The name Joye Lee-McNelis has quickly become synonymous with a successful, fast-paced, exciting brand of basketball, and when you combine McNelis' style of play with a basketball crazed town like Memphis, Tennessee, well it is like giving Elvis Presley the perfect rock-and-roll song to sing.
Over the past eight years, McNelis has turned Lady Tiger basketball into a nationally recognized program that has Lady Tiger fans singing her praises.
One of the hottest young coaching prospects in the country, McNelis has once again placed Lady Tiger basketball on the map and has made her, along with her up-tempo brand of basketball, one of the top commodities in the country. Just in the last couple of years, McNelis has been sought after by Texas A&M, Missouri, South Carolina and most recently her alma mater Southern Miss, but she has made it clear that she is true to taking the Blue and Gray to higher levels of play and higher levels of national respect.
Things didn't come easily for McNelis. She inherited a Lady Tiger basketball program that had won just 21 games in three previous seasons, including back-to-back 6-22 finishes.
In three short seasons, McNelis turned the Lady Tiger program into a winner. And, in the last eight years, she has worked hard to gain national recognition for the Lady Tiger program. She acheived that this past season as the Lady Tigers entered the Associated Press Top 25 Poll for the first time in 14 years.
McNelis is creditted with leading her teams to four consecutive conference championships, five straight 20-win seasons and five post-season tournament appearances. Now that McNelis has laid the foundation for a successful team, her next goal is to guide her squad to a Sweet Sixteen berth.
This past season, McNelis led her Lady Tigers to a 22-10 overall record; 10-6 in Conference USA, as well as their first national ranking since the 1984-85 season. The Lady Tigers entered the poll at No. 24 on Dec. 14 and saw little movement for four weeks before dropping out of the poll after a disappointing loss to eventual C-USA champion Tulane. After an opening day loss to Ole Miss, the Lady Tigers strung together nine straight victories early in the season, enjoying their best start since the 1976-77 season when the U of M opened with an 11-1 record. The Lady Tigers continued through the season hoping for a berth in their fifth straight NCAA Tournament, but it would be the WNIT where the Lady Tigers made their best showing. After three straight wins in the WNIT that sent the Lady Tigers to the Final Four, the Lady Tigers fell just shy of the championship game with a loss to Wisconsin. But the finish in the WNIT marked several key highlights for the Lady Tigers. Besides senior Tamika Whitmore breaking a 21-year record with 45 points in the third-round win over Arkansas State, the Lady Tigers advanced to the second round of a post-season tournament for the first time since the 1994-95 season. One of McNelis' top recruits, Whitmore finished the season as the national scoring leader with 26.3 points a game.
In 1997-98, McNelis became the first coach to win two Conference USA tournament championships as her team, picked to finish third overall in the preseason, won the C-USA regular season championship for the second straight year, and then won the tournament championship for the second time in three years. The Lady Tigers finished the season with a 22-8 record, marking McNelis' fourth straight year with 20 or more wins.
During the 1996-97 season, McNelis guided the Lady Tigers to a 22-7 record and a Conference USA championship. Memphis recorded one of its most historic wins that season with an 81-74 victory over Florida in Memphis' own Lady Tiger Classic. For the third straight year, the Lady Tigers earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
McNelis led her 1995-96 squad to a 20-11 record in just her fourth year at the helm of the Lady Tiger program. The 1994-95 season truly marked the beginning of the winning tradition of Lady Tiger Basketball.
The 1994-95 Lady Tigers had an overall record of 22-8, the fewest losses recorded since the 1986-87 campaign (20-9). Since then, McNelis has recorded an even lower total of seven losses in 1996-97. During the 1994-95 campaign, six of the squad's losses were by a combined total of 15 points. However, included in the win column were victories over top-ranked Ole Miss (79-69) and Southern Cal (74-72 in the first round of NCAA Tournament).
Earning a bid into the 1995 NCAA Tournament marked the team's first invitation since 1987. As well, the team advanced to the second round, only the second time in Lady Tiger basketball history that the team had played two games in the NCAA Tournament.
In 1995, the Lady Tigers captured the Great Midwest Conference regular season title with a 10-2 league record. It was their first regular season conference title since joining the GMC in 1991. As well, it was the first time since 1986-87 that the Lady Tigers were the top seed in a conference championship tournament.
In her third season at Memphis, the squad finished with a 17-12 record, the first winning slate for Memphis since the 1986-87 year (20-9). As well, the team's third place finish in the Great Midwest regular season was the Lady Tigers' highest finish since the 1987-88 year when they were the number two seed at the Metro Conference Tournament in Tallahassee, Fla.
During the 1994 Great Midwest Conference Tournament, McNelis led her squad to yet another first. The team won its way to the championship game for the first time since the 1987-88 season.
The 1993-94 season brought about yet another first for McNelis and her Lady Tigers. Winning their own Kitchens Unlimited-Union Planters Bank Classic marked the first time since the 1988-89 campaign they had achieved that feat.
McNelis accomplished all those achievements with one of the nation's youngest starting lineups. During the 1993-94 season, McNelis started three freshmen, a sophomore and a senior. However, at one time her starting lineup featured four freshmen and a sophomore.
The 1992-93 season brought about many new highlights for the Lady Tigers. McNelis led her squad to its first tournament championship (Central Florida Tip-off Classic) since the 1987-88 season. The team's 5-2 start was its best since the 1988-89 season when The U of M opened 5-0.
As well, the Lady Tigers advanced to the championship game of their own Kitchen's Unlimited-Union Planters Bank Classic for the first time since the 1988-89 season.
And finally, for the second consecutive season, the Lady Tigers advanced to the semi-finals of the Great Midwest Conference Championship Tournament.
Despite the odds, McNelis guided her first Lady Tiger team to a 12-17 record in 1991-92. Those wins marked the first time since the 1987-88 (15-15) season that a Lady Tiger team had double figure wins.
During that season, McNelis led her squad to a 58-50 win over then nationally-ranked Arkansas. Inaddition, for the first time since the 1987-88 season, the Lady Tigers won their first round conference championship game.
All of these accomplishments in just her first five years led Basketball Times to name McNelis one of the nations "Coaches on the Rise."
McNelis and her staff have been making a name for themselves, as they have inked numerous outstanding players since joining The U of M.
Since arriving at The University of Memphis, McNelis has recruited three players who have earned Great Midwest Newcomer of the Year honors (Keeta Matthews, Kitty Allen and LaTonya Johnson). Senior forward LaTonya Johnson participated in the U.S. Olympic Festival in Denver, Colo., as a member of the South Team before the 1995-96 season and, earned honorable mention all-America honors. Most recently, Johnson finished her second season with the Utah Starzz of the WNBA.
Also among McNelis' top recruiting highlights is Tamika Whitmore who ended her stellar career last season as the second all-time leading scorer in school history. A five-time all-American as a senior, Whitmore is the most decorated player in Lady Tiger history. A two-time Conference USA Player of the Year, Whitmore was the second player recruited by McNelis to be drafted to play in the WNBA. Last summer, she also became McNelis' first player to participate on the USA Basketball R. William Jones Cup team that took the gold in Taipei, Taiwan.
The University of Memphis Athletic Department proudly announced the hiring of McNelis on April 11, 1991. The former assistant coach at the University of Southern Mississippi was very familiar with the Lady Tigers as she had coached against U of M teams since 1986.
McNelis had little time to recruit as she arrived at The U of M with just four days left in the spring signing period. However, she and her staff made up for lost time, signing six players during the fall of 1992.
Prior to accepting the position at The University of Memphis, McNelis helped lead Southern Mississippi to a five-year 103-47 record. The 1990 and 1987 Golden Eagles squads won the Metro Conference tournament championship and the 1986-87, 1988-89 and 1989-90 USM teams participated in the prestigious NCAA Tournament.
While at Southern Mississippi, McNelis was responsible for recruiting, and several of her recruiting classes were ranked in the Top 10 nationally. She recruited Janice Felder, a 1994 Kodak All-American to play her collegiate career at USM.
Prior to accepting the USM position, McNelis served two seasons as an assistant coach at Southwest Texas State University, where she served as recruiting coordinator and was co-director of the school's summer basketball camp.
McNelis' experience goes well beyond her coaching days. As a player, McNelis was one of the better players to wear a USM uniform. She was a four-year starter for the Lady Eagles from 1980-1984, leading her squads to an overall record of 73-38. One of the leading scorers, she continues to rank fifth all-time in points scored with 1,510. She also ranks sixth all-time in assists with 305 and holds the career record for free throw percentage (.796).
At Hancock North Central High School she was a four-year letter winner in basketball. Her teams went to the state tournament four straight years and won state titles twice. She still reigns as the school's all-time leading scorer.
On April 19, 1993, McNelis' high school jersey #14 was retired along with Green Bay Packer quarterback Brett Favre's. That day was declared Joye Lee-McNelis-Brett Favre Day by Hancock County.
On April 14, 1997 McNelis garnered another prestigious honor as she was inducted into the Southern Mississippi Hall of Fame. Once again she shared the spotlight with friend Brett Favre.
Family is an important aspect of McNelis' life, and she feels her husband Dennis is the backbone of her success. Dennis, along with their children Whitney, 9, and Connor, 5, are a supportive and vital part of the Lady Tiger program, as it gives the Lady Tigers a real feel of a family atmosphere.
McNelis' accomplishments do not end with basketball. The Lady Tiger coach is as well known for her activity in the community as she is for her coaching.
McNelis has become one of Memphis' most informative and motivational speakers, as she stays busy speaking to Mid-South civic groups, schools, churches and corporations.
McNelis has served as chairman for the 1997 and 1998 March of Dimes Walk America, which reached an all-time high of charitable donations.
McNelis has also helped raise money for LeBonheur Children's Medical Center as well as conducting clinics throughout the city of Memphis. She was most recently honored by the Kiwanis Club with the George F. Hixon Fellowship Award.
Community involvement does not stop with McNelis, as she feels it is important for her players to be active in the community as well. She feels that community involvement for her players is a three-fold process.
First, it helps them to learn to speak with confidence in front of large groups. It also allows them to meet and socialize with different people from different cultural backgrounds. And finally, their exposure in the community builds support for the team and helps Lady Tigers become a household name.
As a team the Lady Tigers have performed motivational and inspirational speeches at local schools, churches and for under privileged children.
The Lady Tigers community relations resume includes: working with a reading program for local elementary schools; collecting Christmas gifts for the Salvation Army; working closely with the March of Dimes; conducting clinics through the city and participating in a pen pal club.
"I believe it is important to mold the total program, therefore it is important to have them involved in the community," McNelis says. "Our players get to experience dealing with different people from different backgrounds. Sure it helps our players, but it also helps the community."