Once a coach, always a coach.
It is not exactly the mantra --- “Once a Bulldog, always a Bulldog” --- which Jimmy Neal extolled during his career as the head football coach and athletic director at Camden High School, but the principles are the same.
These days, the second-winningest head football coach in the 124-year history of football at CHS teaches elementary school students the basics of everything from playing kickball to wiffle ball to archery. It is a far cry from those hot afternoons on the practice field coaching high school football players and even further removed from the Friday night lights of Zemp Stadium and other venues across the Palmetto State where he plied his trade in front of thousands of fans each week in the fall.
In both instances, the Camden native and 1974 CHS graduate remains a teacher. He stresses the fundamentals of each sport and if he can instill a life lesson along the way, even better for the youngsters who were mere babes when Neal stepped down as the Bulldogs’ head football coach following the 2016 season. His current pupils were not even close to being born when Neal guided the Dogs to the AAA state title in 2001.
Imagine the surprise when those youngsters learn of their teacher’s being presented with the South Carolina Football Coaches Association’s Distinguished Coach Award at the organization’s yearly dinner this evening in Myrtle Beach.
Neal, who fashioned a 134-88 record in 19 seasons on the Camden sidelines, will be joined by fellow honorees Tom Lewis, who coached Sumter High to 4A Division I state titles in 1987 and ’90, Charlie Macaluso, whose coaching tenure included stops at A.C. Flora, Columbia and Fairfield Central and Jimmy “Moose” Wallace who won a state class A title at Lewisville in 1986 before guiding Northwestern to 4A Division I championships in 1989 and ’93 and a 4A Division II crown in 2010.
As Neal looked over the list of four honorees, he smiled in saying that he was going in alongside some heady company.
“I had no idea about it. I got the letter in the mail. I thought it was pretty neat,” Neal said as how he learned of his selection for the class of 2019.
“I’m very humbled and very surprised. Then, when you see the names who are also receiving this award, it’s even more amazing. I’m not sure of the system or, how they come up with the honorees but it is pretty flattering. Those are some neat guys ... special guys. Just being part of that group is very, very neat.”
Neal follows in the footsteps of his high school coach, Billy Ammons, the winningest coach in CHS football history with 177 victories, who was a previous recipient of this honor.
Neal was an assistant football coach at his college alma mater, Furman University. He was the defensive line coach for the Paladins’ 1988 NCAA Division I-AA national championship squad, was hired at Camden prior to the 1998 season after Ammons retired after the 1997 campaign.
Neal’s first team at CHS went 4-6. He has fond memories of that young squad which never gave up in games in spite of the long odds which that inexperienced group faced. In 1999, the Dogs finished with a 10-2 record and advanced to the second round of the AAA state playoffs before losing at Marion, 19-14.
In 2000, CHS was on the cusp of playing for the AAA state title only to fall to Manning, 7-0, in the Lower State title game in a contest which saw starting quarterback Richie Williams miss a good portion of that game after having suffered a knee injury.
The 2001 campaign was Neal’s crowning achievement as the Dogs’ mentor. His team capped a 15-0 season with the AAA state crown, the school’s seventh, with a 24-21 overtime win against Union. A year later, Union avenged that defeat by hanging a 61-28 loss on the Bulldogs in the AAA finale at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“Obviously, winning the state championship was a big thing,” he said of a three-year stretch (1999, ’00 and 01) in which Camden won 40 games. “Then, the next year losing to Union, we just fell on our face that night; it just didn’t work. Those were great teams and we had a lot of fun.”
A team close to Neal’s heart was the 2003 Bulldogs which were without most of the starters from the back-to-back Lower State champs. All that group did, with plenty of new faces, was to advance to the AAA Lower State semifinals and post a 9-4 record with first-year starter Casey Hancock behind center.
“One of my favorite teams was the 2003 team with Casey Hancock, Casey Faulkenberry, Marvin Johnson, Tal Horton and those guys,” Neal said. “Those guys just believed that they were supposed to win and, they won a bunch of games. They played as well as they could have played that year.”
Another favorite was the 2010 squad which lost one regular season game only to draw Berkeley in the first round of the AAA playoffs and came out on the short end of a 36-28 decision. That team had first-year starter Dillon Morrow at quarterback along with a defense which included Neal’s son Zack, a senior linebacker and now an assistant football coach at Wando, who will introduce his father at tonight’s banquet.
“Most teams we had gave it their all,” Neal said of his tenure. “But you had teams that won those closes games. That was a lot of fun.”
Neal credited Ammons for leaving him a strong contingent of good but young players when he returned to Camden. Neal said Ammons told him that there was a solid pipeline of talented athletes on their way up. That group included players such as Williams, who would lead Appalachian State to the NCAA Division I-AA national championship, Mo Fountain and Charles Bennett, a pair of defensive ends who would play at Clemson with Bennett playing in the NFL.
“Coach Ammons told me we had good players coming,” Neal said. “We had guys who football was important to them. Those guys kind of set the tone, even in that first year when we were very average. After that, guys like Marcus Brown, Eric McCollom, Griff Beckham, really excelled. They took a lot of pride in doing the right things. (Football) was very important to them that we were successful.”
What Neal did upon arrival in Camden was to implement a fast-paced, no-huddle offense which, in 2000, was a new wrinkle which opposing defenses had rarely seen before. That scheme allowed the Dogs to pile up points with McCollom setting state passing records while throwing to receivers such as Kelvin Grant, Todd Glee and Teo Ellis while Brown, a tailback, became one of the state’s all-time leading scorers.
Neal, however, was hardly a one-trick pony. In 2005, with J.R. Carter at quarterback and Thomas Rush at fullback, Camden went to the run-first, flexbone offense which led to a trip to the AAA Upper State semifinals.
In 2016, with Devin Beckley at quarterback, the Dogs went to the RPO (run-pass option) look and left a trail of school offensive records in their wake en route to a 5-6 season, which was Neal’s last as head coach.
“We changed offenses two or three times,” Neal said. “We were a sweep team when we first got here with the Furman offense. Then, we went with the hurry-up, no-huddle offense which was just hitches and outs. People didn’t have an answer for that. We had people who could run it and our coaches understood the zone blocking principles. We only averaged throwing about 14 passes a game that year, but people acted like we were throwing it around all the time. We had a lot of big plays.”
One special memory Neal mentioned from his time as head coach was the 1999 regular season finale with rival Lugoff-Elgin which was played before a packed house at Zemp Stadium as both sides came into the contest with eight victories. The game ball was parachuted into the stadium.
“That was unbelievable ... unbelievable. That crowd on both sides … that place was full,” he said. “It was just a great, great environment.”
In his 19 years as head coach at Camden, more than 50 of Neal’s players signed to play football in college. Two of those, Thomas Austin and Bennett, went on to play in the National football League. Signing days was alway a big deal for Neal and he beamed when a Bulldog signed a national Letter of Intent to continus his education.
Over the past two seasons, Neal and his wife Nancy haven taken their seats in the stands as the former coach has now become a fan; albeit the biggest one of the Bulldogs. Does ever wish that he was back out on the sidelines?
“I miss the relationships with the coaches and the players,” he said before breaking out in a laugh. “Don’t get me wrong, now, I’m just another fan up there sitting in the stands and watching the game and asking, ‘Why are they doing that?’ Now, I understand why the people are always yelling.
“The grind, though, is hard. When I was starting out as a coach, the older coaches would say to me, ‘The time will come when you will know (to get out of coaching.)’
“For 39 years, I loved it as much as anybody but, when the decision was made, it was the right time. It was time to get out.
“It was a great run and doing it in your hometown is even better. All the support we got … it was very exciting.”
That support system, Jimmy Neal said, is what helped sustain him through both his playing and coaching days at Camden High. He said he will be thinking about all those people when he gets up to accept his honor this evening.
“I guess the most important thing when a guy is being recognized for this kind of award is that it’s more about all the guys; the players, the ex-players, all the coaches who worked so hard and put so much time into it,” he said. “You also have the coaches’ wives. What a great group of people they are; there is a special place in heaven for them.
“Those people are the ones who probably deserve this award as much as anybody.”