If there is one thing Marilyn McNeil holds in higher regard than relationships, it’s treating those relationships equally. Fairness defines both her character and her leadership style; it is the ideal that has driven her to create positive change throughout a 53-year career in collegiate athletics.
“One of my first memories from when I arrived at Monmouth in 1994 was watching the men’s basketball team depart for a conference game on a charter bus,” recalls McNeil, vice president and director of athletics at Monmouth. “Not far behind them was the women’s basketball team headed to a conference game in a van driven by their part-time head coach.”
That—and so much more—has changed during McNeil’s 27-year tenure, which will come to a close on June 30 when she retires. It has been an era of unparalleled growth and achievement for the Hawks’ athletics program. Perhaps Krissy Turner, the women’s soccer head coach, best sums up the impact McNeil has had on Monmouth’s student-athletes, coaches, and the University itself in that time: “Legendary.”
A Coach at Heart
McNeil graduated from the University of Calgary and began her career in athletics at age 21 doing what she calls “the greatest job in the world”: coaching. Over the next seven years, she coached multiple sports at McGill University in Montreal and the Quebec System of Junior Colleges before returning to her alma mater as the head coach of women’s basketball in 1975.
At Calgary, McNeil quickly built a successful program, earning Canadian Coach of the Year in 1979. But it was also there that she got her first taste of the inequity of college athletics. The men’s basketball coach, her friend, told her what his salary and budget were, and she couldn’t help but notice the enormous gap between the two.
“I didn’t ask to be paid the same as the men’s coach, but I wanted to be paid fairly,” says McNeil. “I wanted the AD to make a commitment to the women’s program, and told him I’d leave Calgary if he refused. Sadly, I had to walk away from my alma mater.”
McNeil took over as the women’s basketball head coach at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, in 1979. The move across the border was difficult personally, but professionally, McNeil was filled with optimism. Title IX legislation had passed in the U.S. in 1972, and McNeil was eager to continue her career under the warm blanket of equity. She quickly learned that perception fell short of reality.
“They had some real equity issues at Cal Poly,” says McNeil. “It caught me o guard because I thought America was much further ahead than Canada because of Title IX. But the U.S. was behind Canada.”
Uncertain about her future in collegiate athletics, McNeil decided to pursue her doctorate. She figured that a terminal degree would position her for an administrative role in athletics, or strengthen her profile for a new career path.
“It was a good decision,” says McNeil. “Writing that dissertation was such a process that it’s something you can’t fully appreciate unless you experience it. It’s allowed me to have a connection with faculty that’s helped build relationships.”
McNeil eventually opted to leave the hardwood at Cal Poly, but she remained in athletics. Rather than coping with inequity as a coach, she thought, perhaps she could help bridge the gap as an administrator.
Taking Flight With the Hawks
When former Monmouth President Rebecca Stafford hired her in spring 1994, McNeil became the first woman to serve as a college athletic director in New Jersey. The appointment was major news—The New York Times ran a Q&A with McNeil in its national edition—but that didn’t make the work any easier.
“I was the only woman, and that was reflective of how things were in college athletics at the time,” says McNeil. “I had two young children who I’d just uprooted from California, and there were times I was treated with disdain in my position as a working mom.”
When she arrived on campus, the Hawks had two full-time head coaches: football and men’s basketball; every other program was led by part-time coaches. McNeil quickly went to work establishing relationships and helping the institution understand the value of athletics. She also needed to battle the perception that her agenda was to advance women’s sports at the expense of the men.
“I wanted to build, not destroy,” says McNeil. “There was this fear when I arrived that I was going to blow up the men’s programs. I love men’s sports as much as I love women’s sports. But I was determined to build a strong program based on equity and fairness, a program we could all be proud of.”
Progress is a process, and McNeil had three primary areas of focus in constructing a competitive athletic program: full-time head coaches for each program, fair allocation of resources, and enhanced facilities. All three components would lead to attracting quality coaches and student-athletes.
The legacy that she leaves is how much she cared about us,” says Turner. “She did everything in her power to ensure that the coaches had what they needed and the student-athletes enjoyed the most positive experience possible.
Establishing strong relationships with administration and faculty was key to getting buy-in from the institution. Anytime McNeil presented her vision for Monmouth athletics, it came from the heart of a former coach—but was spoken by a colleague who had earned a doctoral degree in higher education administration.
“The University should feel that athletics is a part of—not apart from—the institution,” says McNeil. “If the institution believes that athletics is a fundamental piece of higher education, then having the conversation about how we can get better is so much easier. It’s about more than wins and losses. It’s about having an engaged student body, alumni returning to campus with pride, and trustees attending events and being part of the experience.”
The change on campus was palpable. Kevin Callahan was one of the two full-time head coaches at Monmouth when McNeil arrived. He has watched the number of full-time coaches grow to 16 while the number of sport programs has grown to 23.
“Marilyn is a fierce competitor at heart, and she led this department through an evolutionary process,” says Callahan. “She was determined to hire quality coaches and has always fought hard for us. Equally important, she’s fair with her decisions. As coaches we didn’t always get what we wanted, but we left every conversation knowing that she was fair in her process.”
Hawk coaches learned they could count on a few things from their AD. First, she would attend any event that she could. McNeil always wanted to show her coaches, student-athletes, and families that she cared. “Why wouldn’t I go to the events?” she asks. “That’s the fun stuff!”
She also had an open-door policy with her staff. If they had needs or concerns, or just needed to bounce ideas around, McNeil was willing to listen.
“She’s a true educator who was able to provide guidance for her coaches without micromanaging,” says Turner, who was hired by McNeil in 1998. “Every time you left her office after a conversation, you knew that you were heard and that your thoughts mattered to her.”
Running an athletic department with integrity is essential, but a little eye candy never hurt either. The Monmouth athletics facilities are symbolic of the relationship building that McNeil made a priority. University administration, alumni, trustees, and community donors all worked in collaboration with athletics to achieve significant upgrades across campus. Highlights include the 2009 addition of the OceanFirst Bank Center, home to Monmouth’s basketball and track and field programs, as well as the massive 2017 renovation of Kessler Stadium, where football, lacrosse, and track and field compete. Hesse Field on the Great Lawn added lights in 2011, allowing the soccer programs to host night games, and field turf in 2014.
“The legacy that she leaves is how much she cared about us,” says Turner. “She did everything in her power to ensure that the coaches had what they needed and the student-athletes enjoyed the most positive experience possible.”
McNeil’s devotion to equity and advancing women in collegiate athletics has been extraordinary. She’s served on numerous committees, including the Division I NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics and the Management Council, and also served as president of the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators.
But her biggest contribution to women in sports might be her 27 years of artistry at Monmouth University. What McNeil accomplished speaks for itself, and the breadth of her impact is unquantifiable. She came in as the first ever and departs as one of the best ever.
“I’ve always believed we need more women in leadership roles, and still do,” says McNeil. “We bring a different set of values to the table and offer different ways of finding solutions. I think all parties benefit when there is equity and balance.
“What’s most important to me as I leave Monmouth is that I accomplished things with integrity and ethics. I’m proud of who we are, and I hope Monmouth keeps getting better. We’ve definitely got a great thing going here.”