Over 1,700 fans crammed into the Palestra seats on a snowy night in January two years ago. Students spilled over into the aisles and spectators hung over the glass at the end of the court to watch the then-No. 1 men’s basketball team beat No. 2 Brandeis University.
There was a feeling of excitement that night. And Mike Neer felt it. Following the win, the coach strode down to where the microphone sat and picked it up.
‘I want to say something,” Neer announced, addressing the crowd. ‘First, you guys were amazing. Second, sleep is overrated. See you all Sunday.”
It wasn’t unusual to hear the coach’s demanding voice carry into the stands during games. Swear words or more creative alternatives (‘Son of a biscuit eater!” and ‘Cheese and crackers!”) were common.
But that moment, the veteran coach wasn’t letting slip an inopportune expletive. His voice wasn’t carrying across the crowd simply because of its deep tenor. That’s not how he would normally operate anyway. His words, per usual, were deliberate.
And Mike Neer always did know when to pick up the mic.
Sophomore starting forward Nate Novosel has class every Wednesday at 10 a.m. But following an early morning meeting last Wednesday, when he and the rest of the UR men’s basketball team gathered to hear their coach announce his retirement, Novosel was notgoing to class.
‘He just threw it out there and got kind of emotional and choked up a little bit, because it was such a hard decision for him,” Novosel recalled. ‘And afterward, there were a few of us who just sat there. We couldn’t go to class. We were too shocked.”
Neer has been the basketball coach at UR for 34 years. He led teams to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament four times. He was a national champion in 1990.
He was stubborn, demanding and never afraid to call someone out. And, of course, he liked to win.
‘There was one time during practice my senior year where I was bringing the ball up the court in a press break situation,” All-American center Jon Onyiriuka ’08 explained. ‘I must have been doing something weird because all of a sudden I hear, “Jon, what are you doing? Just bring the ball up the court. Who do you think you are, Curly Neal?'”
Neer is a morning person. Over the summer that means he gets up at 6:30 a.m. every day and eats three poached eggs and an English muffin for breakfast. During the season, that meant he was running 6 a.m. practices Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. ‘I think only ROTC beats us in there,” Novosel said.
Practices for the men’s basketball team were a lesson in the structured mind of their coach. Born in Boston, Neer graduated from Washington and Lee College in 1970 and then spent almost five years after college at the Naval Academy as a part of the coaching staff. He was turned down when he applied to coach at Tufts University in 1975, because they were worried about turning their ’70s-era, impressionable 18-year-olds over to a regimented man of Naval Academy breed.
Perhaps they were right: Neer is strict. He’s demanding and hard on his players. But he is also efficient. Practices were never more than two hours, and an agenda was posted before practice started so that players knew the schedule.
Neer’s squads were always prepared, always well versed in scouting reports and strategy. And you begin to wonder if the ends do justify the means.
In 1976, Terry Gurnett was a senior on the River Campus, one year removed from becoming the UR women’s soccer coach. But he can still tell you about his first encounter with the rookie basketball coach with the shaggy hair.
‘He came down [to the court], we were playing pick-up ball and he was busy hollering at us, moving us all around while we were playing,” Gurnett said with a laugh. ‘My comment to him was, “Listen, I’ve developed these bad habits over a lifetime and I intend on keeping them.’ But he is ever the teacher.”
Of course, Neer would’ve had a response. And it would probably have been something like this: ‘Bad habits are like a soft bed: easy to get into, hard to get out of” a ‘Neerism” forward Dan Milbrand ’08 still uses today as a teacher in New York City.
The coach never missed an opportunity to make someone laugh like at the Final Four banquet in 2002 in Salem, Va. The emcee for the night was going down the four teams’ rosters. Most of the players from the other schools all hailed from the same state as the college. But UR, the emcee noticed, had players from seven different states and two foreign countries.
‘That’s because we recruit through the witness protection program,” Neer quipped.
Everyone in the banquet hall burst out laughing.
The phone rang four times over the two-hour span when I sat in the coach’s office last week. He never picked it up, never even acknowledged its existence. He was too busy telling me a story:
In the late ’60s, the U.S. was preoccupied with Vietnam. The draft lottery was in 1969 and the 6-foot-6-inch Neer had to face for the first time the prospect of what it would mean to serve in a war.
Neer in his signature crouched position on the sideline of a basketball court is nothing if not prepared but how do you prepare to go into the armed forces?
‘I can take an elbow on a rebound, but a god-darn bullet or poison dart in the jungle?” The coach shook his head. ‘I’m not sure I can take that.”
In 1970, Neer graduated from Washington and Lee. Over the the next year, things changed. Neer was offered a contract to play basketball professionally in Bologna, Italy, but after a short spurt abroad, he returned per request of the draft board, opted to join the Navy and, after calling the Naval Academy coach, was offered a position as an assistant basketball coach and physical education teacher. But he turned it down he took a chance, hoping to become an officer. Shortly thereafter, he was accepted into officer candidates’ school.
Neer arrived in Newport, R.I. for training in April of 1971 and was asked to fill out a ‘dream sheet,” asking where he hoped to be stationed and what he wanted to be doing there. He knew of a naval base in Italy and wrote that in as his first choice.
But then he thought a moment. ‘I remember saying, “Is this really dream?’ “Yeah, yeah,’ they told me. So I scratched out [Italy] and put in assistant basketball coach and physical education instructor.”
A couple weeks later, Neer got a phone call. He was to be stationed in Annapolis, Md. as the assistant basketball coach and physical education instructor at the Naval Academy.
As he finished this whirlwind account in his office last week, Neer began to talk slowly, pacing himself. Most of the time, the coach can’t sit still. He gets out of his chair and gesticulates at pictures that line his bulletin boards to help tell stories. He pretends there is an orange line on the wall at 6-foot-8-inches to show me how he came up just short of that mark at his physical in Roanoke. Here, however, he was intent. This was a teaching moment.
‘I’ve just written a story here, because I’ve decided I’m going to retire,” he said. ‘I know it’s time for me to make a change and a considerable change … but as we get started talking about you getting ready [to graduate], I guess I just want to tell you I’ve been there. And sometimes a push, like selective service, sets off something you might not have chosen.
And by luck, serendipity, by creativity, by whatever, you eventually stop fighting the current.”
Thirty-four years is a long time, and only one person has been with Athletics longer Associate Athletic Director Jane Possee.
To her, yes, Mike Neer is a colleague. Yes, he is a coach. But most importantly, he is a friend.
Possee has been here just one year more than Neer. She served as the women’s basketball coach for her first three years in addition to coaching field hockey. She continued coaching until 1992, when she became an administrator.
She grimaces as she remembers the ups and downs of the past three decades, b
ut smiles when she thinks of times she’s had an opportunity to work with her friend, the coach.
‘There is a story I have to tell you,” she said, and she recalled when Neer stepped in and took over a basketball practice for her during the 1977-78 season when she was sick.’The traditions were so intense with men and women at that time,” Possee explained. ‘For a woman coach to call and ask a man to take their practice and run it … it was like, “What? You’re asking them to do what?’ He just fit right in. And he can spin a story and make it work and still get a lesson out of it.”
But after 34 years, Possee understands her friend’s decision. It isn’t easy these things rarely are but she gets it.
‘He loves to garden, you know,” she told me. (Yes, the man enjoys his day lilies.) ‘Every year I think I run into about half of the University staff at the Public Market, all kind of consumed with getting their flowers in. And I often run into him there … and so we share a lot of that. I think it will be a change for all of us [in the department], but I think he’s ready and that’s good.”
She paused. ‘Now I have to get ready.”
The coaches’ offices in the athletic center have small bulletin boards outside their doors. Most coaches post team schedules, funny anecdotes, newspaper clippings. Neer’s had just one poster strip on it the day I went to talk to him. ‘Good is the enemy of great,” it read.
Inside the office, however, there is color. On the left wall are team photos. But on the right is another bulletin board, only this one isn’t visible it’s covered with pictures of players he has coached over the last 34 years.
Last week, Neer gave me the tour of that board. At one point, his finger tapped a black-and-white photo taken in 2002, right after his team found out they would be receiving a bye in the NCAA tournament. There are seven or eight guys in the photo, crowded together in a group hug.
Neer pointed to each in turn. ‘Now, I see and this is kind of the dad in me,” he began, then rattles off names and hometowns. Nassau, Bahamas. Sidney, Australia. Pittsburgh. Manhattan. Cincinnati. Corpus Christi, Texas.
There were times over the course of those two hours I spent in his office, over the course of the last two years even, where the 61-year-old coach has looked tired. He’s even contemplated retiring before this year, when what has turned into a year-round job had left him feeling… well, his age.
On the court Neer has appeared as tough as ever. But in those moments when he lets all of those years of highs and lows sink in, when he is feeling particularly worn down after a frustrating loss, the fatigue creeps up on him. Bus rides home are particularly hard.
‘You know you can be excited about running your 34th consecutive marathon,” Neer said. ‘But you also know that that adrenaline is going to give out at some point. And you’re thinking “Am I going to have enough, not just to finish, but to finish strong?'”
Back next to the picture-plastered bulletin board, Neer does not look tired. As he stood there in his office, pointing at kids he saw grow up within the confines of a four-year window, his age serves not to his disadvantage, but as a cradle of accumulated energy.
‘I’ve been around long enough to know that in that picture” he jabbed his finger at the group-hug photo ‘is this possibility.” Here he points to a picture taken a couple of years ago. It is of him, his college coach and two of his teammates from Washington and Lee.
And it seems his former players are beginning to understand that possibility as well. In an e-mail Milbrand passed on to me last week, he closed with this:
‘Many of us were fortunate to develop a relationship with coach Neer outside of basketball. For me personally, this relationship has extended past college and will definitely continue well into the future, whether he decides to pursue his dreams of owning a restaurant (‘Big Daddy’s Diner” comes to mind) or become a TV basketball analyst. Bill Walton would have nothing on coach Neer.”
Hilfinger is a member of the class of 2010.
Hilfinger is an employee of UR Sports Information.