The sport of basketball has meant a lot to Jamie McNeilly. Not only did his entire family grow up in the sport, but it has helped teach him life lessons.
Maybe the sport meant more to him at no other time than his junior year at the University of New Orleans, when Hurricane Katrina hit the city.
“I still haven’t watched any news footage on it, so I don’t see it through the lens everyone else does,” McNeilly said. “It was as movie-esque as you could imagine. Literally fighting for where you’re going to sleep the next day. The night of the hurricane was really bad, but the worst part came immediately after.”
For McNeilly and his teammates, the next few days were hell on Earth. He and a couple of his teammates were stranded in the city together and had no way to contact family members. They stayed at strangers’ apartments for days until finally finding a way to meet the rest of their team in Tyler, TX. As the semester started, McNeilly’s team tried to use basketball to return to some sense of normalcy. Then they returned to the city.
“Most of us lost everything,” McNeilly said. “Most of my teammates were from New Orleans, and their homes were destroyed. It was a horrible experience. I feel honored that I got to wear the New Orleans name across my chest during it all, and be kind of an ambassador for our school and our program.”
As you might expect, going through that changed McNeilly’s life.
“You leave that experience with a different view on life,” McNeilly said. “Much more respect for the people who go through any major tragedy like that, because seeing it on TV really does it no justice. When you’re there, having lived through it, my teammates having their families relocated, it hits home and you definitely grow a love and admiration for the people who survived it.”
After the season, McNeilly’s coach resigned. McNeilly says the team felt lost and confused about their future.
Enter Buzz Williams.
“He really had to start from scratch with that team,” McNeilly said. “I was there at ground zero, going through the trials with him, new coaching mistakes, the early aggression in his career. I kind of went through it and appreciated it, and immediately gravitated towards his honesty, gravitated towards his work ethic, so we became close really early in my playing career. He actually told me early in my playing career that when I finished playing he wanted me to work for him. That was always in the back of my mind.”
Williams coached McNeilly for his senior season and the two developed a close bond. Williams even told McNeilly he wanted him on his future coaching staff.
After a brief playing career, McNeilly found himself as an assistant for the Canadian National Team, working with talented players such as Minnesota Timberwolves guard Andrew Wiggins, Utah Jazz forward Trey Lyles and Milwaukee Bucks guard Tyler Ennis.
“It was truly my introduction to coaching on a whole,” McNeilly said. “I came into the Canadian camp knowing next to nothing about coaching, and just really studying and learning from the Canadian coaches and being fortunate enough to start my career off with such special talents. It was an unbelievable opportunity. They taught me a lot about patience early. Just because they were a big name, you’d often forget they’re just young kids and they’re still learning, so when you’re coaching a Wiggins, or coaching a Lyles, you almost feel as if they should know everything, but they don’t because they’re still young, [they’re] just that talented. So that patience I learned from them was key and I carried it over when I started coaching here.”
Fast forward to the present, and McNeilly is heading into his ninth season as an assistant under Williams. McNeilly wouldn’t want it any other way.
“It’s the mutual respect for how hard each of us works, how we respect and how we go about it,” McNeilly said. “He’s still my coach, and I still call him coach. He still coaches me and teaches me every day. He’s really hard on me. His demand is really high, and I want nothing less. I really admire and respect him for that. It would be very easy for him to say, ’OK, Jamie has it, I can back off,’ but he doesn’t. I think that’s the main reason I’m continuing to grow to this day in my young career.”
McNeilly’s role under Buzz Williams has grown. McNeilly now does a lot of scouting and recruiting for the Hokies, trying to build Virginia Tech’s brand with recruits. Recruiting at Virginia Tech isn’t easy, especially since many top prospects are looking for a fast track to the NBA.
“There’s a certain group of kids that when you’re recruiting, you know you’re not going to get, or you know are not your type,” McNeilly said. “We like four year guys. We’ve won with four year guys. We’re not the program where you can come in, spend a year, leave and then go to the NBA. We may get kids like that in the future, but that’s just not what we’ve done.”
“We hear a lot of compliments from the NBA people that talk to us, ‘When are we getting the next Buzz guy? When are we getting the next worker? When are we getting the next guy that’s practicing every day, who’s diving on the floor in practice?’,” McNeilly said. “And we kind of hang our hat on that.”
McNeilly has seen a lot of growth in his short time at Virginia Tech, and a lot of that growth comes from Williams himself.
“I joke around with the current players all the time, that he’s way softer now,” McNeilly said. “He has dialed back how intense he is, he’s still extremely intense, but he dialed it back a bit and is really cerebral in his approach and he picks his spots a little more. He often tells people he can’t coach the way he coaches for a very long time. It’s too taxing on him. As the years have gone on, he’s really good on figuring out when to back off and when to come in and be really aggressive.”
McNeilly says that Williams is always focused on learning everything he can about the game and life.
“He’s a student. We see him studying every day,” McNeilly said. “He comes in early, he constantly sends us clips, leadership clips, basketball clips. As far as basketball and X’s and O’s, he doesn’t give himself enough credit. He truly spends a tremendous amount of time studying the subtle nuances of the game.”
Williams is certainly an intense coach, and since he arrived nearly a dozen players have transferred. Both center Satchel Pierce and guard Jalen Hudson transferred this offseason.
“It’s very important to know every situation with a kid is different, and Buzz is huge on players staying four years,” McNeilly said. “I know the culture in the NCAA kind of lends to kids transferring and the immediate gratification, which troubles Coach, and he tries to fight that. There’s not one player who left that we wanted to leave. We want the guys who come in and believe in us to stay. It’s part of the nature of the NCAA as a whole. The numbers are staggering. I’m not a fan of the whole transferring thing, I think student athletes need to become a little more committed to the programs they initially choose, but every situation is different.”
“It’s hard to play for Coach, but he also roots for you,” McNeilly said. “When he roots for you, its hard to leave that.”
McNeilly says that while Williams is hard to play under, he sees players who stay growing on and off the floor.
“When a player comes in, Coach immediately tests him,” McNeilly said. “On the court, off the court, academically, in study hall, in the weight room. Often, it breaks a player down. When a kid comes in we break him down almost immediately, almost to a point where you have to console him and bring him back from the bottom. I’m sure many programs do similar things, but Coach spends a lot of time and is very meticulous in how he goes about it. The players grow this natural edge and this natural chip on their shoulder that comes from having to work every day at a level they’re not used to working.”
“The biggest thing we see, and this group is no different, is that edge is starting to grow,” McNeilly said. “Their bodies start to change in the weight room, we’ve seen it how they talk around the office, when they come in and say hey in the locker room, that edge is growing and it’s really Coach’s personality. They embody it and they start to produce that same kind of hunger Coach has. It’s very genuine, and I think that’s what makes Coach special.”
McNeilly says part of his role as an assistant is to develop that deep, personal bond with players and understand them on a deeper level than most people.
“I like to use a financial term, I think it’s building equity,” McNeilly said. “Because you coach them hard, and you have to coach them hard, it’s been our culture and that’s why we’ve had success in the past, and we have to build that equity with the guys so that they respond to us when we coach them hard. We’re going to coach them hard, respect them hard and we’re going to love them hard. We have to do it all at an intense level for us to have success the way we’ve had success in the past, and it all stems with them trusting us and them believing in what we do, and they can only do that if they believe us as people first.”
“I’m always in communication with our current guys, making sure they’re okay,” McNeilly said. “Giving them that, ‘It’s okay, I’ve been through it,’ perspective that I think is pretty unique with my position, having played for Buzz.”
One of those players McNeilly has grown close with is Ty Outlaw. Outlaw transferred to Virginia Tech last year, but was held out of games and practices due to an undisclosed health condition. Outlaw, however, was cleared to play this season.
“He’s a changed person because of it,” McNeilly said. “You talk about appreciating what he has. I don’t think there is a student athlete in the country that appreciates the opportunity to play more than him, because of how hard this past year has been on him.”
McNeilly said that even though Outlaw wasn’t required to attend many team functions, practices and games, he was there every time.
“It speaks to who he is as a person how he handled it all,” McNeilly said. “Always a good teammate. Always showed up to everything the team was doing, even when he didn’t have to. He didn’t play for over a whole year, he wasn’t allowed to do anything athletically. It was really tough for him, but he handled it better than I could.”
Along with Outlaw, two players who will be highly counted on are forward Zach LeDay and guard Seth Allen. LeDay and Allen led the Hokies in scoring last season, both averaging over 14 points per game.
“We all believe you’re only as good as your seniors,” McNeilly said. “I tell him and Zach LeDay, it’s your team, not our team. We’re going to be here next year, you’re not. We’re only going to go as hard as you guys go. They’ve accepted that, and they’re being challenged with it every day. This offseason has been as good as we could have it, and it’s in part due to Seth. He is a vocal leader on the floor, the guys watch him. He’s so talented, so gifted with the ball in his hands, and because he’s such an outgoing personality, such a fun guy to be around, I tell him the guys are watching every move he makes. They’re looking for any kind of cue, positive or negative, from him. And he’s getting it. He’s maturing and growing and I’m extremely happy with his growth as a person since the day he got here.”
Virginia Tech men’s basketball as a whole is growing as well. The team was on the verge of making the NCAA Tournament last season, but McNeilly says the team doesn’t have a set of specific goals listed.
“How we go about things is far more important than the goals,” McNeilly said. “I don’t think we are necessarily the type of team that needs the goal to work, and I think that is why these guys are really special to work with and the players are really special to be around. Coach Buzz tells us, ‘It’s how you work, get better every day.’ He uses the hashtag “Get Better” all the time and we really preach it. It’s not something where we put it out and secretly meet and say we have to win the ACC this year. Just show up as early as you can, work as hard as you can for as long as you can, leave and see where it takes us.”