April 30th, 2023 | Josh Adelman
Soldiers To Sidelines proudly honors US Army LTC Cully Neal as the April 2023 Coach of the Month. Cully is transitioning from the Army after 23 years of service. He has amassed troves of leadership expertise over the years, and now he is ready to share this wisdom with athletes from his hometown in Pennsylvania.
Cully first got involved with STS in November 2022 at our Fall Football Coaching Certification Seminar with the NY JETS. Like many high achievers, he wanted to coach at the highest level possible and was willing to do the work to make it happen, just like his successful Army career. After certifying with STS, he participated in our membership development program and excelled. He earned a volunteer sports performance coaching internship with the XFL to get his foot in the door with professional football. He excelled in his role but came to a powerful realization which ultimately earned him the Soldier Coach of the Month honor. Cully shares his story with us in the following interview.
STS: Why did you initially participate in Soldiers To Sidelines?
Cully Neal: I’m about to retire in a few months and have for years wanted to coach football. The Army has afforded me the privilege to lead young men in combat and, more importantly, through life. That experience taught me that teaching, coaching, and mentoring is my passion. I’m the best version of myself when I’m helping people, specifically those whose walk through life has been wrought with challenges. In Soldiers to Sidelines, I saw that opportunity to have an impact on young men again and to now use football (versus the Army) as the vehicle to accomplish that goal.
STS: What have you learned since working with Soldiers To Sidelines?
Cully Neal: Since being involved with Soldiers to Sidelines I’ve learned that there is a community of people like me out there that believe they can change communities and lives through the sport of football. Transitioning into full-time coaching after 23 years in the military seemed far-fetched at first, but STS has helped validate my decision to begin a new career in coaching.
STS: You worked through the STS MDP and earned an internship with the XFL. Describe your internship experience and what have you learned?
Cully Neal: The number 1 lesson I would share is to examine very closely what you personally hope to achieve from coaching. During this internship I’ve learned that my goal of impacting young men’s lives couldn’t be realized at this level like I want it to be. In spending time with a lot of the players I learned that many of them have either a fully developed sense of self, have goals and know how to reach them or have been influenced in particular ways that makes effecting and stimulating positive change in their lives extremely difficult. When that’s coupled with the organizational tempo of a professional football team, it then becomes extremely difficult to reach them. This was a tough realization for me and caused me to re-assess my goals for this internship and my goals as a coach.
STS: What did you enjoy most about coaching in the XFL?
Cully Neal: Developing relationships and connecting with the players. The fabric of their stories is cut from the same cloth as all of ours. They’ve had massive failure in things they’ve attempted and been wildly successful in others. They are family men, husbands, and brothers and face the same daily struggles we all do. The scrutiny and stress they face each day as a professional athlete is often overlooked. So, to have them share their struggles and triumphs with me and see in them the same vulnerabilities I have, was both humbling and rewarding.
STS: Has your perspective of coaching professional football changed during your internship? If so how?
Cully Neal: Most everyone that aspires to high achievement pursues doing that thing within their profession at the highest levels. I’m no exception. During my 23 years of service, I had the distinct privilege of serving in some of the most elite units in the Department of Defense. In pursuing those challenges and goals I’ve learned many lessons. Mostly about what it takes to achieve, excel, and then sustain your performance over time. But a few lessons stand out as special and life-impacting. I’ve drawn on those experiences during this internship to help shape and ultimately change my perspective on coaching football.
If you had asked me 4 months ago where I see myself after this internship, I would have instinctively told you I want to coach at the NFL or Collegiate Division I level. It’s natural, rolls off the tongue with ease, and is just what leaders love to hear. It’s even self-affirming to say and hear it from one’s own mouth. Positive self-talk, visualizing and then saying what you ARE going to accomplish can help you move past setbacks and reach your goals. And I did this for the first few weeks, but things started to shift.
My top priority as a coach has always been to impact young men’s lives, but, in this fast-paced environment of professional football, could I really do that, and did I want to do that? Ultimately, I concluded around week four that I could not do that like I wanted to at this level. I was in the XFL, with professional athletes, and access to incredible resources, equipment, and facilities but still left work each day feeling unfulfilled. I began to ask myself some very tough questions about what I really wanted out of coaching football and life. During this period of self-discovery and reflection, it became clear to me that coaching at the High School level is where I wanted to be. High School football is certainly not the XFL, and there are no professional athletes or former NFL coaches to network with, but I knew it was where I belonged. And staying true to that calling that comes from a place deep within ourselves is critical to discovering what your WHY is when it comes to being a coach.
STS: What do you hope to achieve in coaching moving forward?
Cully Neal: In the near term I’m hoping for an internship opportunity at The University of Pittsburgh where I’ll continue to deepen my knowledge of football and teach, coach, and mentor young athletes. In the long term, I look to coach at the High School level in and around the Pittsburgh, PA area.
STS: How has your military experience prepared you to coach in the future?
Cully Neal: The military can really be a grind. There’s no better example than a deployment, where after about 90 days, the newness and excitement of the mission wears off and your left with 9 months of tough work before you return home. The operational tempo and the demands of work in a combat environment can be both stressful and relentless. It becomes a grind. To remain effective in that sort of environment, you really must reach the right perspective, or you risk falling into complacency, endangering the mission, your life, and the lives of those around you. Now there are obviously some clear differences between combat and football, but the similarity that I’ve discovered is committing to the grind. During the season, I was with a few teams but spent the most with the Orlando Guardians and San Antonio Brahmas. They were both having losing seasons, and around week 5 or 6 we were in the grind phase. This is also where my perspective had fully shifted to knowing I wanted to be at the High School level. So, while my personal priorities had changed, the mission at hand had not. This is where I relied on my many years of working through the grind, remaining focused, and giving my best efforts to finish strong despite setbacks and negative outcomes.
STS: What advice would you give future transitioning service members who want to pursue coaching after service?
Cully Neal: In the Army, I always thought if I can invest in the man first, build him up, focus on character, values, and discipline that the Soldier would always follow. I was almost always right. The approach I’ve taken in transitioning to coaching football is no different. My mission has not changed, just the operational environment. So, my advice would be to clearly identify your WHY. Then ask yourself the why to that, then repeat that process again and again and again and if at the end it deviates too far from investing in and building young men up, you may want to reconsider coaching as a transition plan.