It was a honor to interview Coach Eric McNelley, especially since the interview was the day following Eastern’s breathtaking victory over the Cabrini Cavaliers. His knowledge of basketball is phenomenal, and I felt like we could have talked all day. Coach McNelley has a long season ahead of him, but its length is nothing compared to his life journey as a basketball coach.
It started in beautiful Miami, Florida. Eric McNelley, born in the sunshine state, is of Cuban and American descent. Growing up, he was your typical athlete, playing baseball, basketball, and football. But his passion was basketball. When I asked, “Did you always want to be a basketball coach growing up?” He smirked, leaned back in his chair and said, “My goal was to become a professional basketball player, but I didn’t have the right guidance.” Coach McNelley was recruited to play DIII basketball, but chose not to sign. Instead he tried to walk onto Coastal Carolina University’s DI team, which ended up not working out. Yet, because McNelley’s gaze moved from being a player to being a coach, he was far from disappointed. One night, while playing in an open gym, he was offered a basketball coach position at Holy Cross Academy and he accepted.
Coach McNelley’s coaching career dates back 15 years. Have you looked at the man’s resume? It’s quite impressive. Listening to him talk about his coaching career, I knew he was passionate about his job. His positive role as a head coach first appeared while coaching the La Salle High School team in Florida. He dedicated his time to that team and successfully transformed them. He commented, “In my first season as head coach we were a .500 team, but in the next four seasons we were ranked in the top five.” During his career as head coach, he had players who played under him go overseas and play professional basketball.
After hearing about his success as a head coach, I questioned, “What brought you to Eastern University?” and he acknowledged that it just sort of happened. Now and in the past, he and his wife thoroughly discuss the future before committing to any job. He stated, “It was whoever’s career boomed first, and that’s what we will follow.” Then he was offered a position at La Salle University and moved to Philadelphia temporarily, as he moved back home to Miami to be with his family. Once back in Miami he took a position at Westminster Christian, and then later moved to Indiana, They knew the stay in Indiana was temporary, but following that they finally landed in Philadelphia. Coach McNelley stated, “I could have gone back to LaSalle University, but I didn’t want to work for a DI school since I have two kids that are four and a nearly one year-old.” A friend in the area knew, Eastern’s current athletic director, Nate Stewart. From there Coach McNelley became the assistant coach and played a huge role. He expanded Eastern’s recruitment by recruiting players from Miami, 1,200 miles away. This season he has been promoted as the interim head coach. He joyfully stated, “Coach Stewart is rare. It is rare to find such a confident coach like him.” When asked, “Did you change game plan once you became head coach?” He replied, “Not at all, me and Coach Stewart kept the same game plan.”
Coach McNelley has a plan to transform the Eagles. He stated, “I am a rebuilder, that’s what I love to do is rebuild teams. That is what I have done my whole career.” It is evident that he has already begun the rebuilding process and so far I can see the transformation. Part of the rebuilding process according to Coach McNelley is to let the team experience different levels of competition. Therefore, he managed to get the Eagles a game against DII Nova Southeastern University, which will be an exciting game to watch this season. But rebuilding does not only take place on the court, it also takes place off the court according to Coach McNelley. He stated, “I want these guys to graduate with the mentality of winning in the professional field they pursue and not to stop grinding and having faith.” And as for family orientated McNelley, he does not care about the money, but for stability for his family and to transform Eastern University’s basketball program.