This past June Matt Neil got a phone call during a luncheon. He excused himself from the table and headed outside. While standing on the sidewalk, he cried. Then called his wife and cried again.
The tears were tears of joy. They were tears that the past two months had come to an end. The call was from Hope’s Provost, Dr. Richard Ray. Neil had been offered the head-coaching job for the Flying Dutchmen, something he had been hoping for and thinking about for a long time. “When he offered me the job, I was incredibly humbled, and overjoyed at the same time” said Coach Neil.
32 years as a Dutchman
Matt Neil began his playing career in 1978, in which he was an all-conference MIAA forward as both a junior and a senior. He was named the league’s most valuable player his senior season. Neil became Hope’s junior varsity coach in 1985, three years after graduating. He coached the JV for nine years, at which point he became a varsity assistant coach from 1995-2010.
Thirty-two years as a Dutchman, “that is quite a long stretch of time,” said Neil. One can imagine that a lot of things have changed throughout those 32 years. Neil says the biggest change in the program has been the dedication to the off-court preparations. “When I came to Hope, we didn’t have a lifting program, or an off-season conditioning program. I encouraged teammates to lift and we began training harder. Now we lift three days per week in the offseason and two days per week during the season,” said Neil.
Another quite obvious change is the gym where the team plays. The Richard and Helen DeVos Fieldhouse opened for the 2005-06 season after breaking ground in late April of 2004. Previously, the team had played in the Civic Center and the Dow Center. DeVos Fieldhouse was a $22 million project with $7.5 million contributed by the Richard and Helen DeVos foundation. DeVos is a 102,000 sq. ft. building that houses the Athletic offices, the Kinesiology Department, the Athletic Training program, the volleyball team and the men’s and women’s basketball teams.
Now in the 2010-2011 season, Matt Neil has taken over as head coach of the Hope College men’s basketball program, a program full of tradition. He has become only the fourth head coach for Hope in the past 62 seasons, and the tenth in school history. Hope basketball is also full of tradition for his family, as both of his sons are in the program.
Father and Sons, Coach and Players
Logan Neil, a 6-foot-4 junior guard, is a varsity returner this year, while his younger brother Grant is a 6-4 freshman forward on the junior varsity team. Coach Neil is “living a dream” getting to watch both his sons put on a Hope jersey. “I think every dad longs to do something with his children. The boys and I enjoy many other things besides basketball but coaching our sons is a true joy for me” said Coach Neil.
And the feeling is mutual. The boys are just as excited about playing for their dad, as he is to coach them. “To see him in his element, to see your dad do what he loves to do… that will be pretty neat” said Logan.
This is a new step for the entire family. Neither of the boys has played with their dad as the coach, and they also have never played on a team with each other. That changed this fall when both Logan and Grant played together on the varsity soccer team. The team won the MIAA Championship, and Logan, the team’s goalie, was named MIAA MVP, as well as second-team all-region in Division III.
So far this basketball season, Logan has been a major contributor for the team off the bench. That includes his career-high 23 points in the team’s first win, which was also his dad’s first win as head coach. He shot 9-for-10 that game against Aquinas, including five-for-six from three-point range. So far, the father-son connection has been apparent. “Neither is lightning quick, but both possess a high basketball IQ. They are smart about playing the game… from help-side defense, to finding the next best shot. I sometimes find that they are already doing what I have only thought about, which must mean we are often on the same wavelength” said Coach Neil.
Neil Family at Hope
Not only the men, but also the entire Neil family is part of the Hope family. Matt and his wife, Kim, met at Hope. Their oldest daughter, Kendra, graduated from Hope in 2009 and is now teaching kindergarten in Honduras. Ellary, the youngest of the Neils, is a student at West Ottawa High School and comes to just about every one of her brothers’ games. That means when the team has a game, you can find the entire Neil family at DeVos, other than Kendra, of course. But even from all the way in Honduras, she tunes into every game on the Internet.
Does new coach mean new style?
Often when a program gets a new coach, the team’s style of play will change because that coach brings with him a new coaching style. This raises a unique question when considering Neil’s new position because of his history with the program. He has been coaching under former Coach Glenn Van Wieren, so most would assume that Van Wieren has influenced Neil’s coaching. “I think you have to coach to your personality. I try to teach the players how to read certain situations and take what the defense gives them. My focus is getting players to understand options and then take what ever is there. My passion is for us to defend hard and Coach VW and I are right together with this,” said Coach Neil.
The two coaches may have different personalities, leading to their own coaching styles but Neil says he has learned a lot from Van Wieren. “I have been privileged to be part of coach Van Wieren’s staff for the past 26 years. He has modeled excellence as a coach, as a mentor, as a family man of faith and a friend,” said Neil to the Holland Sentinel.
The Dew Crew
While he will be most known for being the team’s head coach, Neil is involved with Hope men’s basketball outside of coaching as well. He founded the ever-popular Dew Crew in 1996 and continues to help the student section grow. The Dew Crew is well known for being one of Division III’s most passionate student sections, also contributing to the atmosphere that makes DeVos Fieldhouse an incredible place to play. The student section, which is sponsored by Mountain Dew, now fills up with over 400 students for the men’s games. “It’s been contagious, generates and invigorates the students. These kids are connected to the players. They are with them in classes and in the dorms and now they huddle with them before the game,” Neil said in 100 years of Hope Basketball written by Randall P. Vande Water. By starting the Dew Crew, Neil has created an opportunity for Hope students to be the crazy, insane fans that are usually only found at Division I schools. “The Dew Crew is great because our student body is able to get so excited and hyped up about our basketball team and it’s cool to see that we are all so passionate and supportive of our peers on the team. It’s just incredible that we are as intense as most Division I student sections. It gets crazy,” said Peter Clifton, a member of the Dew Crew, and a junior at Hope.
Love for Hope
Clearly to stay involved in the same program for over 30 years, there is something special that makes you stick around. For Coach Neil, that something special is Hope’s unique mission. “Our mission at Hope is to educate students in and out of the classroom, in order that they might go into the world and transform lives… no matter what their profession,” said Neil.
Neil is a big believer in finding a balance between academics and athletics, something student-athletes can find at Hope. “I feel at Hope, athletics is a mere part of the experience of college. Basketball is a huge part of my life, and the life of my family, but it is not all of life… The balance that all coaches seek between academics and athletics is a top priority at Hope and will always continue to be.”