New deal to keep Liberty coach in Salina through 2025
Heron O'Neal could have gone home.
When Champions Indoor Football announced recently that it was expanding to Billings, Montana, it certainly made sense.
It was where O'Neal got his start as a head coach, where he met his wife Nisha, a Billings native, and where he currently spends the offseason.
"Absolutely," said O'Neal, who coached the Billings Outlaws from 2006-10, winning back-to-back Indoor Football League titles his last two seasons. "With it being there where I lived the past four years, and I lived there from 2006 to 2010, it was something that we were looking at with my family."
Then the Salina Liberty made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
With the CIF regular season winding down, the Liberty sitting in first place, and with the playoffs around the corner, general manager Francis Flax announced Wednesday that not only will O'Neal be back as the team's head coach next year, but for three more after that as well. George Martinez, O'Neal's top assistant, also signed a contract extension.
"I think Coach O'Neal is at the point where he's built up the franchise to where it is and ought to be," Flax said. "I don't think he wants to leave and start from scratch again."
Sure enough, the Liberty have dominated the league this spring and summer with a 9-1 record heading into Saturday's regular-season finale at Wichita. They have clinched the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the four-team playoffs.
But more than that, O'Neal said, the organization stuck with him last year when the 2020 season was canceled because of COVID-19.
"When it comes down to it, I know these owners and we went through something that the world hasn't seen since 1918 or so," O'Neal said. "The way they treated me through the pandemic made it pretty easy choice for me to stay.
"This organization stayed true throughout the pandemic and I didn't miss a paycheck, and neither did coach Martinez. When you do things like that, I'm a very loyal person. When you see that, you don't leave that."
In turn, the Liberty have thrived under O'Neal, who took over as coach after the team went a combined 3-21 in its first two seasons. He led them to a 10-4 record and the division championship game in 2018, followed by a 9-5 mark and a trip to the Champions Bowl the following year.
Flax said he was never overly concerned about losing O'Neal to Billings.
"When we talked about it, he said, 'Yeah, it would be nice, but there's not too many places where the owners will back you the way they do here,' so that was a factor also," Flax said. "We're just excited that he decided to stick with us, and that's an almost unheard of deal in the CIF, to get a four-year extension.
"(Billings) came up because that's where he's from, but it was not a factor (in negotiations). He thought about it, he was approached by them I'm sure, and he didn't want to start from nothing."
In fact, Flax added, the contract was done two weeks ago, but the team held off on announcing it until the Liberty clinched the regular-season title last week.