After father’s death, former Ole Miss coach changes priorities
Brian O’Neal spent much of Wednesday’s practice working with his son Cameron and Biloxi High’s other triple jumpers in the sand pit at the back corner of the football stadium.
Intermittently, O’Neal, coolly wearing a bright-pink polo, white pants and black sunglasses, rotated over to other athletes, correcting forms or giving encouragement.
He was in his element on the warm spring day in South Mississippi, albeit maybe not exactly where many thought he would be in 2017.
It wasn’t long ago the proud Pontotoc native looked like an up-and-coming track and field coach in the SEC. After making a name for himself as an assistant at his alma mater Ole Miss, then Florida, O’Neal returned to Oxford in 2012 to lead the Rebels forward.
Success immediately followed as he took the program to new heights.
But then came what many considered an abrupt resignation in June 2015 and an immediate withdrawal from the collegiate landscape.
After spending time training professional athletes, O’Neal resurfaced this year at Biloxi High School, where he has taken on the role of learning strategist in the classroom and director of sports performance with the athletic programs.
They’re roles he excels in and opportunities he said he now cherishes.
‘This too shall pass’
O’Neal said his resignation had a lot to do with the loss of his father in 2015, which was coupled with a personal epiphany.
“You talk to your kids about sacrifice and doing things for your kids all for the greater good, the core values you live by,” he said. “For me, back in 2015, I had a personal tragedy for me in which I lost my father and saw that he had given up so much. At the end of the day I saw what’s truly important. When I evaluated my life and things that were going on and my family’s values, I looked up and saw a wife who had given up her career to help me live my dream, followed me across the country to help me live my dream.”
O’Neal still glows when asked about his time in Oxford and said Wednesday he has no regrets about how things ended, calling his tenure as head coach “a dream come true.”
But last year, the NCAA concluded an investigation into his program, accusing the former Ole Miss track and field staff of violations involving impermissible tryouts, inducements, transportation and recruiting.
“Obviously, I believe there are some things going on in and around the program, not just Ole Miss track and field,” O’Neal said. “But I can assure you this much: I know about Ole Miss. I know we have the leadership there in place, I know they’re going to do things ‘The Ole Miss Way’ and this too shall pass. Like I said, I have nothing but tremendous pride of my time at Ole Miss.
“Nothing but pride.”
O’Neal is at peace with where he is now. And he’s getting back to why he got into coaching in the first place.
As director of sports performance, he is an assistant track coach but also acts as a rover between the sports.
“We’re really blessed to have a guy here like him,” football coach Bobby Hall said. “I mean, he was a head track coach in the Southeastern Conference. He gives us a guy who has far more expertise as far as running and changing direction and all of those kinds of things with our athletes.”
O’Neal said a lot of what he teaches now is similar to what he taught at Ole Miss and Florida. The biggest difference is the athletes’ age.
“I get the opportunity to work with our young men and women here on campus at Biloxi High School in all of the different sports, help them with conditioning to really and truly be the best athletes they can be while supplementing the other coaches in any role that I can,” he said.
One of the goals Biloxi has with O’Neal is to compete with perennial powerhouses — Brandon, Clinton and Pearl.
“(O’Neal is) a tremendous asset because everyone knows he has done really great things in college from the college level,” Biloxi track coach Michael Reese said.
Asked about the dynamic of bringing in an experienced college coach to “supplement” the staff, Reese acknowledged there have been some growing pains but the results have outweighed any issues thus far.
“It has been challenging at times, however, the main thing is both of us, head coach and assistant coach, and the rest of my assistant coaches, put the kids first,” he said. “It’s not about me or any individual person. It’s about our team and what we can do best for our team.”
Early returns have been great. Specifically, two Indians are already smashing school records.
Zach Williams Bracket recently broke the school’s 100-meter record with a time of 10.57 seconds, eclipsing Tyson Roach’s mark of 10.6 from 2006. He hopes to get to 10.3 or 10.2 by the end of the season.
Bracket said he didn’t previously take track seriously. After O’Neal’s arrival, he began putting more time in on the track and now believes it could be an avenue to a college scholarship.
“He motivated me a lot. When he first saw me he said I had potential and I’d be one of the best in the state if I continued to work hard and do what he said,” Bracket said. “I took him for his word and this is where I am.”
One of the biggest differences, Bracket said, has been an improved level of competition.
“At the end of practice I was laying out on the ground because I was running my hardest,” he said. “You know, you’re not really giving it your all if you’re not running your hardest. If you’re walking away after practice you’re not putting in enough work.”
Deshaun Morgan is another Indian turning heads. At the Gaston Hewes Relays, Morgan won both the triple jump and the long jump. Morgan said he’s improving every competition, from 43 to 45 feet. He said his personal best is 47 feet, with Damian Fletcher’s school record of 47 feet, 3 1/2 inches, well within reach ahead of Saturday’s Pass Christian Invitational.
“(O’Neal’s addition) helps a lot because it gives me more confidence in myself,” Morgan said. “If he can bring someone from jumping 48 in high school to being an Olympian jumping in the high 50s, I feel like I can do it myself.”
Finally family time
O’Neal loved coaching at Ole Miss but believes “the good Lord provides different avenues and roads for all of us.”
He said when he resigned, it really hit him how little time he spent with his family. With his new gig, that’s not a problem anymore.
His wife is a registered nurse on the cardiac team at Memorial Hospital at Gulfport. And in addition to being at home more with his two daughters, O’Neal said he enjoys coaching his son, a freshman on Biloxi’s track and basketball teams.
“I realized how selfish I had been,” O’Neal said. “An opportunity to give back and coach my son on a daily basis has been truly rewarding.”
Even being able to talk about things as simple as what’s on ESPN has meant the world to Cameron.
“Now when I get the alerts on ESPN I can go talk to him about it,” the teen said. “Before, I couldn’t really do that. Now I’m with him all the time.”