BY BILL SORRELL
After seven years as head football coach at Collierville High School, Mike O’Neill is resigning.
“The decision was all mine and a very difficult one. I need some time to heal and recover from my cancer treatment. I will take next season off to recover and see what happens next,” said O’Neill.
In October 2017 O’Neill began treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for throat cancer. He returned to Memphis in March after 33 rounds of radiation and 12 weeks of chemotherapy.
O’Neill was named 2018 Man of the Year by readers of the Collierville Independent. He was 2017 Region 7-6A Coach of the Year. He was a recipient of the Courage Through Cancer award in November.
He will continue to teach entrepreneurship, marketing and business management at Collierville High School.
Collierville High School principal Chip Blanchard said in a press release, “Coach O’Neill has consistently emphasized character, integrity and loyalty during his tenure and we are truly thankful for his leadership.”
Collierville quarterback Mitch Austin, a junior, said, “He was a coach and a life coach. He spread positivity throughout the locker room and on the field. He turned me into a person who knows how to deal with adversity at all times because every play isn’t going to go my way. When stuff happens, I know how to respond.”
Wide receiver Jordan Henderson said, “I learned what it means to be a man. Going through cancer treatments it taught us how to persevere and if you believe in God and what He can do, there’s nothing you can’t accomplish.”
Under O’Neill, the Dragons were 40-38.
The most memorable game for Henderson was a 35-21 victory over 8-2 Wilson Central in the first round of the 2016 TSSAA state playoffs.
Calling it “the greatest accomplishment” while he played, Henderson, a senior this year, said, “They had college commits and no one gave us a chance but we went over there and we did as Coach O’Neill loves to say, ‘Shock the state.’ It was a great moment and we just celebrated all the way back home.
“Being a part of the Collierville football program taught me it’s not about the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog. We played many teams where we were outweighed, slower, maybe less talented but this program taught me that if you play as a team, you can beat anybody.
“I learned that the guy that lines up across from you may be three inches taller and 50 pounds heavier but you still have to strap and get in the mix.”
On Wednesday O’Neill told his staff and players that he was stepping down. It is immediate. No interim has been named.
“I will help our college prospects until they sign in February. I will also clean up any minor loose ends (equipment, etc.) when we return from Christmas break,” said O’Neill.
The opportunity to see young players develop and maximize their abilities on a daily basis and games on Fridays will be missed he said.
O’Neill said his greatest accomplishments included “taking a program that was in a bit of disarray and become competitive again. Our guys know how to give great effort whether it’s the off season conditioning program, practice or Friday nights. Our guys understand the importance of giving back to the community through some of the off season projects.
“There is still work to do but I believe stability has been established in our 6th, 7th and 8th grade programs. These programs run similar schemes and drills that feed into our upper level programs.”
Collierville has two programs for 9 and 10-year olds that have been managed and supported by the Football Program/Booster Club for young player development.
In August, Collierville High School students moved into its new campus and later into a stadium and facilities that O’Neill was able to have significant input.
“It is one of the best sports facilities in Tennessee. About 2 and a half years ago, the administration asked each coach for our dream list. The Indoor All-Sports Turf facility and an outstanding football stadium and locker room were the major items on my list,” he said.
“It was extremely gratifying to research and travel to different programs to gain knowledge for this project. The bottom line: Collierville Schools listened and delivered. You have to see this first hand to gain that perspective.”
It was gratifying to coach the Dragons to their first victory in the new stadium he said.
O’Neill was also gratified to coach Hunter Bradley, the first Collierville High graduate to play in the NFL. He plays for the Green Bay Packers.
This season the Dragons finished 5-6 after a first-round playoff loss to Whitehaven which went on to play for the 6A state championship.
O’Neill was the Dragons’ defensive coordinator and strength coach in 2010-11 before becoming head coach in 2012. He was an assistant coach at Christian Brothers High School nine seasons including defensive coordinator for six.
In a district press release, Collierville Schools athletic director Jeff Curtis said, “We are grateful for the work Coach O’Neill has done with our football program and for the positive impact he has made on his players and this community.”
Said O’Neill, “I want to thank the Collierville community for the prayers and support during my cancer journey.”
BY BILL SORRELL