Looking back at Brown’s athletic department 40 years ago, it would be hard to find many similarities to today’s version. Brown’s athletes now enjoy modern, state-of-the-art facilities, and dozens of varsity teams have been added in recent decades.
Around that time, first-year women’s soccer Head Coach Phil Pincince had just taken over the program in its third year in existence.
At the start of the 2015 season, Pincince announced that he would step down from the head coaching position after 39 years. He transformed the program into a perennial contender, upping the number of regular season games and bringing 12 Ivy League titles to the University.
Pincince led the Bears to a 7-7-2 record in his last season, ending his career with a 317-247-53 all-time mark. In addition to the Ivy League titles, the team made six appearances in the NCAA Tournament, including a consecutive five-year stretch between 1982 and 1986.
“We’ve had one way of leading a program for 39 years, and it was a very successful way,” said Athletics Director Jack Hayes. “But there’s more than one way to be successful.”
Enter Kia McNeill: women’s soccer’s new leader. Hayes announced the hiring of McNeill, an assistant coach at Northeastern University, after an exhaustive search for head coaching candidates.
Path to Brown
McNeill grew up in Avon, Conn. She was a standout player from the start, named the 2004 Gatorade National Player of the Year and was a two-time All-American in high school. After a four-year career at Boston College, she was selected ninth overall by Saint Louis Athletica in the first-ever Women’s Professional Soccer draft in 2009. McNeill played three years for different teams in WPS, along with stints in Russia and the National Women’s Soccer League. She played for the U.S. Under-23 Women’s National Team during that period of her career.
While playing professionally, McNeill spent six years as an assistant coach in the region, joining her alma mater for several years before accepting a position at Northeastern in 2014.
Both programs saw great success with McNeill on staff: Five of the six teams she coached as an assistant made the NCAA tournament. While NCAA tournament appearances are expected at a top program like BC, McNeill assisted in building unprecedented success at Northeastern. In 2014, the Huskies won the conference regular season and tournament titles and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament for just the second time in program history.
Northeastern Head Coach Tracey Leone offered no shortage of high praise for her former assistant.
“Kia, to me, was an incredible hire,” Leone said. “We ended up having a really successful season, and she contributed a great deal to that.”
McNeill’s ability to generate success at both programs despite their differences “resonated” with the athletics department, Hayes said.
Getting the job
For McNeill, her first head coaching position marks the next stepping stone in a life dedicated to the beautiful game of soccer.
“It’s a dream come true,” she said. “I’ve put in a lot of time as a student athlete, a professional athlete and as an assistant coach, and all those experiences have really groomed me and prepared me for this.”
Pincince’s announcement that 2015 would be his last season presented Brown with a unique opportunity to begin searching for his successor. From a pool of 115 applicants, Hayes brought fewer than five to campus to interview.
Hayes attributed the avalanche of interest in coaching jobs at Brown to the prestige and stability of the Ivy League in the midst of a changing landscape in collegiate athletics.
Hayes was sold on McNeill’s preparation and knowledge of the program before she had even spent a day on campus.
“She was very familiar with how our season had gone, where we ranked statistically,” Hayes said. “She was very prepared to have a discussion about the future of our soccer program.”
McNeill said Brown bears every mark of a desirable coaching position: “great school, great facilities, great support in the athletic department.”
McNeill also lauded the legacy Pincince had built up in the women’s soccer program. Replacing a coach who has been the face of the program for nearly four decades is a challenge, but one McNeill welcomes.
“There’s a lot that I can learn from Phil, and there’s a lot the girls can learn from me,” she said. “I plan on bringing about new ideas and a new way of looking at things.”
Taking the reins
After accepting the job, McNeill called each player over winter break. As the team begins off-season workouts and practices, players are getting their first impression of what things will be like in the McNeill era.
“She seems very excited, very passionate and ready to get started,” said forward Mikela Waldman ’18.
“Our team has really strong chemistry, so there won’t be a problem,” said center back Maclaine Lehan ’18.
Midfielder Carly Gould ’17 said the team has had plenty of time to get used to the idea of playing for a new coach since Pincince announced his plans to retire in the fall.
McNeill has “been trying really hard to make everything transition as (easily) as possible,” Gould said. “Everyone is looking at it as a great opportunity to play for someone different.”
McNeill told the team she wants them to see Brown’s name come up on the NCAA Tournament board, something she has accomplished both as a player and as an assistant coach.
She hopes to lead Brown to that level by heavily emphasizing the importance of possession and minimizing mistakes.
“We’re going to play a high-energy, possession-oriented, organized style of play,” she said. “I want to see players expressing their personality on the field. I’m not the type of coach to joystick the players around.”
McNeill is also well aware of the challenge of recruiting in the Ivy League, which precludes offering scholarships to players. She hopes to benefit from the desire of student athletes across the world to get an Ivy League education.
“You sell the school, and the school sells itself,” she said. “An Ivy League degree will give back to you for your entire life.”
During McNeill’s time at Northeastern, the players and coaches set a goal of 3.6 for the team grade point average. As a result, her team posted the highest GPA of any team at Northeastern. McNeill plans to continue to push her players to achieve a specific GPA goal at Brown.
“When you set a team goal, it becomes less of an individual thing and more about ‘Hey, I have to do this because the person to the right of me is doing it, too.’”
McNeill has big aspirations for the program in the coming years, with eyes on the team’s first Ivy League title since 1994.
“They’ve won 12 Ivy League championships; I’d love to get us to lucky number 13.”
There are plenty of reasons to be excited for the future under McNeill. In the meantime, she continues to become familiar with the team and with life at Brown.
“They gave me a really nice office up here,” she said smiling, looking out the window of her corner room in the Pizzitola Sports Center at the Providence skyline. “I guess that’s what you get when you replace someone after 39 years.”