After playing for his dad at New Mexico, Cullen Neal is much happier at Ole Miss
Pressure and criticism forced Neal to transfer from the team his dad coaches
OXFORD, Miss. -- Cullen Neal doesn't remember the exact day. Or the specific circumstances. But what he recalls quite clearly is lying in his bed, late one night, scrolling through social media and hurting.
He didn't need to be looking at this stuff.
But he just couldn't stop looking.
Each tweet directed at him seemed worse than the last. They were filled with cuss words and name-calling. There were threats made -- both serious and not-so-serious. It was really, really ugly. And he just couldn't stop looking.
"So finally, I caught myself, and I was like, "Why am I looking at this stuff? It does me no good. It does my mind no good,'" Neal said. "Then I literally tossed my phone off of the bed so that I wouldn't look at it anymore."
And then he went to sleep.
But when he awoke, nothing had changed because that's not how life works. The same intense criticisms from New Mexico fans that were there before remained. There were just more of them now, which was the byproduct of Neal being the primary point guard for a team coached by his dad that was struggling while the 6-foot-5 redshirt sophomore missed roughly seven out of every 11 shots he took and turned the ball over about as often as he recorded an assist. School officials even met with police about some of the things tweeted and said about Neal. And by late February it was clear to everybody that Cullen Neal playing for Craig Neal at New Mexico was a father-son story that had run its course.
"He needed to be happy," Craig Neal said. "And he wasn't happy."
So, together, not as coach and player but as father and son, they started exploring options. And that's how Cullen Neal became the first high-major player in history to transfer out of a college basketball program run by his dad. He's now a graduate student at Ole Miss. The McDermott Story, this is not.
Cullen Neal is 1,100 miles away from home, one time zone to the east, sitting at a table on campus at his new school and raving about the scene he just experienced at The Grove the same way everybody who's ever experienced The Grove tends to rave. It's a Wednesday afternoon. The weather is great. Basketball season is just around the corner. And he's happy. That's the first thing you notice -- that he's relaxed, smiling, comfortable and just ... happy.
He's 22 now.
And though he swears he still views New Mexico and its fans fondly, holds no grudges and isn't the least bit bitter, the truth is that the past three years have been hard. This is the first time he's been happy in a while.
"We knew [me playing for my father] might be difficult going into it," he said. "But we didn't know it would be that difficult."
Nobody did, frankly.
And it actually started out OK.
Cullen Neal enrolled at New Mexico fresh off of winning Mr. Basketball honors in the state and not long after his dad was promoted to replace Steve Alford, who had left for UCLA. He came off the bench as a freshman, averaged 7.1 points for a 27-win team. Everything was mostly cool. But then he missed all but three games of his sophomore year with an ankle injury while the Lobos finished 15-16. And his inconsistent play for a team that finished 17-15 last season made him an easy target as a coach's son who wasn't quite living up to expectations.
Fans got a hold of his phone number and left crazy messages. Message boards were filled with hate. It all led to a now infamous press conference during which Craig Neal was asked, last February, if the constant criticism was affecting his son.
"I'll just put it this way: when you have to change your phone number and you have to shut down your Twitter account and you have to change your Facebook account, it's sad," Craig Neal answered. "It's not fair that you get threats and you get death threats, and it's not right. So does it affect him? I think that kind of answers your question."
Barely a month later, Cullen Neal announced his intention to transfer. And in a sport where coaches routinely try to block or restrict players leaving their programs, Craig Neal did neither. He didn't even try to talk his own son into staying. It's one thing to lose games, any coach will tell you. But it's quite another when you lose games and your fans place a considerable amount of blame on your son. That's hard. It was too hard. So Craig agreed with Cullen that it was time to find a new school. That's when he sent a text message to an old friend and asked if he needed a point guard.
Craig Neal and Andy Kennedy have known each other for more than three decades, dating back to when the former was a player at Georgia Tech and hosted the latter on a recruiting visit. They've kept in touch over the years, spent time together on the road recruiting. So when it became clear that Cullen Neal was definitely leaving New Mexico, Kennedy was the first coach Craig Neal contacted.
The timing and circumstances were perfect.
Ole Miss was losing senior point guard Stefan Moody and needed a new ball-handler. Cullen Neal was in the process of graduating in three years with a 4.0 grade point average, meaning he would be eligible immediately as a graduate transfer and have two seasons of eligibility remaining. So he took a visit, loved what he saw, and subsequently committed. The whole thing got wrapped up pretty quickly.
Sitting in his office not far from the beautiful on-campus arena Ole Miss opened last season, Kennedy told this story and reflected on what he now knows was an impossible situation for the Neals at New Mexico. He explained that, when you play at the high-major level, fans are going to be on you when you don't play well. And he explained that, when you get into the coaching profession, you know you're signing up for a well-compensated life of criticism, and you just learn to take the hits as they come. But what made the Neals' situation different and even more difficult is that the criticism was always multilayered. Imagine what it must be like every time you lose a game, as a coach, for fans to go in on you while also assigning blame to your son. Then imagine what it must be like every time you lose a game, as a player, for fans to go in on you and your father and to scream the only reason you're playing and shooting so much is because your dad is the coach.
"It adds a completely different element," Kennedy said. "To be a coach and have somebody take shots at the people you love the most, at your children. I can't imagine that. I cannot imagine what that was like."
How this story ends, like all stories, remains uncertain.
The hope is that Craig Neal returns New Mexico to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014 while Cullen Neal flourishes in a new environment and under a coach whose point guards tend to be high-volume shooters and scorers. If so, great. But even if not, the parting of ways after last season between this father and this son was still a necessary development for both.
They each said that.
Craig Neal sounds happier.
Cullen Neal looks and seems happier.
He's enjoying walking around a campus with a degree of anonymity he never had at New Mexico, and the deletion of Facebook and Twitter from his phone has put an end to those nights on social media where weird things were unavoidable.
"I view this as my second chance," Cullen Neal said. "I can breathe."
Meantime, I concluded my conversation with Craig Neal by asking what he'd tell other coaches who might be considering coaching their heralded sons in college. I wanted to know if he had any advice based off of his experience.
"The first thing I'd ask a coach is where does he coach, and what are the expectations," he answered with a laugh before getting serious again. "I'll cherish those three years I got to coach Cullen forever. It was fun. But it was also hard. And I wouldn't do it again. I don't have any more children. But, if I did, I wouldn't do it again. And, at the end of the day, I just think everybody is going to be better off now."
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