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Educator, coach, author Neal Morgan dies at 81

By Russ DeVillier

Special to The News

One of the toughest Bulldogs of all time, Neal Morgan, passed away in his sleep Thursday night.

Morgan, 81, was a lifelong resident of Nederland, starting school together with his pal, Pat Johnson. Both would later be encouraged to continue their education by a young coach named Bum Phillips. So they went off together to Wharton Junior College, and would later return to teach and coach in their hometown.

Johnson and Coach Phillips both died in 2013.

Players and colleagues alike held Morgan in high esteem.

“He was one you really respected,” said Mike Johnson, a running back on Nederland’s state championship team in 1957.

“Bum said Neal was one of the smartest men he ever met,” said Phillips’ widow, Debbie, from her ranch home in Goliad.

Morgan applied some of those smarts to a sideline career as an author, writing novels and contributing a weekly column on politics and life to the Port Arthur News. He also had pieces published in Texas Monthly and The Texas Observer.

Two of his books — “Karankawa County: Short Stories From a Corner of Texas,” and “Play It From the Heart,” a humorous tale about a year in the life of two cynical high school football coaches in Southeast Texas, received good reviews across the country.

“‘Play It From The Heart’ is the best novel about Texas high school football I have ever read,” wrote Larry L. King, the acclaimed author of the “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”

“I was as impressed with Neal as an author as I was with him as a football coach,” said recently retired Port Arthur News sports editor Bob West. “We had many fascinating conversations and arguments. Neal was brilliant, had a great sense of humor and was insightful. The kids who played football for him loved him.”

Ironically, Morgan’s demise was brought on by congestive heart failure, the same ultimate factor in the death of Bum. Both were given extended leases on life by heart bypass procedures, and Morgan was managing well until late last year. He had also had a recent setback with pneumonia.

Morgan and his brother, Bobby, were living together in the old family homestead on 14th Street and Helena Avenue in Nederland. Bobby left for work early, about 4:30 Friday, and became alarmed later in the morning when unable to reach Neal by phone. Emergency personnel found him unresponsive.

Neal played for Bum in the early ’50s, went on a scholarship to Wharton and earned bachelor and master degrees from Stephen F. Austin. He joined Phillips’ staff at Nederland in 1956. The Bulldogs were 3-0 losers in the state AAA title game that year. Bum left for Texas A&M and Morgan stayed on for a Nederland juggernaut that won it all.

Following a four-year stint as head coach of the  Bulldogs (1972-75), Morgan coached at Big Spring, Trinity U. in San Antonio and Sam Houston. His first head coaching assignment was at old Lutcher Stark in Orange, and his rookie defensive coordinator was Bum’s son — Wade Phillips.  When the supply of the top athletes went to West Orange, Morgan joined the staff at North Texas.

He was principal at Warren High School when hired to succeed Johnson at Nederland.

Neal and wife Marilyn, who he met at SFA, were married for 44 years. Mrs. Morgan, also a teacher, died in 2000. Their legacy as Nederland teachers is carried on today by daughter Allison McBride at Highland Park Elementary.

Meanwhile, coaches active and retired, and old friends and former players, will miss his annual bash at the Sabine Pass ranch. The gathering produced more than a fair share of tall tales and yarns about the good old days.

Morgan is survived by his son Lance, and his wife, Christine, of Austin; daughter Allison and her husband, Mike, of Nederland; and grandchildren Molly Morgan, and Ethan and Morgan McBride.

Funeral arrangements are pending at Broussard’s in Nederland.