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PROTRACK » Pro Running HISTORY » Bill Neil, legendary SA coach - passed away 2003. SAAL Track News interview from 2002.

Bill Neil, legendary SA coach - passed away 2003. SAAL Track News interview from 2002.

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SAAL Track News Interview conducted by Colin Rowston with the late Bill Neil who passed away in 2003.


When did you first have anything to do with the SA Athletic League?
I was 17 years old and I went out to do some training with Laurie Cahill down at the racecourse. I was a longer distance runner but there was always some sprinters in the group. I took up playing football soon after that but kept running. My best memories are from the country meetings, with Whyalla being a place where I had some of my best wins.

How long was it before you took up umpiring football?
I played about 200 B-grade games with West Adelaide, plus one A-grade game! It was when I was about 27 or 28 that Ken Aplin talked me into coming out and umpiring. They were after some distance runners to become boundary umpires and there weren't too many decent longer distance runners around. I soon had some success, doing a Colts Grand Final to start with, then a Reserves Grand Final and then umpiring 11 straight SANFL League Grand Finals from 1959 to 1969. Throughout that time, I continued to compete with the League because the athletics kept me fit during the summer. I also did a bit of boxing which kept me fit. I had 100 fights and lost two.

When did you start getting into the coaching side of things?
While I was still umpiring I used to lead some of the other umpires through the training that was required. In 1972 I went out with the Central Districts Football Club and took them through all their physical work. Neil Kerley heard that I was doing that and he talked me into going down to Glenelg in 1973, the year they won the Grand Final. I have been involved with the Glenelg Football Club ever since as well as training a group of runners. Even though I was moving into the coaching side of things, I kept running and loved competing at meets like the Bay Sheffield and at Stawell.

What was your best run?
Probably my best effort was a race I won at Bendigo when I was 57 in the Veterans Mile. I had run some placings in miles at Stawell but I'll look back on the Bendigo run as my best effort. I felt brilliant that day. I pulled up and could have run another one!

What are some of your best achievements as a coach?
I have trained a few Bay Sheffield winners. Paul Brown in 1972, Peter Rogers in 1977, and then Al Green to back to back wins in 1983/84. I also was involved with David Grubb when he won in 1970. I also had quite a bit of success at the Bendigo meeting with a number of runners.

How did you come across Al Green?
I heard he could run and went and saw him play basketball. Having a chat to him, he said he had done a bit of running at school, so he decided to come out and give it a go. He came out and trained alongside Brown and Rogers, who had both won a Bay Sheffield. Within a fortnight, he was running past them! I thought "What have we got here?!". Soon after we went to Stawell and he was given a mark of 8 metres. I said to him to go out and not win the heat by too much, so that we could pick up a bit on the betting. He was trotting along and watching someone on his outside but didn’t notice the runner on his inside who came through and beat him by a quarter of an inch. That joker ended up winning the final! Al should never had lost that one and the Stawell Gift is one race I have never trained a winner of. That certainly was a mistake. There was also a year when Peter Rogers should have won a Stawell Gift but got pulled in his handicap after running a quick time in Bendigo. Then in 1996, Patrick Liptak ran the fastest heat by far but got beaten in his semi after hitting a marker and stumbling. There are a lot of "ifs" and "buts" in this game. I don't know if I'll get a chance now to find a Stawell Gift winner. You have to be a damn good runner to win one these days. They are around but you just have to find them. Ern Holder used to say if you could get a runner to break 12 seconds off their mark, they should win the Stawell Gift.

How many Stawell Gift meetings have you been to?
Since going to my first Stawell Gift meeting in 1948, I think I've missed out on about three. I've enjoyed staying in the caravan parks or hotels over there at Easter time.

You must have enjoyed seeing Chris Burckhardt win over 550 metres last Easter.
Gee, the boy has a big heart. With 20 metres to go, he was still 5 metres behind. The lad he beat was still running well too. I'd love to get a video of that race.

Have you enjoyed your time as a coach?
The great thing for me is to have met so many people through the sport. Out of the 100 or so runners I have trained in the 40 or so years I have been mucking around, every one of them has a different make up and they all have something I can remember about them. People wonder why you do it. Well, you get brought up in it and it gets in your blood. I've had a lot of good times.

What are your thoughts on the move of the Bay Sheffield from Colley Reserve to Adelaide Oval?
I was a little surprised to start with but Brendan Golden kept me up to date with what was happening. When I found out we were going to Adelaide Oval, I thought it was fantastic. I tell you that venue we now use is the best venue you could ever get. It is the best ground you could get in Australia. Last year I thought we had as many people there as we ever got at Glenelg. Many people will go there because of the venue itself. Also, as long as the League finds a drawcard, the public will come along. That doesn't necessarily mean a well-known runner, you could organise a pop-star to perform there afterwards and the crowds will flock to see them as well as the race itself.

Tell us about your illnesses this year.
It's been a hell of a year for me. After having a bone marrow biopsy, they found I had a leukemia based disease. It apparently is connected to some radiotherapy I had about 5 years ago for some prostate problems. I have recently come out of hospital where I stayed for 6 or 7 weeks following some chemotherapy. While I was having chemo, I had pneumonia pleurisy which knocked the hell out of me. It looked like "goodbye Bill" there for a while. I was able to kick through it. I still have to go back in for some more treatment, either more chemo or just blood transfusions. I've lost about 8kgs and it's been a terrible thing. Everyone has an idea on who I should be seeing or what I should be doing. What fixes one might not fix another but if you don't try, you'll never know. I'll have to see about the options soon. For now, I'm taking every day as it comes. When I was in hospital, I was as crook as I could ever imagine. Right now, I feel like I could run another mile! Being 73, the illness hasn't been easy but I keep battling away.

How supportive have people from the League been to you in recent times?
It has been excellent. I appreciate all the thoughts that have been passed on. While I was in hospital, I couldn't take phone calls or have visitors. The guys at training have been able to keep going throughout it all and it is a credit to them. I'll be there to see them run at some of the meets coming up, especially at the Bay Sheffield.

Who has been the most influential people with the League in your time?
Certainly Mary Karutz. She always kept me up to date with what was going on. The League has been lucky to have such a worker during her time. Also, Ern Holder who was a great trainer. He had a great wit and was very knowledgeable. Both Mary and Ern knew how to pass information on to me and I certainly appreciated it. It is a great sport and needs people like Mary and Ern to keep it going.

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