Former Northwestern associate head coach Neil Jones was named head coach of the Loyola men’s soccer team on Dec. 20. This news came just before Jones left for a trip to visit family in his native country of New Zealand.
“The timing was awesome because I went back to New Zealand for my brother’s wedding and I never really get to see my family at all,” Jones explained. “My wife came with me and to be able to celebrate with all of them, I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Jones replaces former Head Coach Brandon Eitz. Eitz was informed by the university on Nov. 11 that “his appointment would not be renewed.”
This declaration came the day after the Ramblers fell to Cleveland State in the Horizon League Tournament Championship.
Jones’ previous coaching experience includes four years at the University of California Santa Barbara and, most recently, three seasons at Northwestern University in Evanston.
Originally from Auckland, New Zealand, Jones moved to the United States at age 19 in order to attend college and play soccer at UC Santa Barbara.
“Overseas, you’re either a professional soccer player or you go to a university to solely get a degree,” Jones said. “So the combination of both was the reason that I came over.”
As a player at UC Santa Barbara, Jones experienced tremendous success on a team that won three Big West Championships and made three straight NCAA tournament appearances, including the 2004 NCAA
National Championship game, in which UC Santa Barbara lost to Indiana University on penalty kicks.
After his collegiate career, Jones pursued a professional soccer career at Athletico soccer club. After breaking his leg while trying out for Atlético Madrid in Spain and Aalesunds FK in Norway, Jones bounced around to several different teams in places including New Zealand, Australia and Malaysia.
On a trip back to California to visit his wife Stephanie, who was his girlfriend at the time, Jones was approached by UC Santa Barbara and asked if he would be interested to rejoin his alma mater in a position as a coach.
“Once you start coaching it’s full-time and you’re basically done playing,” Jones explained. “So as a 24-year-old having just played professionally a few months ago, it was a tough decision because a lot of my friends’ professional careers were just kicking off, but I had to think about the long-term.”
Jones made the decision to transition from player to coach and, much like his playing career at UC Santa Barbara, Jones experienced a great deal of success as a coach at the school, helping lead the team to its first ever National Championship in 2006.
Ready to take the next step in his coaching career, Jones moved across the country to Chicago to work as an assistant coach at Northwestern University in 2010 and helped coach Northwestern to two NCAA Big Ten Conference titles and two NCAA tournament appearances.
“Now I’ve taken another leap in my career and I am really excited to lead Loyola and take us to the next step,” Jones said. “The fall season is a long way away, but the preparation starts now.”
Jones explained that he was attracted to the “leadership and vision of Loyola athletics” and that he is happy to be in Chicago, a city Jones considers to be one of the best in the world.
Spring training started this week and Jones was excited to have the opportunity to meet all of the student-athletes on the Loyola men’s soccer team.
“I’ve got to find out who I can count on in a tense, competitive situation and find out who is going to stand up,” Jones said. “I want a measuring stick and to test the guys to see where we’re at.”
The men’s soccer spring season kicks off against Northern Illinois University on Feb. 23 and will offer Jones an opportunity to evaluate the returning players on Loyola’s squad in game situations, as well as the impact of losing this year’s graduating seniors from the team.
“You’ve lost pieces to your team and you have to see how you plug those holes going into the next fall,” Jones explained. “So it’s an opportunity for some players to step up into roles that they previously weren’t in.”
While discussing his coaching philosophies, Jones continually referenced the importance of “fun.”
“One of the greatest things that I was ever told as a player was go out there and have fun, [you’ve got to] have fun,” Jones said. “And winning games is a huge part of creating a positive atmosphere.”
Aside from having fun, Jones acknowledged the responsibility of the coaching staff to provide a positive environment for the players.
“You got to make it enjoyable … make it productive … [and] make it an environment where players can feel that they’re getting better,” Jones explained.
As far as his recruitment strategies, rather than just trying to recruit the best talent on the field, Jones has voiced interest in finding “outstanding humans” that contribute to the attitude and culture of the Ramblers’ team, explaining that Loyola will “outwork every other program to find the diamonds in the rough.”
Already looking toward the fall season, Jones spoke of the improvements being made to the bleachers at Hoyne Field and is anxious to reach out to the student body to come out and support the Loyola men’s soccer team.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do and it’s going to be a fun ride,” Jones said. “Thanks to all of the students for their support and I look forward to seeing them out at Hoyne in the fall.”