Where do former college football players go after their collegiate years end? For a fortunate few, it’s a trip to the NFL; for most, however, the options are less glamorous. Then there’s the diehards, a select group whose passion for sports can’t be extinguished with the end of their playing careers. They journey toward a new path, one that keeps them in the game, albeit from an entirely different perspective.
We recently caught up with Neal Mead, a former prominent member of the offensive line for the Golden Eagle football team as the starting right tackle. He lettered three years and helped lead Southern Miss to the 2003 Conference USA Championship, and bowl appearances in the Liberty Bowl (2003) and New Orleans Bowl (2004, 2005).
Currently Neal is the assistant director for event management operations facilities and game operations at fabled Ole Miss. His playing days behind him, Neal is still putting up wins on and off the field, ensuring a positive experience for both fans and student athletes. What’s it like to work for Ole Miss? Read his evolution from student athlete to event management professional below:
You were a college football player before entering the event management field. How was the transition?
Once I stopped playing football, it really opened my eyes to what goes on. Student athletes don’t understand the amount of work that goes into making certain their collegiate experience is as special as possible. As a player, all I knew was someone turns the lights on, the field was ready and I was going to play. No thought went into the operations or safety aspects of the game. And forget about finances. I never questioned how much it really costs to put a game on, for example. None of this registered while I was playing.
There aren’t many young adults who would have that level of appreciation. What got you interested in event management?
Like most players, I wanted to give the NFL a shot. But during my red shirt junior year at Southern Miss, I happened to meet our school’s event management rep while getting ready for practice. He told me to stop by his office, where he explained the options available in sports should the NFL not work out. I wasn’t interested at first, but I knew I wanted to stay in sports, so I kept an open mind.
During that time I applied and was accepted to graduate school. And, of course, I still had one more year left of football. I also started working with my contact, first as a volunteer and then a practicum student, learning about facilities and event management. I wound up really liking it, and was hooked. He eventually moved on, and I was encouraged to apply for an open position. Southern Miss hired me in 2007, first as a facilities and event management specialist then promoting me to assistant director.
Why did you leave?
In 2012, my wife accepted a position which required us to relocate. Unable to find work in event management, I took a sales position in another industry. Some time later, my wife landed a job at Ole Miss, so we moved back to Mississippi. I put in a for a transfer, but not wanting to let the sports dream go, I headed to Ole Miss, introduced myself, and as luck would have it, a position was open. I was hired shortly thereafter, and have been here since.
So now that you’re on the other side of things, so to speak, tell us what it is you do.
It’s easier for me to tell you what I don’t do, so many things fall under the event management umbrella. There really isn’t a typical day; it all depends on the event. We’re responsible for everything that happens at the stadium except for what happens on the field. That includes security, logistics prior to the game, assuring everyone has proper credentials and serving as liaison between the university’s public safety officers, law enforcement and first responders.
Walk us through what goes on behind the scenes. What’s it take to put on an Ole Miss Football game?
Preparations begin well before the game is played. On Tuesday morning, the staff meets to discuss logistics and to go through the game day time line. We’ll review security protocols and emergency plans. The stadium goes into lockdown at 6:00 p.m on Thursday; no one gains access unless they have been cleared for a game day credential. On Saturday morning, game day, we’ll do a bomb sweep and another inspection to ensure nothing came into the stadium since the lockdown. We then meet with both the home and visiting teams, making certain that lockers are set up and ready to go. We’ll meet with officials, which includes onfield personnel and any network or cable outlets in attendance to discuss security, game protocol, and weather policy.
You mentioned weather. Aside from a terror threat, is this the biggest concern from your perspective?
Weather is certainly a very serious issue, and the bigger the event, the greater the concern. Our stadium holds over 64,000 for a football game. If we have lightening coming through the area, we may have to stop a game. But if there’s a tornado warning, now we’re talking about the safety of those who have come to game.
How do you handle these situations?
You can’t just wing it – you have to think about it ahead of time and develop contingency plans. We try to shelter in place first, removing guests from the seating area into the grandstands. We enact our evacuation plan during severe weather conditions, coordinating with security staff and law enforcement to get folks to safety as quickly as possible. Fortunately, there’s a new $96 million, 10,000-seat basketball facility right next to stadium. Half a mile from this, we have our old basketball facility if we need it. When it comes to weather, it’s critical to keep current on the forecast and heed early warnings. Admittedly, it’s a balancing act; no one wants to stop a game, but the safety of our fans and student athletes comes first.
How do you keep the venue parking lot safe and secure?
The total game day staff from a security standpoint is about 450 people; of these, 150 are used outside to control parking lots. On game day, we close campus at 6 a.m. restricting access to vehicles with parking passes. Once on campus, you’re directed to the appropriate lot. We do this for safety, but also to control traffic flow. We have about 80,000 people in this city on game day, twice the population of Oxford, MS. Some come for the game, and others just tailgate at the Grove, and this can create a traffic nightmare and dampen the fan experience if it isn’t monitored.
I’d imagine that over the years you would have had to deal with an unruly fan or two. What’s the Ole Miss protocol for this?
Unruly fans are handled on a case by case basis. In recent years, we’ve turned responsibility for this over to the university police department, but if I hear a call, I’m going to be part of the process. Customer service is extremely important to Ole Miss, and I don’t want my front line security personnel making customer service decisions without my input.
Doesn’t sound like you keep office hours, or work a 9 to 5 type of job.
Office hours? We work on demand; if there’s a need we’re there. I’ll go in at 8:00 a.m., work until 11:00 p.m and be in the next morning without a second thought.
What do you like best about your position?
The hard work. I’ve had a strong work ethic my whole life, and I like to see where my efforts make a difference. To see what the work actually accomplishes on game day is rewarding. What we do ties into the overall fan experience. If they’ve had a great experience, they’ll tell their friends and return with them in tow.
What advice would you give to other student athletes who may be considering a career in event management?
First, take care of business in the classroom. You’re a student athlete but your number one goal should be to graduate and get a degree. And not just to graduate, but to do well so that when it’s time to job search, you have something to offer. It’s a competitive field. You need a good skill set or you’ll be passed over. Find a way to be useful during your undergraduate years; volunteer to gain practical experience. A lot of people get into this only to realize it’s not for them. The hours are long, and there are compromises when it comes to your free time.
Is it worth it?
Absolutely. It helps to find the right place, and I feel like I found it at Ole Miss. The administration is supportive, and really believes in safety and takes it seriously. Finding that good fit is easier said than done, but I’ve found it, and am glad I made the decision to step back into athletics.