Longtime Salpointe Catholic assistant Al Alexander looks back at the Lancers’ state championship season of 2013, finishing at 14-0 overall, and realizes how much defensive line coach Mark Neal meant to their success.
“He was huge,” Alexander said. “He was one of the older guys on the staff who kept everybody level-headed. Every one of his kids on the defensive line went on to play in college.”
Neal, 68, passed away in his sleep last night from an apparent heart attack. He was a wide receiver at Arizona from 1970-73 who arrived in Tucson from San Fernando High School in Los Angeles. He grew up in the Oakland area.
While working at IBM, he helped coach Salpointe’s program under head coach Dennis Bene, who tweeted this about Neal today:
I am truly saddened by the passing of a Great Man!!! Coach Neal was instrumental in our success at Salpointe over the past 2 decades! He was a teacher and a servant leader who taught me a great deal about football and life❤️ R.I.P. “Governor”
— Dennis Bene (@DJBene11) July 1, 2020
Salpointe’s defensive line in 2013 included tackles Brandt Davidson and Justin Holt and ends Austin Weaver and Jake Casteel (who was listed at linebacker but also played up front). Davidson, Holt, Weaver and Casteel combined for 49 tackles for loss that season.
“Justin was the only freshman lineman to make varsity (in 2012) and coach Neal and Al both played a huge role in his life as a coach and mentor,” said Julius Holt, Justin’s father. “Mark would ask about Justin first before we start a personal conversation.”
Neal’s son Kris Neal, who played at Alabama-Birmingham and the CFL after graduating from Salpointe in 1994, is on the Lancers’ staff under new head coach Eric Rogers (who replaced Bene after Bene resigned after 19 years at the school).
Mark was planning on remaining on Salpointe’s sideline as a mentor as he did the last two seasons after serving as the junior varsity coach up to the 2016 season.
“He switched back and forth from JV to the varsity,” Alexander said. “He meant a lot to us coaches and the kids. When he talked, you listened to everything he said because he was like a preacher or a governor.
“That’s why Coach Bene gave him the nickname, ‘The Governor.'”
Mark was Arizona’s second-leading receiver at Arizona his senior season in 1973 behind Theopolis “T” Bell. In his last game with the Wildcats, a 55-19 loss to ASU in 1973, he caught four passes for 101 yards. He was one of the senior captains of Jim Young’s first team at Arizona.
Alexander looked forward to seeing Mark again this season when Salpointe was scheduled to host Cienega on Sept. 4. Alexander is now the linebackers coach at Cienega under head coach Pat Nugent.
“The last time I talked with Mark was after last season in December or January,” Alexander said. “He was mentoring an offensive lineman of mine at Salpointe, Ben Cook. He worked with Ben on the side. Ben ended up being a college player (at Wabash College).
“Everything he said was like a sermon. It had a lot of meaning.”
Mark Neal is survived by his wife of 46 years, Rosanne, and his sons Kris and Kenneth and grandchildren.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.