Neil Jones stopped playing professional soccer to start coaching soccer. He moved to Chicago 10 days after his wedding to pursue a new coaching job. He became the head coach of Loyola’s men’s soccer program at the age of 30, which is fairly young for a head coach.
While it wasn’t Neil Jones’ original dream to become a coach, he said he had an inkling it was going to happen for him.
“As a coach you’re a teacher,” Jones, 37, said. “Not just of soccer, but of life. My mom is a teacher. She’s been a teacher her whole life. Teaching is a part of who I am and how I was brought up. So, I teach soccer. I don’t teach history, philosophy or chemistry. I just teach soccer.”
Jones was born in Takapuna, New Zealand and chased his dream of playing soccer collegiately all the way to the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). He led his team to an appearance in the 2004 NCAA Division I Men’s Soccer Championship final match, losing only in penalty kicks.
From there, he entered into a professional soccer run. He spent time playing with East Coast Bays AFC of the Lotto Sport Italia NRFL Premier. Then had a short stint at Queensland Roar FC of the A-League and Kuala Lumpur FA of the Malaysia Premier League before switching gears to coaching.
Jones wanted to continue pursuing a professional career but was struggling to find his way. Ultimately, he decided he wasn’t good enough to make a career out of it financially. But he said that decision didn’t occur overnight.
“So, I teach soccer. I don’t teach history, philosophy or chemistry. I just teach soccer.”
-Neil Jones, men’s soccer coach
An assistant coaching job opened up at UCSB and the coaching staff wanted him for the job. He was caught up in his professional career and how young he was at the time, but his old assistant coach at UCSB, Leo Chappell, said something Jones said he’d never forget.
“‘You’re an excellent player, but you will be a better coach than you will ever be a player,’” Jones said. “That was very hard to take as a 24-year-old, but I didn’t want to continue to chase the dream and look for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. So I had to take a step back and think long-term.”
Thus began his time coaching at UCSB. He spent three years there, including guiding the team to multiple NCAA tournament berths and even winning the tournament in 2006.
At the 2008 Elite Eight, he met his future boss, Tom Lenahan of Northwestern University.
In 2010, he began a new adventure. Days after he married his wife, he moved to Chicago to be the associate head coach of the Wildcats’ men’s soccer team. He was there for three years and won three Big 10 Trophies before his next move.
Jones was hired as the Loyola men’s soccer coach by then-Athletics Director Grace Calhoun in 2013. He was only 30 years old and began creating his vision for the men’s soccer program.
“It’s a process,” Jones said. “It’s about finding the right student-athletes that fit your university, your culture, your academic standards, your personal standards of what is expected of a student athlete on your team. Good kid. Good student. Good player. You have to check all three boxes.”
It didn’t take long for his ways to set into the program. In 2016, the team won the Missouri Valley Conference regular season, tournament and made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament — something that had never happened before for the Ramblers.
He credits much of his coaching to his two former head coaches — Tim Vom Steeg of UCSB and Lenahan at Northwestern.
“I’ve been able to work under two very different head coaches,” Jones said. “Being able to take positive things from both experiences as well as mix in my own ingredients that’s created some decent recipe of success.”
And a recipe of success is just one way you could describe Jones’ coaching. Since he’s taken over at Loyola, he’s only had three losing seasons out of seven seasons.
Although he said he enjoys winning, it’s not his favorite part of being a coach. Instead, he said it’s the relationships he’s built with the players over his time in their lives.
“The true measure of how important a relationship or how important a part you’ve played in someone’s life as a coach is when you get invited to their wedding,” Jones said. “I’ve been invited to a number of former players’ weddings and wedding guest lists are cutthroat so if you make the wedding list that means you’ve had a positive influence on someone’s life and that is a very special moment.”