Kim McNeill’s motivation for taking the head coaching job at East Carolina was the same motivation that prompted her to move back east twelve years ago after she tried living in California.
Berkeley, California was too far away from her biological family, so in 2007 McNeill moved back closer to home and took an assistant’s job at the University of Georgia, where she experienced a community that rallied around its college teams in a way that felt like family, too.
When McNeill visited Greenville it gave her the same feeling as Athens, GA, so she knew it was the right place for her to embrace her next coaching challenge.
She has only had a taste of the Pirate Nation so far, but McNeill can already tell that the ECU family is ready to embrace her, her husband Cory and their six-year-old twins Gabrielle and Cayden. And as she gets moved in, her first priority at ECU is to make sure the players who have experienced a tumultuous six months are both loved and challenged by the staff that will become family to them.
“You definitely have to have a relationship with them,” McNeill said. “You can’t be just strictly intense, with no wraparound, they don’t respond to that. That’s why myself and my staff are really big on relationships, and here at East Carolina we’re going to create a family environment.
“I just think that once you develop those relationships and the young ladies know that you care about them outside of basketball, if you have fifteen kids on a team, at least twelve or thirteen will run through a wall for you. If you keep it strictly about basketball, I don’t think you get the best out of them.”
It wasn’t easy for McNeill to leave Hartford, where as head coach for three seasons she led the Hawks to three straight America East title games and a bid to the WNIT this year. She was looking for a special situation in a highly competitive conference. When she met Jon Gilbert and picked up on his enthusiasm and vision, she knew ECU was the right fit.
It’s been a whirlwind since then; she was introduced as the Pirates’ tenth head coach on Friday, she went back to Hartford to take care of some details on Tuesday and then she went straight to the Women’s Final Four in Tampa.
McNeill is bringing her whole staff to Greenville from Hartford, and she is looking forward to establishing a routine with the players who played hard through a 2018-19 season under three different head coaches. Heather Macy resigned in October and was replaced by interim head coach Chad Killinger, who was replaced by Nicole Mealing in December when Killinger stepped down due to health concerns.
“Hopefully everybody will be excited about the change and want to come see the team, and I just ask the community to just be patient with us, because it’s going to take some time,” she said. “We’re laying the foundation now, but when you come in and change a culture it takes some time.”
A seasoned assistant coach at six different Division I schools before taking the Hartford job, McNeill learned from giants of the sport like Andy Landers, who spent 36 years at the helm at Georgia, and Joanne Boyd, under whom McNeill worked at Richmond, California and Virginia.
She picked up valuable lessons on leadership, character and basketball at each stop, she said, coming into her own when she stopped trying to imitate her mentors and instead found her own identity for the position.
“My first three years being a head coach really helped me grow, because I went back and forth on what kind of coach I was going to be,” she said. “And I finally said, ‘You know what? I’m going to be me.’”
The results she helped achieve at Hartford were startling. Her 2016-17 squad averaged 66.8 points per game, leading the conference and setting a new school record. Her 2017-18 squad set another school mark with 441 assists.
But the statistics she is the proudest of, the numbers that show where she put her greatest emphasis in developing the team, are on the defensive side of the ball.
“We play an up-tempo style, and we hang our hats on defense,” she said. “That’s where we’ve really made our marks, not only at Hartford or in the America East, but nationally. All three years that I was at Hartford, we finished top in the nation in steals. This year we finished number two in steals, number two in steals per game, number two in forced turnovers and number two in turnover margin, out of 349 Division I programs.
“I’m the kind of head coach that wants multiple scorers, so that’s why we do share the ball. I just like a total team effort.”