much times have changed since the late 1990s when he first started. The biggest change he has seen in that time is how technology has made things easier for players and coaches.
“The phones and even (the video app) Hudl now and stuff like that, you can use to send messages and video to the kids on their phone,” he said. “Stuff they are used to. Back in the day, you had to give them a VCR tape or kids had to come by and get a DVD from you. It has gotten so much easier. But kids are kids. These guys have welcomed me in and they see that I really care about them as a person first and it feels like I have been here my whole career.”
While his approach to football is structured, McNeely also admits he has a fun side with a fondness for things like pirates and old war stories much like Washington State University’s head coach Mike Leach.
“He is kind of quirky,” he said. “He is more of an offensive guy and I am more of a defensive guy. That type of stuff interest me and he is kind of along the same lines as that. And he is crazy too. He is pretty cool.”