Neil Jones leans in to coaching challenge

The New Zealander is ready to take the UW men’s soccer team to the next level.
Man is turned slightly away from camera holding a soccer ball under one arm. Large building looms behind him.
Photo by Darren Hauck
Neil Jones

This story starts with a new head coach of men’s soccer at the University of California, Santa Barbara taking lemons and making lemonade.

In 1999, Tim Vom Steeg inherited a program that had few wins and fewer scholarships. The best young soccer players in California had no interest in UCSB.

“It was a nightmare,” Vom Steeg says.

He was forced to recruit internationally. One of Vom Steeg’s assistants zeroed in on a young New Zealander who was home for the summer after his freshman year at the University of Otago.

Vom Steeg had also seen the player — his name was Neil Jones — on film playing for New Zealand in an Under 17 World Cup match against a United States team led by the soon-to-be-legendary Landon Donovan.

Vom Steeg’s assistant reached Jones by phone. How would Jones like to come to the United States — some scholarship money had been located — and help turn things around at UCSB?
“It was never the plan,” Jones says. “I was happy in New Zealand.”

But Jones said yes — New Zealand Under 17 teammate Tony Lochhead did, too — and the decision launched an immersion in U.S. collegiate soccer that culminated in January, when Jones was named the new head coach of men’s soccer at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Jones was an assistant at Northwestern, and then head coach at Loyola University, before taking the UW job.

“Having been at Northwestern, I knew this conference and these schools were incredibly supportive of the student athlete, on the field and in the classroom,” Jones says. “Loyola was phenomenal, too, but this is another level and another challenge.”

His American adventure began, as noted, at UCSB. Jones was part of Vom Steeg’s 2001 freshman class in Santa Barbara.

“There were about 10 players in that group,” Vom Steeg says. “I put them all on the field and they jelled. They are still really close.”

“We were in each other’s weddings and go on family trips together,” Jones says.

The camaraderie paid off in victories. The 2001 team had a winning record, and in 2002 UCSB made the NCAA tournament.

Vom Steeg moved Jones from defender to forward with great success. “He was unbelievable,” Vom Steeg says. “Neil could completely dominate the game up front.”

In 2004, UCSB made it all the way to the NCAA championship game, losing to Indiana.

It was also at UCSB — in the athletic training room — that Jones met his wife, Stephanie. “She was on the women’s swimming team,” Jones says. She’s now an attorney — selected as one of Illinois’ “40 Under 40” attorneys in 2020 by the publishers of Chicago Lawyer magazine — and they have two young sons. The family moved into a home in Middleton in July.

“Of the hundreds of people we’ve talked to about this move,” Jones says, “no one’s said a negative word about Madison.”

After UCSB, Jones had a brief pro playing career. Then came an offer to return to Santa Barbara as an assistant coach.

Vom Steeg’s assistant, Leo Chappel, offered tough-love advice.

“He said, ‘Look, you’re going to be a better coach than you’ll ever be a player,’ ” recalls Jones, who was 24 at the time. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear that. But he was right.”

With Jones on the coaching staff, UCSB’s ascendancy peaked with a 2006 NCAA championship. A few years later, Jones reached out to Northwestern men’s coach Tim Lenahan about a vacancy on his staff, then moved to the Big Ten as a Wildcats assistant.

The year Jones moved to Chicago, New Zealand improbably qualified for the FIFA World Cup for the first time in nearly three decades. It stirred Jones’ enduring love for his homeland. He watched at The Globe Pub, an international sports bar on the city’s north side, as many of his old friends — Lochhead was on the team — fought back against Slovakia and salvaged a last-second 1-1 tie. A reporter captured an ecstatic Jones saying, “The nation is going crazy right now. This is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I don’t know if New Zealand will qualify again.”

Loyola tapped Jones as head men’s soccer coach in 2013. In 2016, he led the Ramblers to the Missouri Valley Conference championship and the second round of the NCAA tournament — rare air the team had not before experienced.

The Wisconsin job is Jones’ biggest test yet. The Badgers men’s record from 2019-21 was 12-25-8. A Wisconsin State Journal article in June quoted a Badgers player as saying Jones has already begun stressing a strong work ethic and relationship-building culture — touting the importance of the players’ bonding.

When I asked Jones about the shifting landscape of college athletics — specifically athletes being able to profit off their name, image and license, or NIL — he noted that UW–Madison has positioned all student athletes with Altius, a leading advisory firm in the NIL space.

Then Jones repeated something he said he’d mentioned during his hiring to UW Athletic Director Chris McIntosh.

“I said I want kids who want to be here, for the academic level of the university, the Big Ten Conference, the city of Madison and to be a Badger,” Jones says. “I’m not that interested in recruiting players who are in it for the money. I want them to play for the name on the front of the jersey rather than the name on the back of the jersey.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” at madisonmagazine.com/dougmoe.

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