Shawn Neary, the only coach in the history of the Gillette College men’s basketball program, is returning to his alma mater, Montana State University-Billings.
Leaving Gillette was never a part of Neary's plan. He, and the rest of the Gillette College coaches and players, had the rug pulled from under him June 25 when the Northern Wyoming Community College District abruptly cut all athletics at Sheridan and Gillette colleges.
Neary knew he wanted to stay on the sidelines, but another head coaching gig just wasn’t an option this late in the offseason.
"There wasn’t any openings” in the region for head coaching jobs, Neary said. But his longstanding relationship with MSU-Billings coach Mike Durham helped land a spot on the Yellowjackets staff.
“Coach Durham and I have been friends for a long time, so this gives me a chance to stay in it,” Neary said about coaching college basketball. “It’s not ideal.
"I didn’t want to leave Gillette and didn’t want to leave behind this program behind. But for the time being, I’m looking forward to doing this.”
While the relationship with Durham helped Neary get his foot in the door, his resumé did the rest. For years, Neary has been one of the best coaches in the NJCAA ranks, evidenced by the three trips to the national tournament and two Region IX Coach of the Year awards.
When Neary first came to Gillette to interview for the Pronghorns, he said he knew something was different about the community. He could tell it loved basketball and that this was the place he wanted to build a program.
“At that time, I felt that this could be a special place,” Neary said. “I felt the passion for basketball and the energy our community had.
"There was just something different about Gillette, that I just felt like they really wanted to be good.”
During the program’s inaugural season in 2009-2010, Neary immediately put a winning product on the court. The first Pronghorn team posted a record of 18-12, then made the jump to 24-7 in Year 2.
Neary said the program lacked a few scholarships from being real NJCAA contenders when he arrived. He secured the funding after the first few years and the success took another step forward.
In 2014-15, the Pronghorns finished as the No. 9 ranked team (27-8) in the country and were even better the following year in 2015-16.
That season was the best of Neary’s college coaching career, with the Pronghorns finishing 35-2 and at No. 3 at the NJCAA tournament. It was the best finish at nationals for a Region IX team since 1963.
The Pronghorns made it to the national tournament again the next year, winning one game and losing one in the Sweet 16 to finish at 32-4. Since then, Gillette College has an overall record of 68-27. His final record at Gillette College reads as 268-70 (.750).
Neary came to Gillette with the goal of putting a new program on the map. He arrived with 13 years of experience from Miles Community College, but ended up taking the Pronghorns to levels he never saw in Miles City, Montana.
“Once we got here and got started, you could tell there was a good chance we could be pretty special,” Neary said. “The potential was there and for the most part I think we reached it.”
A new role
Neary is no stranger to Billings or Montana in general. He grew up in Butte, Montana, before playing basketball and studying at Eastern Montana University, which is now MSU-Billings.
The longtime coach didn’t have any intentions of leaving Gillette until the college’s programs were axed, but he is taking his new role in stride. His official title is volunteer assistant, and Neary said he expects to have a Swiss Army knife-type role under Durham.
“It’ll be a different look and I just want to go there and make them better and help them have a great year,” Neary said. “(Coach Durham) is going to let me do a little bit of everything. … My job now is to fulfill any role he wants me to do within the staff.”
Neary, who said he’ll use the time under Durham as a learning experience, thinks he can be an asset for his new program with recruiting and defense.
There weren’t many places that Neary’s recruiting reach didn’t touch during his 11-year tenure in Gillette. This past season, he signed players from Detroit, Houston, Toronto, Canada and one from the Congo.
Talent-wise, he has always been on the lookout for long, athletic players and has found some of the best in the country. In 11 years, five of Neary's recruits have finished as NJCAA All-Americans.
"There's not too many other junior colleges in the country that have had five All-Americans in 11 years," Neary said. "There are programs that have been running for 50 years that don't have five All-Americans."
During the years the Pronghorns were national contenders, Neary’s teams took advantage of their athleticism by defending every position and running the court in transition.
Neary said he eventually wants to be a head coach again, but is planning to make the most of the new opportunity in Billings.
Leaving a legacy
Neary has plenty to be proud about when he looks back at his 11 years with Gillette College. The wins and the accolades put the program in national contention, but that’s only part of what the Pronghorns brought to Gillette.
“Obviously, the winning and the championships are special, because they’re hard to get,” Neary said. “But I’m also proud that we were involved with the community. ... We really promoted Gillette College.”
The Pronghorns were involved in many local activities, like reading to students in elementary schools and volunteering at the Special Olympics and food drives.
Many players also embraced the Adopt a Pronghorn program, where families help athletes with meals and a place to hang out away from campus. Neary said his players have formed lifetime relationships and became a part of Gillette doing tht.
During his recruiting process, Neary was always conscious about bringing in talented players who also were willing to do the work in the classroom.
With junior college often being the landing spot for athletes who have struggled with academics, having success on the court and in the classroom isn’t an easy task. But 91% of the sophomores who have played for Neary have gone on to four-year schools and 100% of those have graduated with four-year degrees.
“We’ve always stressed the importance of education," he said. "I’m very happy for those kids, because they have an opportunity to change their path. Our guys have used basketball to get an education and change their path and maybe their families' path forever.
“Those kids all came to Gillette, Wyoming, and had no idea. They trusted me and believed in me and our program. For them to move on with an education, that’s pretty cool.”
Neary is still in Gillette part time and also remains on the Gillette City Council for now.