BOYS HOOPS: McNeely picks up milestone coaching win
THE WOODLANDS - With an 85-59 blowout win over La Marque Tuesday, the College Park Cavaliers ushered their coach, Clifton McNeely, into an exclusive club as the win brought his career total to 500.
Not many high school coaches have that amount of success or stick with it long enough to cross that threshold. And for the only coach College Park has ever known, it took just 22 years and just two head coaching jobs.
Road to College Park
Clifton began his coaching career with a few assistant stops at both the high school and collegiate level: Port Arthur Lincoln High School (1985-1986), Aldine Eisenhower High School (1986-1988), Southern Methodist University (1986-1993), and The University of Houston (1993-1995).
He then returned to the high school level as the head coach at Austin Westlake, where he coached for 10 years (1995-2005) and collected more than half of his 500 wins.
After much success at Austin Westlake, McNeely came to College Park in 2005 where he began building the Cavaliers basketball program from the ground up.
“It is one thing to walk into a program that is established and revitalize it, or to walk into a program that has been having success, but when you start on ground zero and have to build up it is a little tougher,” McNeely said. “Dr. Mark Merle gave me the opportunity and trusted me to build the program. Coach Richard Carson gave me a lot of support and really trusted I could build this from scratch.”
Coaching at College Park has been special for Clifton. Not just because he started the program, but also because both his children graduated from College Park. His son Tanner and daughter Alyssa both played sports for the Cavaliers. Tanner played basketball and Alyssa played volleyball and went on to play for the University of California-San Diego.
″[Clifton] had the privilege of coaching his son and not everyone gets to do that,” Carson said. “You spend so much time, as a coach, away from your family, but he was able to coach his own son and watch his daughter play volleyball here.”
After Tuesday’s win, Carson joked that he almost didn’t hire McNeely because he had beaten him in a freshman football game back in the 1987.
McNeely was a coach at Eisenhower and Carson was coaching at Aldine and the two schools were facing off for the district championship.
“It’s tough for people when you have to hire your adversaries,” McNeely joked. “Like most coaches paying their dues in Texas, I had to coach football. We defeated him for the district championship and it was the first district championship that Eisenhower had won in football at any level. That group of kids went on to have great success and as a matter of fact, Carson ended up coaching them as an assistant when they were seniors.”
When Carson first got to Eisenhower in 1992, Clifton had already moved on to be an assistant at SMU. However, in 2000 when Westlake beat Eisenhower in the football state semifinals, McNeely was on the Chaparrals coaching staff.
“I didn’t have anything to do with the varsity but I still wore the colors and was on that staff,” McNeely said. “Unfortunately for Carson, I am 2-0 against him. I guess if you can’t beat ‘em you bring ’em in to your program. Hopefully he made a wise decision and who knows, maybe he’ll figure it out and let me come out to call some plays on the football field.”
A Good Name to have
Clifton isn’t the first McNeely to build a program from scratch.
The McNeely family has strong roots in Kentucky, where Clifton’s father Ken McNeely coached for a number of years.
Ken McNeely eventually made his way to Aviano American High School in Aviano, Italy, where he founded the program and now has the gym named after him.
“My dad has well over 800 victories and he built a program from the ground up too,” Clifton said. “He told me, ‘it is different and its a special thing because you watched everything that transpired in that gym.’ My father won over 150 games coaching football, over 700 games in basketball and coached pro basketball on the side. And I can tell stories about both my grandfathers and my uncle that way too. I guess its in my blood.”
Clifton also has a great name when it comes to high school basketball. While he was named after his grandfather, who coached basketball in Kentucky, there is another Clifton McNeely who had great success coaching in Texas.
The other Clifton McNeely, who also happens to be the first player ever taken in the NBA draft, made a name for himself coaching at Pampa High School in West Texas where he now has a fieldhouse named after him.
His sons, Phil and Mike McNeely both coached basketball as well. Phil coached at Ducanville, where he retired with over 700 wins, three state titles, and also has his name on the Panther’s court.
“I’m actually friends with [Phil and Mike],” Clifton said. “We see each other about twice a year and we know that if we go back far enough and track it, we are probably distant cousins or something. It’s a good name to have in the basketball world - at least at the high school level.”
More than just a coach
While everyone in the College Park gym was celebrating Clifton’s success on the hardwood, it was Carson who was quick to remind everyone of the impact Clifton has had off the court.
“He has been good for our school and he has been good for our kids,” Carson said. “Not only is he a great teacher on the basketball court, but he is a great teacher off the basketball court. He is the head of our math department and our academic standards are very high here. So for him to balance family, coaching and teaching says a lot about him. I’m happy to be here and watch it happen.”
Even after his students and players have graduated, Clifton remains invested in their lives and celebrates their achievements.
Layton Zinsmeister, who graduated from College Park in 2012, played under Clifton for three seasons. Zinsmeister went on to play for Mary Hardin-Baylor where he got to play for 2013 Division III national championship against Amherst in Atlanta. Clifton made the trip to watch Zinsmeister and James Allen (another former Cavalier) play in the national title.
“He was kind enough to come to Atlanta and watch me and Allen, play in that game,” Zinsmeister said. “We were very thankful to see our high school coach fly to Atlanta to watch us play. I got to play college ball because of coach McNeely. He was always trying to push us to be the best that we could be.”
There were a number of Clifton’s former players at Tuesday’s game, to go along with his family and friends. Still, outside of Clifton’s family, it was hard to find anyone happier for his 500th win than Carson.
“We go a long way back,” Carson said. “He is a great guy and a great family man. I’m proud of him and proud of what he has done here.”