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Neal Kinlund, champion coach, champion teacher


San Marcos Daily Record (04/25/2004)
By Bibb Underwoo

Milton Jowers is Texas State University's legendary basketball and football coach. A huge athletic edifice bears his name. His was the first name enshrined in the recently initiated Society of Champions (won a national championship) of Texas State University. Milton Jowers is deserving of every honor Texas State University has bestowed upon him. Only problem is, he is, arguably, the second most successful coach in the university's history.

Neal Kinlund's tennis teams won 333 matches and lost 185 from 1973 to 1998. They were NAIA National Champions in 1981 and 1982. He coached 10 conference championship teams. From 1979 to 1985, he had seven consecutive undefeated conference seasons, an unheard of feat. And that was just the men's teams.

When I visited Neal in his office in the aptly named Jowers Center, I wondered how he occupied his time, now that Texas State no longer has an intercollegiate male tennis program.

" I teach nine classes," he said. "I have five tennis classes, three basketball and one badminton class. Sounds like a lot, but it isn't that bad. I really do enjoy those classes. As I think of the time I was coaching, I also taught nine classes. The position called for half-time teaching and halftime coaching. There is no such thing as halftime coaching. But that was how my salary broke out.

" I look back and I don't know how I did it. It was a brutal thing for 25 years.

" My background is really in basketball. Coach (Vernon) McDonald hired me to come here from SMU as an assistant basketball coach in 1973. Basketball is my strength, but I had a little background in tennis."

Neal grew up in the small Kansas town of Tribune. The newspaper owner had the only tennis court in the county and with no television, movies, or other recreation, Neal spent many hours on that tennis court teaching himself to play the game. When he wasn't on the tennis court, he was dribbling a basketball.

Neal describes himself as a basketball nut. Though he played all sports and appeared in the one-act plays in his small high school - 32 graduating seniors - basketball was his favorite sport. He played at Hutchison Junior College and then at Fort Hays State.

His first job after completing his bachelors and masters degree was at Wilmer-Hutchins High School, near Dallas. It was an extremely poor school district.

Neal says, "Every teacher should have to teach one year at Wilmer-Hutchins just to appreciate where ever they are. I did everything - coached football, basketball, track and tennis. I knew nothing about football. They talked about an umbrella defense, I had no idea what they meant. In the classes I taught, we did not have money for paper to mimeograph the finals. I had to write my tests on the blackboard and make the kids use their own paper.

" Junior High kids are the best in the world to coach," Neal said. "Tell them to run through the wall, they run through the wall. I taught the kids ball handling drills, some rather complicated, and they loved it. I contacted a publicist for the old Dallas Chaparrals (a long gone pro basketball franchise) and we put on a demonstration during halftime.

" Meanwhile, one of my teaching colleagues, Kay Pinkham, was married to an assistant basketball coach at SMU. She told him what I was doing with these Jr. High kids. Mike Pinkham occasionally came to our practices and began inviting me to go with him to scout Southwest Conference schools. That was a thrill for me.

" Mike knew all the high school coaches in the Dallas area and suggested he would help me get a high school coaching job. He called me one day and asked how I would like to have a coaching job. I thought it was at a nearby high school.

" Of course," I said. "Then he asked if I would like to be an assistant at SMU. I almost fell over. I couldn't believe it. I went from an eighth grade coach to an assistant coach at a major university and took a thousand dollar cut in salary. But, I was furnished a car and an apartment. That helped."

During his tenure at SMU, the team was co-champion, with Texas, of the Southwest Conference. However, the team fell on tough times and the entire coaching staff was fired.

But, his unemployment was short-lived. Vernon (Coach Mac) MacDonald, at Southwest Texas State, offered Neal a job as his assistant basketball coach. As a relative newcomer to Texas, Neal was unfamiliar with little towns in Texas, so when he began looking for San Marcos on the map, he began in the Uvalde-Junction area.

" I am living proof that the university was misnamed," Neal said. "I had to ask a friend where San Marcos was located and when he told me between Austin and San Antonio, I realized I had been nowhere close. The name change was appropriate."

When he arrived at Texas State, he fully intended to coach basketball. However, one of the more senior coaches who coached football, basketball and tennis was eager to give up the tennis job. Neal had tennis on his resume and Bill Miller, the Athletic Director (AD), assigned Neal to coach tennis.

" I took over the men's tennis program in 1973. They had not won a conference championship since 1939. In two years we were conference champions. I began by recruiting junior college players. Initially, I had four half-scholarships. A half-scholarship meant tuition and fees - no room and board.

" I took a gamble on a kid named Manzoor Syed, from Pakistan and gave him a full scholarship. He became the conference singles and doubles champion, and an honorable mention All-American. I then asked for another full scholarship.

" AD Miller said, 'I'll give you another scholarship, but he better be good.' I recruited Gary Seymour. He was an NAIA national singles champion and an NAIA All-American."

And as Neal says, things continued to get better. That is parallel to saying that from a little oil well near Kilgore, Texas, H.L. Hunt made a little money. Neal's accomplishments surpass whatever superlatives one might assign them. In addition to the accomplishments listed earlier, here are other significant accomplishments of Neal Kinlund and his teams.

  • Five times his team was runner-up in the NAIA or NCAA Division II national tournament.
  • Two times his team garnered fourth place in NAIA of NCAA Division II national tournament.
  • Among individual player honors, he produced 27 All-American selections, 52 all-conference players, four national tournament Most Valuable Player awards, three national singles champions, two doubles champions, and 92 per cent of his players graduated.
  • National NAIA Coach of the year in 1981; Lone Star Conference Coach of the Year in 1983; Gulf Star Conference Coach of the Year in 1985.
  • From 1982 to 1985, he served on numerous organizational and competition committees of the NCAA.
  • He was the NCAA Division II National Tournament host director in 1983 and 1984. He was the Lone Star Conference tournament host director in 1975, 1990, and 1995.
  • He is the only coach ever to win championships in three separate conferences, Lone Star, Gulf Star and Southland Conferences.
  • In 1998, he was inducted into the Texas Tennis Coaches Hall of Fame.
  • His name is alongside Milton Jowers, and Bill Woodley (golf) in the Texas State University Society of Champions.

If all this is not enough, I must remind the reader that Neal also coached women's tennis along with the men from 1980 through 1989. The accomplishments of the women's teams are no less spectacular than his men's teams. They won six conference championships and in 1981, finished ninth in the AIAW National tournament.

When the men's tennis program fell victim to Title IX requirements, Neal was devastated. No matter that his life became less complicated, he was reluctant to give up something he loved. Today Neal is busy as a tennis umpire and referee. He often officiates major college conference matches.

There may never be a Kinlund Building on the Texas State University campus, but when tennis is mentioned, Neal Kinlund should be remembered in the same legendary terms as Milton Jowers.