- Associated Press - Thursday, March 5, 2015

PEKIN, Ill. (AP) - Mid-winter, every year for 23 years, Pekin boys golf coach Bob Neal would start jotting down notes, do some of the formal paperwork coaches have to do and basically get a jump-start for the upcoming fall season.

There was no change in that routine this year except for one thing.

“I had to keep reminding myself, ‘Hey, you’re going to retire; leave some room for input from the new coach,’” Neal said earlier this week from his home which overlooks the 15th fairway at Sunset Hills Golf Club.

Neal was honored at halftime of Saturday’s boys basketball game between Pekin and East Peoria for his 23 years of service as head boys golf coach at PHS.

It is somewhat ironic in knowing that Neal wasn’t looking to coach at all until a lunch with then boys golf coach Marshall Stoner in 1991 led to the start of what would take the now 70-year-old mentor into some rarefied air among Pekin High School coaches.

Only six other men have topped 20 years in their coaching tenure for the Dragons. Just three - Jack Stoudt 28 years in wrestling, Don Merrick 27 years in boys cross country and 25 years on girls cross country and John Moss 25 years in boys tennis - have directed the fortunes of Pekin student-athletes longer.

“Marshall and I were just talking. He said he needed an assistant coach and asked me to apply,” Neal said. “I was happy to be selected, then a year later, (Stoner) retired from teaching and coaching, and I became head coach.”

Fast start

From his humble beginnings of overseeing the junior varsity at Parkview, Neal moved about a mile north to Lick Creek Golf Course to embark on a varsity coaching career, a career that would go on to define him as arguably the most successful golf coach in the area when it came to fielding consistently competitive teams.

Neal’s coaching career took off like a golf ball being launched by a titanium driver head moving at a swing speed of 150 miles per hour.

Pekin won 44 of 45 dual meets in his first four years. In just his second season, the Dragons claimed a state title and Pekin’s favorite golfing son D.A. Points garnered medalist honors.

“We were so spoiled early on . first three teams went eighth, first and fourth in state” said Chris Neville, who was Neal’s assistant the first nine years and who now coaches the Pekin girls golf team. “Bob became a great coach because he was asking other coaches their opinions on things.

“(Bob) never thought he knew it all; there was always something else to learn and to improve. He attended coaches’ clinics. His teams had practice rounds before big events. He had organized practices where kids did more than just play. He used statistics to improve practices.

“Bob believed his players could play their best in big events, and he relayed that belief to many of his players with words as well as actions.”

‘All I can ask’

Said Neal, “I certainly wasn’t a golf teacher by any means. My strength was that I was well organized . and I used a lot of the same techniques you use in the class room: organization, motivation and discipline when it was required.

“I’d consider myself even tempered and level handed. I believe I had the right temperament for the job. You don’t yell too much at golfers. You have to handle them a different way.

“It’s about believing any kid you put on course is trying and doing the best they can do. You see kids walk off the course hanging their head, mumbling. .”I always ask them ‘Was today the best you could do?’ ‘Did you hit out of bounds on purpose on No. 2? No. Did you miss that putt on purpose on 18? No. Then you gave me the best effort you could today.’ That’s all I can ask.”

The philosophy has worked well to the tune of 13 conference titles, seven regional championships, four sectional titles and nine teams qualifying for the state finals, plus a dual meet record of 267-35 which includes six undefeated seasons and seven one-loss seasons.

Remarkable numbers for Neal whose original thought in accepting the job was: “I’ll do this for just a few years, it will be fun and that will be it.”

Time to retire

“I thought about (retiring) a few times, but there was always a new batch of players that brought me back,” Neal said. “In 2001, when I retired from teaching (after 32 years), I thought that would be it, but (the administration) allowed me stay despite not being on staff.

“I gave (retirement) some serious thought a few years ago. Then there was Drake (Bushong) coming along. There have been so many talented players through the years, but there comes a time when you just have to say this is it.”

And while Neal is finally signing off on his Pekin High School coaching career, he’ll still be around.

He still has plans to remain the P.A. announcer for boys and girls basketball at Pekin. He has done the boys since the mid-1980s and the girls for the last 10 years. In addition, Neal will continue to spend a good deal of summer night’s working in the area of guest services for the Peoria Chiefs.

“I really do like that job,” Neal said. “You meet so many interesting people, who are just out having a good time.

“As long as the Chiefs still want me and I don’t have any trouble walking up and down steps, I’ll stick with it.”

There are also some travel plans Neal would like to put in place as well.

“I always thought it would be neat to see all the Big Ten football stadiums,” Neal said. “I’ve been to a couple and the atmosphere is really neat.”

Neal has an inside when it comes to the Big Ten. His youngest son, Derek is the Associate Director of Athletics Communications and Director of Social Media at the University of Illinois.

And Neal shouldn’t have any back issues. His eldest son, Barry, is a chiropractor in Pekin. Bob and his wife Gloria, a native of Hawaii, have been married for 46 years.

“Pekin had a long tradition in golf well before I came coach,” Neal said. “I tried to carry on that tradition and I have no doubt, with the golf courses we have in Pekin, the support we receive from those courses and with the continued support from all the parents, the tradition will carry on.”

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Source: (Peoria) Journal Star, https://bit.ly/1MhnCs9

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Information from: Journal Star, https://pjstar.com

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