After a national search and interviewing process, on December 19 the University of Guelph Department of Athletics announced Kevin MacNeill as the program’s Head Coach.
Without hesitation Coach MacNeill agreed to answer some questions for this blog. That came as no surprise because he has always been open to talking and has also made himself available to meet and communicate with alumni and supporters at many Friends of Gryphon Football events.
1. First off, congratulations on your selection as the Head Coach of the Gryphon Football team. I know we congratulated you last year as well (when you were named the interim HC) but this must feel a lot different. The “interim” tag was obviously short term and came with some uncertainty. How much different is this “promotion” from that interim one last year?
The position was much different last year; not only was our program going through a transition but so was our athletic department. The uncertainty made that transition more difficult and hurt our recruiting efforts early on. This time it has been great to have the process finished before the recruiting “Blackout” so that we could let our prospects know that there is a firm direction moving forward.
2. Now that you have some added security in knowing that you will have several years to mold the program the way you want it are you going to be doing anything differently than last year?
One of many things I’ve learned from Stu is that you can never be satisfied. We will always re-evaluate each year and look to make improvements. I love the progress we’ve made in our team’s accountability and feel we have a very motivated group of players and coaches.
3. Looking back on the 11 months you were the interim head coach, what were the biggest challenges or surprises you encountered as a new head coach, both positive and negative? What things have you learned and what changes/adjustments do you plan to make to your own plans for the program?
The biggest challenge was the change management. Change is never easy and it takes a lot of positive leadership to minimize its negative effects. I was happily surprised by how well the players managed the change and overcame all the adversity they faced. I’ve never seen a group of players overcome the amount of adversity they faced this past season. Now that we have established our new culture it’s important to continue to develop it. Having more opportunities for team bonding is something I think is important for this off season.
4. I recently saw an interview with Nick Saban where he was asked what the greatest threat was to what he has established at Alabama. His answer … “Guys like that”, referring to Clemson’s Dabo Swinney. I have also read or heard several times recently about a recent shift in the NCAA away from trying to hire Saban clones and assistant coaches, to hiring young, energetic, player-focused coaches like Swinney. How do you see yourself? An it’s-all-about-the-process -type guy? Or a more Swinney-style coach?
I think staying true to yourself and the things you did to get you where you are is the most important aspect as a coach. I’ve always believed in putting the players first and being there for them. The number one reason I love coaching University sports is the player development opportunities. I think you can be both: maintain a strict process but remain a player-centric coach.
5. Heading into 2017 it would appear that Guelph has by far the most continuity and the most experience of any OUA coaching staff. Do you plan on making any changes to your staff, either new coaches or changed assignments?
Coaching changes will depend on many factors. One of our greatest strengths is having a great coaching staff that gets along with each other. This is something we have always believed in: that continuity is important for sustained growth and success.
6. We’re seeing lots of changes on coaching staffs around the OUA – i.e. Greg Marshall giving up offensive coordinator duties & bringing in Steve Snider; lots of turnover at McMaster; UofT and Windsor are both hiring full-time offensive and defensive coordinators; York needs a new OC, etc.. What are your thoughts on what is going on and the possible impacts on the league? Do you see it having any impact on your staff?
There is always a chance when you have great people that other programs will look to hire them. I think what we are seeing is great for our sport. Schools are looking to make improvements and that will have a positive impact on their programs.
7. Last season you had to deal with the loss of more than 20 players from your dress roster. That, coupled with some other uncontrollable circumstances, had quite an impact on the season. What will be the impact of graduation and attrition on the 2017 Gryphons? Do you expect any losses to the CFL?
Last season we had a large transition and this year we are losing some great 5th year guys but not as many as this past season. There are a few players that have CFL opportunities, such as Johnny Augustine. Johnny is committed to doing a 5th year if he doesn’t stick with a CFL team but we wish him all the best in making a club.
8. Was the rush of commitments from recruits in the days leading up to, and the hours following, your being announced as the new Gryphon Football head coach just a coincidence or were some of these recruits responding to early knowledge of that decision?
The decision was communicated to me the same day it was made public, our staff worked hard before and after the announcement to secure a great class before the holiday. Our level of organization and hard work before the holiday blackout was the biggest contributor to the early success of our recruiting class. It was nice to see that once the decision was made that a few recruits decided that this was their best fit. Having that type of relationship with our recruits is important to me.
9. Sticking with recruiting, where is this program headed with the balance of the 2017 Recruiting Class and in the future?
Our recruiting will always be focused on getting the best of the local talent. We need to win in our backyard and surrounding area. With so many schools so close together we must beat them in local recruiting if we want to beat them on Saturdays. I also want to see us start to get some players that have gone to American prep schools and players from Quebec.
10. Last Spring we learned that Manitoba wasn’t going to follow through on the second half of the home-and-home preseason games, thus 2016 became just the second time in 7 years that the Gryphons didn’t play an exhibition game with an out-of-conference foe. I recall you telling me you turned down some other offers because it was important to you, in your first training camp as a HC, to play at home in order not to sacrifice several practices for travel time. What are your thoughts/plans on playing a preseason game in 2017?
I have always been a strong supporter of exhibition games, but due to our schedule and some other extenuating circumstances, a decision was made not to do it last year. With a more balanced schedule in 2017, we will look to have a true exhibition game in 2017 and set up a home and away type of arrangement with out of province teams.
11. In the future (2018 and onward) would you like to see Guelph playing an in-season game (or two) that counts in the standings against a top team from the RSEQ or CanWest?
The simple answer is yes but there are several factors that need to be resolved before we can do a national interlock game (or two). The more we can have the top teams play against each other the better and more exciting our league will be.