By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – The opportunity to become a head coach in the Southeastern Conference was lure enough.
To return home to land the job made it extra special for Brian O’Neal.
The Pontotoc native and former Ole Miss track athlete and assistant coach became just the third coach in the school’s modern-day era when he was named to replace Joe Walker at Rebels coach on Tuesday.
A four-year track letterman, O’Neal earned a degree in Public Administration at Ole Miss in 1993. He was an assistant coach on Walker’s staff for 15 years before spending the last four seasons as an assistant coach at Florida.
“Ole Miss is my dream job. It always has been from the moment I set foot on this campus in 1989,” O’Neal said. “I talked to coach (Mike) Bain over at Pontotoc and told him I’ll definitely be … looking for the next Brian O’Neal or Nicole Franklin to come out of there.”
Walker was named Ole Miss coach in 1979 and has held the position since – except for a four-year stint in the late ’80s at the University of Florida.
O’Neal continued a successful career at Florida. Following his first season there in 2009, he was named national assistant coach of the year, and over his time in Gainesville helped the Gators to four national championships – including the 2012 outdoor title – and three runner-up finishes.
Ole Miss associate athletics director John Hartwell chaired the school’s search committee.
“We had great interest in the job, some head coaches at the Division 1 level, some highly successful assistants … but at the end of the day, Brian was attractive not only because we knew him from his accomplishments at Ole Miss but in his four-year experience at Florida.”
With Florida’s success and O’Neal’s impressive resume, Hartwell and the committee could not assume that the idea of coming home would be enough to lure O’Neal. There was competition.
“Frankly, Brian had other folks interested in him. Purdue and Ohio State were searching for head coaches,” Hartwell said.
Upon his hiring O’Neal talked about is relationship with Walker but also about putting his own stamp on a program that has known only one head coach for so long.
“At Florida we won four national championships and multiple SEC championships,” O’Neal said. “I plan to come in here, compete at a high level and raise our standards and expectations. I’m coming here to compete and to win.”