Neal's Lions Ranked #1
Dale Neal coaches team to the top of NAIA rankings
In his 42nd year of coaching and his 18th season at the helm of the Lady Lion basketball program at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., Coach Dale Neal has
given the school something they've never had before. With the team's 66-54 win over then-No. 2 Union University, the Lions earned the school's first ever No. 1 national ranking in the latest coaches poll released on Monday, Jan. 16.
The Lady Lions (15-2), winners of 15 straight, took 11 of 12 first-place votes in the poll to jump from No. 3 into the top spot. FHU's only two losses were forfeits due to a paperwork miscue that cost the team its first two wins of the year.
FHU's previous highest ranking was No. 2, a position FHU held for nine polls during the 2005-06 season.
Few programs in the NAIA have seen the levels of success and consistency that Neal has brought to Freed-Hardeman in the last 15 years. Over that time frame, the Lady Lions are one of only two programs to have won at least 20 games and competed in the NAIA National Tournament every year. Only three schools can claim each accomplishment by itself.
Dale was a star athlete for York College in
basketball and helped them to a
conference championship in 1966 under legendary coach Colis Campbell. Neal returned to his alma mater and coached the YC men’s
basketball team for 11 years (1977-88), where
his teams’ combined record was 234-96 (.709), before going to FHU. He received seven
coach-of-the-year awards while at York including an NJCAA Region IX Coach of the Year award.
The Lady Lion basketball program instantly turned around when Neal arrived at Freed-Hardeman. In his first season in 1995, the Lady Lions finished a then school-record 21-9. Two years later, the team set a new record by winning 26 games and making the school's first ever appearance in the NAIA National Tournament and winning its first game, 76-63 over East Central Oklahoma.
In 1999, the Lady Lions again won 26 games and made a Cinderella run through the national tournament, knocking off No. 2 Wayland Baptist (Texas) University and No. 7 University of Auburn at Montgomery to reach the Fab Four. The dream of a national championship ended there with a loss to eventual champion Oklahoma City, but the deep run still helped put FHU women's basketball on the national radar for years to come.
The program took another step forward in the 2002-03 season. With a freshman-heavy lineup, the Lady Lions won 30 games for the first time in school history. The season, however, finished with a loss in the TranSouth Conference title game and a first-round exit in the national tournament leaving Neal and his still-young team more determined entering the next season.
That next season brought about more history at Freed-Hardeman. After five runner-up finishes in the TranSouth Conference tournament in Neal's tenure, the Lady Lions finally broke through and brought home a championship with a dominating 81-63 win over Union (Tenn.) University. It was the first of three consecutive conference championships for FHU.
The Lady Lions, meanwhile, advanced to the Elite Eight of the national tournament in each of those three seasons and set a new school record for wins in a season after going 32-3 in 2005-06.
Coach Neal was named the TranSouth Conference's Coach of the Year each season during that remarkable four-year stretch that saw FHU post a combined record of 123-21 overall and 49-7 in conference play.
Two years later, the Lady Lions almost cracked the 30-win barrier again in the midst of another run through the NAIA National Tournament, which saw them make their second trip to the Fab 4 after winning three games in fewer than 48 hours.
In the 2009-10 season, Freed-Hardeman added another first to its record of accomplishments when the Lady Lions defeated No. 1 Union (Tenn.) University in the finals of the TranSouth Conference tournament, marking the first time that any FHU team had defeated a team ranked No. 1 nationally. It was also the first time in conference history that the top-seeded team did not win the conference tournament.
Even better things were to follow in 2010-11 as the Lady Lions went 27-9 and made their third trip to the NAIA Fab Four behind the play of Meribeth Boehler, who was named the NAIA National Player of the Year. The Lady Lions also handed a No. 1 ranked team another loss, defeating Union on FHU's home floor in February. Freed-Hardeman's postseason run ended in the national semifinals at the hands of eventual champion Asuza Pacific (Calif.) University.
Neal holds an Associates degree from York College ('66), a Bachelor of Arts degree from Harding University ('69), and a Master of Physical Education degree from the University of Nebraska ('80). He and his wife, Kathy, reside in Henderson and have four children and 13 grandchildren.