At first glance, Mike Neer appears to be like any other basketball coach. Strikingly tall and with a voice that manages to drown out even the most raucous sounds that resonate through the Palestra on Friday nights, Neer’s exterior is intimidating and commanding. Sitting down to talk with him, however, I quickly realized that appearances can be deceiving. Minutes into our conversation, Neer’s humble demeanor, combined with a unique ability to honestly articulate his thoughts, quickly changed my mind about the veteran coach.

When I found Neer, he was sitting in his office, watching tape of the New York University game from earlier this season. It signified what he would later tell me was an essential component to his decades of success: preparation. The ‘Jackets have been an impressive 527-304 in his 32-year run as head coach and have gone to the NCAA tournament 11 times since 1976.

But while these numbers are impressive, it seemed more interesting to delve deeper into what drove the coach to UR in the first place and the history behind decades of achievement.

After spending his freshman year at Brown University, Neer transferred to Washington and Lee University and graduated as a member of the class of 1970. Shortly thereafter, he was invited to a tryout for the NBA’s Cincinnati Royals, where he was cut but then subsequently offered a contract to play in Bologna, Italy. Five weeks into his experience abroad, however, he was drafted into the Navy and served as a physical education officer and assistant basketball coach. As a result, when Neer came to UR in 1976, it was his first time working in an environment that was co-ed.

“It was a neat experience to come and find, quite frankly, a healthier social scene where guys and girls just interacted all day long, rather than being a product of an all-boys school that was more a generational thing,” Neer said.

The Palestra was another aspect of the campus the coach immediately embraced upon coming to UR. For Neer, the home venue has served as a constant source of enthusiasm and school spirit that has increased the intensity and passion of each game, from early in his career – when the Palestra was regularly filled to capacity and the concession stand sold beer to the student body – to the present – where there has been a recent resurgence in the numbers of students rolling out of bed on Sunday to cheer on their team.

“It’s a great place to watch a game,” Neer said. “Good teams love to come play here because they just now it’s going to be a wired environment and they know there’s an important and intense basketball game in store.”

The biggest consistency over the course of Neer’s tenure, however, has been his style of coaching. Two things he has always stressed are sound fundamentals and good decision-making.

“I believe that, over time, more games have been won here on the practice floor and not at game time,” he said. “A lot of the behind-the-scenes work at the practices is to get kids to be on the same page in [terms of] decision-making and value system come game time.

“[During the game,] yes, I have timeouts. Yes, I’m loud and can yell out some plays, but basically it’s a player’s game. So what I’ve tried to do is prepare our players fundamentally and in collective decision-making so they can solve what’s going on out there by themselves.”

When probed as to why he’s been so successful, Neer gave most of the credit to his players.

“They’re bright, and they want to be coached,” Neer said. “And it’s been a very good marriage that way.”

The coach also mentioned that his achievements are a result of the fact that he embraces the idea of the student athlete and balance in an individual, an idea that UR tries to invoke in its student body.

“This is a tremendous institution, but that doesn’t preclude that you can’t put together a very good basketball team,” Neer said. “I’ve had people ask how can you do it with kids that are bright. That’s how we do it. We are looking for bright kids, motivated kids who are gym rats. And, clearly, they exist.”

And for the past 32 years, Neer has consistently put together some very good basketball teams. His squad this year has ranked as high as No. 1 in the poll and currently sits at the No. 6 spot.

And the student body has responded enthusiastically – a fact that the basketball coach embraces enthusiastically.

“I want to say something,” Neer said, addressing the stands after a Friday night game in January. “First, you guys were amazing. Second, sleep is overrated. See you all Sunday.”

Hilfinger is a member of the class of 2010.

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