Grieving his father’s death and battling lung cancer, Southern Miss coach had shocking achievement

In 2017, Joye Lee-McNelis began writing her obituary.

Where is she born. In the southern Mississippi community of Leetown.

Preceded in death by. Then an empty space, without knowing if she would die before her parents.

Thanks to his family, the players he coached, the staff he collaborated with and the administrations he worked for.

McNelis had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. As he thought about his death, he focused on how his life would be remembered. Her husband, Dennis, thought she was crazy. She reassured him that she was not worried about the act of dying. “I just want to plan everything,” she told him. “There is no need for you or our children to worry.” She wanted it to feel like a celebration.

McNelis is now 61 years old and in his 20th season as Southern Mississippi’s head coach. He didn’t think about what he wrote. But one afternoon earlier this fall, McNelis and his father, Louis, were sitting outside on the patio talking about their future funerals. Louis, 87, suffered from Parkinson’s disease and congestive heart failure. Every artery in his heart had been bypassed. McNelis, meanwhile, was in the midst of a third fight with lung cancer. The second came at the end of 2020. After receiving the diagnosis again in August, this time, for the first time, she was undergoing chemotherapy.

They talked about headstones. McNelis’ parents had already purchased and installed theirs. McNelis realized that he would probably have to buy his too, just to be prepared.

Their conversation turned to music. When she wrote his obituary six years earlier, she wrote down the songs she wanted to sing at his funeral. “I might die before you, and you need to know what my songs will be,” she told him. There was one on both of their lists: “What a friend we have in Jesus.”

The song is an old gospel hymn. Religion is one of the threads running through the McNelises. “There are two things in our family,” she says, “and that is trust in God and trust in basketball.”

McNelis grew up on a farm in southern Mississippi. He learned to hitch a trailer and bottle-feed calves. Louis, who listened to the ministers on tape every night, told her that if she wanted to stop working on their land, she could learn to shoot baskets on the dirt field that the family had trampled on grass. But before he could jump, McNelis had to take the family cows out of the field and shovel out the manure they left behind.

On November 24, a few weeks after the conversation on the patio, Louis died. McNelis says, “Things went bad” the night before. His breathing was labored until he stopped. McNelis’ father was his hero. “My first love as a child,” she says. After growing up in Leetown and playing as a player at Southern Miss, she returned to the area two decades ago to coach closer to family.

Following his death Monday in nearby Picayune, his funeral was held at Lee’s Chapel No. 1 Baptist Church. 2. His fourth chemotherapy session was scheduled for the next day. Southern Miss’ matchup against then-No. 19 Ole Miss loomed that Saturday. But his battle and his team’s preparations could wait. He praised it and listened to their song.

Do you have trials and temptations?
Are there problems somewhere?
We should never be discouraged;
Bring it to the Lord in prayer.

McNelis hopes his final chemotherapy session will be his last. To address his final phase 4 period, treatments have taken place every three weeks since the end of September, each lasting about two hours. The effects last much longer. After the first treatment, she was a “sick cat” for two weeks. She felt the impact of the second for nine days. On the eighth day she started to feel better than on the third. Six days after the fourth session, she finally felt like she was going to have a “good day.”

It’s the nausea and tiredness that weigh on her. “When I feel like I can’t take my head off the pillow,” she says. When she is really tired, she sometimes vomits.

Through it all McNelis has been resilient. He gets up every day. He says a prayer in bed and reads devotions while he drinks coffee. If he can, he goes to train or play. This is how her father would have wanted her to face this season. Around the gym. With her team. Teaching, game planning, finding wrinkles that the Golden Eagles can attack. When McNelis missed Southern Miss’s game against Valparaiso on Nov. 21 to visit him at Forrest General Hospital, where the roof of Reed Green Coliseum was visible from his hospital room, he repeatedly told her, “This doesn’t make sense why you” You’re in bed with me and your team is playing.”

“Dad, it’s okay, I’m where I need to be,” he said in response.

“Many people in life think that the world can’t exist if they aren’t in it,” he says. “Well, guess what? It can happen. My team can keep running whether I’m here or not. … I’m just very grateful to the people who supported me and helped me get through this.”

In August, a PET scan revealed areas of activity in his left lung. His doctors were surprised when the cancer returned. For more than two years, he believed he was in remission. All of his scans had come back clean, until they weren’t.

McNelis led Southern Miss to a career-defining upset of Ole Miss’s program and career. (Courtesy of Southern Miss Athletics)

As in the past, McNelis was open with her team this summer about her diagnosis. “The only thing I can promise you is that I will give you my best. I don’t know what my best is, but I’ll give you my best,” she said. During the 2020-21 season, that sometimes meant working out while hooked up to a portable oxygen concentrator. She missed several shootings this year to conserve his energy and sleep as much as possible.

“We watch Coach fight every day,” says senior guard Dominique Davis. “He’s fighting for his life and, while he does, he’s still fighting to be with us every day.”

McNelis feels called to the sideline. Through basketball, he tries to teach his players sacrifice. Speaking of assertiveness. “To help them understand what it takes to live a dream,” he says. “It is our responsibility to help them find a path.”

He adds: “You can choose to be positive or you can choose to be negative, and that happens every day you wake up. God is giving you the opportunity to wake up and have another day.” He quotes Lynn Anderson’s song interpretation of another scripture passage.

I never promised you a rose garden.
Together with the sun,
There has to be some rain sometime.

On Saturday, Southern Miss hosted in-state foe Ole Miss in its lung cancer awareness game. McNelis’ oncologist, Dr. Bo Hrom, served as an honorary coach for the Golden Eagles. Before the beating, McNelis’ thoughts about his father were interspersed with questions related to the competition: The biggest was, how will we score?

Davis, one of two senior captains, said she entered with a particularly strong desire to win. For McNelis. For the southern lady. “With everything going on, why not go further?” Davis says.

The Rebels led by four points after the first quarter and outplayed their opponent in the second as well. Ole Miss stretched its lead to 11 midway through the third, but the Golden Eagles rallied and trailed by just five points entering the final 10 minutes. Southern Miss’s defense tightened up in the fourth quarter, allowing just 10 points. Davis finished with a game-high 25 points, including an acrobatic layup with 15 seconds to play to provide a three-point lead that Southern Miss would not relinquish. The win kept the Golden Eagles’ undefeated season alive and marked their first win over a ranked opponent since the 1999–2000 season.

In the locker room the players doused each other with water. They jumped in euphoria. But the celebration was still emotionally difficult for McNelis. After every game he called his parents. McNelis FaceTimed with her mother, Nell, who watched the victory on TV as soon as she picked up the phone. But he couldn’t tell his father about Davis’ late basket, or freshman guard Morgan Sieper’s four 3-pointers, or junior guard Nyla Jean’s steal to seal the victory.

The result remained in McNelis’ mind when he woke up at 7 the next morning. Immediately, she asked her husband, “Is this real?”

“Yes, that’s true,” he replied.

“It was a historic victory and my week was a whirlwind of emotions,” he says.

She looked around the house and saw countless bouquets of flowers that had been left at her father’s wake earlier in the week. Like her father, McNelis has a passion for flowers. He was holding one out, a Cypress plant that had been a gift, already decorated with Christmas decorations. She thought about how as a child she and her two younger brothers would go into the woods with their parents to look for a Christmas tree.

This fall, as McNelis received cancer treatment for the third time, others in the basketball community were a source of support. DePaul women’s basketball players and staff signed a poster that read, “In this battle, no one fights alone.”

Texas coach Vic Schaefer had #McNelisStrong t-shirts made for his program. Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari, who coached at Memphis while McNelis led the Tigers’ women’s program, recorded a video supporting the move. Ole Miss’ Yolett McPhee-McCuin did the same.

These are just some of the small but significant gestures. With the school’s support, she is raising money for Forrest General’s Hospital Patient Navigation program to assist other cancer patients in need. “I’ve been truly blessed,” she says. “There are a lot of people who have been kind to me.”

McNelis still takes medication. At the end of the month, she will undergo a scan to see if she needs further chemotherapy and, if not, how she will recover. But she said that she is not afraid of death. She thinks about the celebration. And some hymns she wants played at her funeral.

I will treasure the sturdy old cross,
Until my trophies finally lay down;
I’ll hold on to the sturdy old cross,
And one day exchange it for a crown.

(Top photo by Joye Lee-McNelis: Courtesy of Southern Miss Athletics)