When Neil Searcy graduated from Gainesville High School, he didn’t expect to return 32 years later as athletic director.
That became reality last month when Gainesville ISD hired Searcy as the school’s next football coach.
Searcy said returning home to coach the program he played for has been surreal.
“It's something that I've always wanted to do,” Searcy said. “It’s something that I take a lot of pride in, and really wanting to be able to give back to that community, to the school district, to those kids, exactly what people in that community and that school district poured into me over 30 some years ago.”
Searcy graduated from Gainesville in 1990. He went on to play football at Texas A&M-Commerce before entering the coaching profession. He returns to Gainesville after spending the past six seasons as head football coach and campus athletic coordinator at Killeen.
Searcy isn’t the only alumnus coming home. He hired several Gainesville graduates to be part of his staff.
“Whenever I took the job, my phone was ringing off the hook with former Leopards that are in the coaching profession wanting to come home, and I think that is so, so huge,” Searcy said. “I was so happy to know that there was other guys that have graduated from Gainesville, been alumni of Gainesville that wanted to come back home. That place is special to a lot of people… So, it was very important for me to find guys that understood what it is to be a Gainesville Leopard.”
Trey Gray is one of those former Leopards. Gray will take over as offensive coordinator after spending the past six years with Searcy in Killeen as quarterbacks coach. Chris Lewis, a Gainesville graduate who played at Baylor, will be assistant head coach.
Darrell Dennis returns to Gainesville from Lake Dallas to coach running backs. Robbie Newton is coming home after coaching at Crownover Middle School, a feeder for Denton Guyer. Searcy said he attributes a lot of Guyer’s success to the work Newton did with the middle school players.
With his small army of former Leopards, Searcy said he wants to build a well-disciplined athletics program filled with athletes who take pride in representing Gainesville.
“Whenever you come and watch any of our teams play, or we go out of town to any other school, I want them to say a lot of great things about our kids,” Searcy said. “Hey, how well they played, they're really good, a really good team. But the thing that will make me the most proud is that when we go places, when people say, that is a really good bunch of kids, really respectful young men and young ladies. Those are the things that I want to bring to that program and to make sure that we instill in our kids.”
Searcy said he looks at a football season as three seasons in one. The first is the non-district schedule, followed by district play. The third season is the playoffs.
He said playing in all three seasons will be the goal every year.
“We will never set a low bar as a goal in Gainesville as long as I'm there,” Searcy said. “We want to get back to playing championship level athletics and sports and football at Gainesville High School, and that's going to be the goal. I really believe if you set a low bar, kids will reach it. But if you set them high, the kids'll strive, and they'll try to reach for it.”
Gainesville has a proud football history which includes winning a state championship in 2003, but the Leopards last reached the playoffs in 2019. Gainesville went 4-14 the past two seasons after winning eight games three years ago.
Searcy said the first step to returning to the postseason will be building a relationship between the new coaches and the players.
“The big thing is, we'll have to have buy-in from the kids, and they're gonna have to trust us as a coaching staff,” Searcy said. “Coaching staff's gonna have to trust them, and we've got to put in a lot of hard work. If we're able to do that, I think the talent pool is there to be able to accomplish all the goals that we want to accomplish.”
The Leopards began summer workouts Monday as they prepare for the coming season. Gainesville opens football season Aug. 27 against Cedar Hill Trinity Leadership at UT Arlington.
Searcy said he is focused on getting his football players ready for week one, though he is also committed to working with the rest of the school’s athletes as they prepare for their respective seasons. But as much as he wants to lead Gainesville to athletic success, he said there is something more important.
“You'll always hear me say, if the only thing that we teach our kids is about how to play a game, and that's all they learned from us when they come through our program, we failed them,” Searcy said. “A part of our job is to teach them how to play a game and be successful, but we're going to try to teach them to be, for the next phase of their life, the young men to be great husbands and fathers, and the young ladies to be outstanding wives and mothers. We're trying to prepare them for the next step in their life.”