When Buzz Williams took his first head coaching job at the University of New Orleans in 2006, there wasn’t an immediate chemistry between the coach and the team’s senior leader, Jamie McNeilly.
Frankly, many who were around the program at the time said the two flat-out didn’t get along.
Little did McNeilly know at the time, he would spend 11 years (and counting) with Williams, moving to three locations across the country as a vital member of his coaching staff, including his current appointment as assistant head coach for Texas A&M.
“We’re family,” McNeilly said. “Me and Coach are family. We’re going to be in each other’s lives for the rest of our lives.”
McNeilly’s college experience was nothing like he had envisioned. The Toronto native moved halfway across a hemisphere to play college basketball. While working to establish himself as a college athlete, he withstood the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In an attempt to escape the storm with some teammates, he was trapped for four days east of the city in a location that was not a priority of FEMA with no ability to make contact with anyone.
The damage forced his team to base their academics and athletics out of the University of Texas-Tyler, while the university and city picked up the pieces.
The chaos of the move, which required consistent scheduling issues, left many of the players to their own devices when away from the gym, which resulted in less attention for basketball or schoolwork, McNeilly’s teammate James Parlow remembered.
McNeilly never lost focus, he said.
“It was a bad, bad situation,” Parlow said. “Me and my buddies, we used to party. Just having fun, no responsibilities and a bunch of money coming in from Katrina in checks. Jamie is taking 18 hours. Jamie is going hard. Jamie is studying. Coaches were loose and letting us do our thing. We’re driving to Dallas every weekend and doing our thing. Jamie was like, ‘No, I’m not going guys.’”
When Williams arrived in 2006, McNeilly felt like the coach was testing him from the start. Adding to the clash of personalities was a forced position change from point guard to shooting guard to make room in the lineup for junior college transfer Shawn Reynolds, whom Williams brought on from his junior college alma mater, Navarro.
However, it was after Williams put the team through his preseason conditioning “boot camp” that the new head coach saw the dedication and toughness McNeilly demonstrated, Reynolds said, and a breakthrough occurred.
“He had to develop a whole new relationship with a brand new coach, somebody that didn’t recruit him, but it just shows the type of person Buzz is and Jamie is,” Reynolds said.
Williams called McNeilly into his office and told him two things: Williams would never sub him out of another game and McNeilly would always have a job with Williams if he wanted it, McNeilly said.
In a season where the 6-foot-3, 175-pound guard averaged 15.1 points and 3.7 rebounds per game, the promise of extra playing time was all he needed to be sold on the coach.
Two years later, Williams made good on the other promise. McNeilly played one season of professional basketball in Germany after graduating from New Orleans in 2007. Before signing up for another season abroad, McNeilly took a call from his former head coach.
“I’m literally sitting in my kitchen table in Germany with a contract to play in the first league in France, or I could make zero dollars and be a [graduate assistant] for Buzz,” he said. “As Coach does, he convinced me, because what he said made sense. He said, ‘You’re going to make some money playing, and that’s going to be fine. Ten years from now, when you’re working for the rest of your life and you’re starting from the bottom, it’s going to be a lot of ground to catch up.”
McNeilly chose to coach at Marquette with Williams in the head coach’s first year with the Golden Eagles. Through the six seasons to follow, he moved up to team video coordinator and then student-athlete development specialist.
When Williams moved to Virginia Tech in 2014, the promise still stood for McNeilly. He packed up his family and moved to Blacksburg, Virginia, to serve as an assistant coach on Williams’ staff for the next five seasons.
In the days following Williams’ return to A&M in April 2019, there wasn’t much discussion between the head coach and his right-hand man regarding if he would have a spot on his staff, McNeilly said. Williams just started helping the McNeilly’s make relocation plans to College Station.
Reynolds has continued to keep up with the careers of his former coach and teammate as they’ve traveled across the country together. With each passing season, Reynolds said he’s seen the dynamics between the two grow into a more equal sharing of coaching responsibility.
“I’ve seen [Williams] not coaching as hard as I saw him coaching at Virginia Tech and Marquette, because of the trust that he has now with Jamie,” Reynolds said. “He trusts Jamie. He doesn’t have a problem with Jamie saying, ‘Let’s do this,’ or ‘Let’s do that.’”
However, just like the early days at New Orleans, two strong leaders sometimes have their disagreements. Williams and McNeilly have had their fair share, McNeilly said with a laugh.
“It kind of went from being yelled at and nothing was ever right, to almost being — not in a bad way, in a good way — being left alone, because of the trust there,” McNeilly said. “We’ve been through it all. We’ve gone through weeks where we’re not speaking with each other. We’ve yelled at each other. We’ve had workouts that kind of got intense.”
Williams’ tutelage helped McNeilly advance his career at the international stage, serving as an assistant coach for several levels of the Team Canada basketball program. In 2017, McNeilly helped earn his country its first gold medal in basketball with the U19 team’s FIBA World Cup victory. Canada defeated Team USA, and head coach John Calipari, in the semifinal round of the tournament. McNeilly will square off with Calipari again when the Aggies (14-12, 8-6 in SEC) host No. 8 Kentucky (22-5, 12-2 in SEC) at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
McNeilly was also responsible for bringing freshman post Emanuel Miller, a player on that U19 team, from Toronto to Aggieland.
“I have a really close relationship with everyone on staff, but Jamie told me a lot of what I would be doing, and that’s one of the main reasons I came here,” Miller said. “I believe everything you want in life, you have to work hard for, and that’s one of Coach’s principles.”
How long can the coaches keep the band together? McNeilly said his only focus is pouring into the lives of the players he’s coaching and letting the future work itself out. But it’s been hard to avoid the buzz through college basketball ranks that says McNeilly is ready to be a head coach now.
“I take it as a compliment. I take it as very humbling,” McNeilly said. “Never in a million years would I have thought I would be coaching at this level, and more so getting a few praises and accolades from peers.”
Those who have followed his career closely promise it is just a matter of time.
“Jamie is a special guy, and when he gets to the head coaching ranks, I think people are going to quickly see how special he is,” Parlow said.