Meet the man behind Canada’s defence, Kevin MacNeill
Photo credit: Ron Jenkins / USA Football
Canada’s defence is in good hands with returning Junior National Team coach, Kevin MacNeill, who comes into the 2016 World Championship as defensive coordinator, taking over from long-time DC and current head coach, Warren Craney.
Growing up in London, Ontario, MacNeill followed his older brother into football.
“I started playing football because my brother played,” said MacNeill. “I played London minor football for four years before high school; two years flag and two years tackle.”
From there, MacNeill had the bug.
“I just carried on through, playing high school football for five years with the Laurier Rams in London. Then I did two years of junior with the London Beefeaters (CJFL), followed by five years at the university level with the Laurier Golden Hawks.”
As a young man, Kevin already knew he wanted to coach but didn’t know exactly how it would fit into his life.
“As a kid, I would draw up plays; I’d be drawing up punt returns, kick-off returns and all that kind of stuff. I always knew that I wanted to coach – my plan was to play for as long as I could, then eventually become a coach. It was always a goal of mine since I was 12.”
While nearing the end of his playing career, MacNeill put his coaching career into motion.
“I started coaching while still a player at Laurier, in the OVFL with the Twin City Predators then with the GMFA’s Guelph Bears.”
“As soon as I finished playing at Laurier, I got hired back on to be a defensive assistant in 2004. While coaching at Laurier, I also served as the head coach with the Guelph Bears at the varsity level.”
“I coached at Laurier for four years, even won a Vanier Cup in 2005. As my career progressed, every year I took on more responsibility and eventually worked my way up to special teams coordinator and linebacker coach.”
After finding early success with Laurier, the experience proved to be instrumental in landing his first full-time coaching job with UBC.
“The University of British Columbia was looking for an assistant; a special teams coordinator, linebacker coach and recruiting coordinator. At the time, I was recruiting for Laurier, doing special teams, had played and was coaching linebackers so it was a really good fit.”
MacNeill’s long trek to Canada’s west coast allowed him to re-invent himself.
“It was a great transition because I got to pack-up and break away from my comfort zone. Moving across the country and having to re-establish myself was a tremendous learning experience.”
Above all the x’s and o’s, the opportunity football provides to change lives, drew MacNeill into coaching.
“My favourite part of coaching is building relationships with athletes. I feel the majority of CIS coaches, coach university football because of the opportunities we have to help kids achieve. The games and the fundamentals are great aspects of it, but seeing a kid get a second chance at life that maybe wouldn’t have otherwise is everything for me and that’s the biggest reason, why I do, what I do.”
MacNeill originally joined the national team coaching staff to serve his country and grow Canada’s brand on football on the world’s stage.
“I’d seen other coaches get the opportunity to represent Canada – I wanted to serve my country as well.”
Joining the staff in 2014, MacNeill’s last two years with the national team have been highlights in his young career. His first cycle with Team Canada included trips to the International Bowl the last two years (2014 and 2015), in addition to the 2014 IFAF U19 World Championship in Kuwait.
“I really enjoyed it. I hadn’t coached American football before so it was really an incredible experience to get into American systems. The staff was awesome – those are friendships that you know you’ll maintain for the rest of your life.”
Apart from football, the tournament in Kuwait was an incredible opportunity to see the Middle East.
“It was a tremendous experience; seeing Kuwait was awesome. What a different culture and a different experience. It was a place that I’d probably never have had a chance to normally go.”
Going into his second term with the national team, part of the appeal is bouncing ideas off his peers.
“It’s a huge thing, I’ve taken stuff back that I learned from coach Craney and applied it to what we’ve done at Guelph. Those are some of the things that you really enjoy with these things; you get see a different kind of football. You get to hear different ideas from different coaches and you can kind of steal different little ideas here and there that you can apply to what you do.”
MacNeill used the experience to grow as a football coach, sharing ideas and concepts with his peers.
“All three of the other defensive coaches provided little things that I’ve kind of brought back. Brian Guebert [DL coach] and I click on a football level; we see the game the same way. It’s kind of fun to get that similar mindset and bounce some ideas back-and-forth.”
“Ryan Hall [DB coach] was great at really preaching the issue of stripping and going after footballs. We were doing a bit of that at Guelph but we’ve added to that from my experience. From a scheme base, Warren’s brought some ideas that we weren’t doing that I liked and implemented.”
“Juice [Justin Éthier] is a genius offensive coordinator and to see him work and prepare was a lot of fun too.”
Canada’s DC heads into his second world championship determined to get the team in a good position to excel.
“I don’t want to lose, that’s for sure! More than that, I feel a certain responsibility to ensure that those kids get an opportunity to win. The main thing on my mind is to make sure we do everything we can to put them in the best position to be successful. If we can do that, I’ll feel very happy.”
For MacNeill, representing his nation was a highlight in his career. He hopes kids take advantage of that unique opportunity if and when they get it.
“One of the fondest memories I have is standing in Kuwait, as they play the national anthem with our flag waving in the stadium. There’s no better experience and I’ve never felt such a sense of pride for my country than I did for that moment during the playing of the national anthem. To do that in Kuwait, representing Canada with those kids and those coaches was a truly remarkable experience.”
“Every player should get that opportunity to get to feel that sense of pride. It’s something that you just can’t put a dollar value on – it’s remarkable.”
For a Canadian coach, switching from 3 to 4 down football is a tough transition, at least at first.
“Going down from 12 players to 11 players in American rules was the biggest adjustment. Having a smaller playing surface and less motion is something that really helps the defence and allows us to do more things which is a lot of fun.”
“From an analytics perspective, it provides another down statistically that you have to account for in terms of what they’ll do. That definitely added to the game plan and the preparation for play calling and having those different scenarios.”
“In Canadian football, we go from being in 1st and 10, 2nd and short, medium or long more often to now [with American rules], having a ton of additional scenarios and offensive flexibility between run and pass on 1st and the middle downs, creating more of a chess game that you have to be aware of.”
The learning curve on MacNeill’s transition to four down football was minimized with the experience of long-time defensive coordinator, Warren Craney, who’s served the role beginning with Team Canada at the 2007 NFL Global Junior Championship, the 2009, 2012 and 2014 IFAF U-19 World Championships in addition to the International Bowl beginning at the inaugural 2010 edition with Team World.
“Especially early on in the process, having a guy like Warren with that much international experience, really helped me wrap my head around the transition.”
Coaching at the International Bowl gave Kevin a chance to experience one of football’s Mecca’s in Texas.
“I really enjoyed playing in Texas. The Allen [Texas] high school offensive coordinator and head coach were on Team USA’s staff. When you think of high school football in the states, Allen is a premiere institution and to get to go up against those guys was really exciting.”
“I got to know their head coach a little bit through that experience, he’s just a great guy. You hear about the Mecca’s of football down in Texas and then you get to actually meet the guys. You realize that they’re just regular old coaches just like yourself.”
In February 2016, MacNeill will head back to Texas, inheriting the defensive coordinator reigns from Warren Craney. Kevin was one of the three coaches on hand at the 2015 edition of the Canada Cup, helping select Canada’s 40-man U-18 roster for the International Bowl.
Last year’s U-18 alumni mixed in with standouts from identification camps, being held in late 2015, will make up Canada’s U-19 roster. From those two teams, coach MacNeill and the rest of the Junior National Team coaching staff will look to choose its world championship roster. If history repeats for a fourth consecutive tournament, Canada could meet their American rivals in the finals.
This post is also available in: French