Building a new home across town

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Jordan Neal, a former Division III quarterback, working with McMurry senior quarterbacks Kevin Hurley Jr. and Xavier Alexander.
McMurry athletics photo

By Brian Lester

Jordan Neal didn’t plan on leaving Hendrix to take over the head coaching job at McMurry in his hometown of Abilene.

But while he was back home hunting over Thanksgiving weekend, his brother-in-law received a text from one of his former roommates in college that encouraged Neal to take a call from War Hawks athletic director Sam Ferguson about the opening.

“It’s a funny story. I didn’t really apply for the job,” Neal said. “I was happy in my role as the offensive coordinator at Hendrix. I wasn’t looking to leave at all.”

Still, he decided to talk on the phone with Ferguson anyway.

“Something compelled me to take the call,” Neal said. “I give credit to Ferguson. He recruited me and sold me on the program. He told me it was a diamond in the rough, a great place with great people.”

Neal did the phone interview after returning home to Arkansas, and the next day he was in his car for the eight-hour drive back to Texas for an all-day interview.

“It was a grueling interview from Monday morning until Monday night. I knew at that point if they offered me the job, I was going to take it,” Neal said.

Neal did indeed get the offer and didn’t hesitate to take the job.

Though he played his college football at crosstown rival Hardin-Simmons, setting 16 single-season or career records as well as being named one of 10 Gagliardi Trophy finalists in 2006, he has strong ties to McMurry.

“I grew up right down the street from the campus,” Neal said. “There are a lot of family connections here. I know a lot of people here. It feels like another home.”

Is there pressure to win here, in a city where he shined as a high school football star at Cooper before going on to college? There is some. Neal will tell you as much.

“I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t any pressure. Everyone knows me here. They’ve seen me at my best and seen me at my worst. I don’t think I have to go light the world on fire to be supported. At the same time, I want to succeed. But more than anything, it’s humbling. It’s a humbling experience and privilege to be at McMurry. I want to leave the program better than I found it.”

The War Hawks are 0-2 so far but steps are being made to achieve that goal of restoring a winning feeling at McMurry.

Neal has seen flashes of it over the last two weeks in losses to Trinity (41-10) and Howard Payne (56-37).

“Our guys have a lot of grit and determination,” Neal said. “We did some good things against Trinity, but they are a much better football team than we are right now. I felt we played well against Howard Payne, and we were beating them 17-14 at halftime, but we imploded in the third quarter. McMurry teams in the past would have tucked their tails and gave up. We continued to battle.”

Coaches always talk about the importance of teams staying in the moment, focusing on the game in front of it. And the War Hawks do come out focused each week, and yet, the big picture matters, too.

“Our guys are looking beyond the game we are playing. We’re trying to build a strong mold and foundation here. They see the big picture,” Neal said. “We feel like we are building towards something here and it takes a lot of grit and determination to do it.”

Starting quarterback Xavier Alexander has seen the team take small steps forward. The senior feels good about the direction the program is heading in.

“The first two games were tough, but we learned a lot,” Alexander said. “I feel we should be able to get some wins here going forward.”

Alexander is thankful to have someone like Neal on the sideline. He connects with him in a way he didn’t with other coaches because Neal played the position of quarterback.

“It’s great having someone who played the position. He is teaching me a lot, the ins and outs of the position, and how to be a leader. I think my leadership has been my biggest improvement.”

Neal emphasizes academics as much as he does athletics, and he has credibility speaking on the topic having been a four-time American Southwest Conference all-academic selection.

“John Gagliardi would hold a nickel up to the sun and say the nickel is football and the sun is your education,” Neal said. “The air is going to go out of the ball for every one of these guys at some point the same way it did for me. I was fortunate to play in Europe for a year, but at the end, the education is what you have left. It’s not something you fall back on. It’s something you discover and that you are passionate about. I get so much joy in seeing guys go on and be successful in life.”

On the field, Neal wants McMurry to be a place that players want to come to for football and an education. He tells the story of his own college recruiting days, noting it’s not always easy to see just how great a place can be from the outside looking in.

“I went kicking and screaming into Hardin-Simmons, even though they a great program,” Neal said. “But after two days, I realized how special it was. I had a great experience there. I have this dream and vision that McMurry can be the best place in the country to go to school and play football.”

Neal believes the War Hawks can get there through their willingness to play at a high level regardless of the circumstances around them.

“Our consistent daily approach is expecting the players to play unbelievably hard,” Neal said. “You play hard when you are up and play hard when you are down. You put the external factors out of your mind and find a way to be the best you can be individually and as a team.”

Alexander has seen that philosophy in action.

“I think there is more structure now. We have higher standards,” Alexander said. “He really coaches us hard and doesn’t let us slack off. But he wants the best for us.”

Neal said going forward he just wants his team to be at its best day in and day out and see where that leads when the season is complete.

“I don’t get wrapped up in the win-loss record. I want us to compete to win every game,” Neal said. “There are no easy games on our schedule. It’s hard to win one game in this league, much less four or six or seven. Our focus is on playing every game like it’s our Super Bowl and I expect us to get better every day. We’ve already made a huge leap forward and I want to see us continue that.”

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