Thoughts on Ruff and other ramblings
Published 10:40 am Monday, December 14, 2015
This column has been absent for a few weeks while I had a little “body repair” going on. I’ll explain more and expand on the experience in the coming weeks, but for now, I wanted to get back to my computer just to fire off a few things.
By the time you read this, East Carolina may have named its new head football coach. Whomever the selectee, I wish them the best. I hated to see the end of Ruffin McNeill’s tenure at the top, but I also can’t say I didn’t see it coming.
There are still a lot of open and attractive coaching vacancies, though they’re filling up as we speak. ECU needs to hit a home run with this hire and that’s what I’m hoping for Pirate Athletic Director Jeff Compher.
McNeill was a 57-year-old ECU alum. I’m dating myself, but I remember his playing days back in those final glory years of the Pat Dye coaching era in Greenville.
McNeill also went 42-34 at ECU with a bowl win, but he never won a conference championship: neither in Conference USA or the American Athletic Conference. This past year’s team went 5-7 and finished fifth in the AAC East Division. They missed bowl eligibility by a last-second field goal in the season-ending loss to Cincinnati.
This was a down year for a program that was previously ascending; winning twice as many games as it lost over the last three seasons at 26-13. One of those years included a 10-win season with McNeill’s only bowl victory.
ECU also went 4-1 against ACC opponents over those same three years; same record as Wake Forest over the same period of time and the Deacons in the league.
A season like this, though, was bound to happen. Former offensive co-coordinator Lincoln Riley left for Oklahoma this past year and not only does he have the Sooners in the hunt for a national championship, but he just finished winning the Frank Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach. I hope he’s on ECU’s short list.
Meanwhile, Shane Carden and Justin Hardy left for the NFL. Two players that will go down as two of ECU’s best and who flew beneath the radar of the big schools, but whose Pirate tenure represented the type of player McNeill with his recruiting skills was able to attract to Greenville.
Face it, at every big school there’s no satisfying the small faction of supporters who live for one thing: cutting big checks and in doing so demand an immediate bang for their buck even if those demands are unrealistic. They’re the ones who bend AD’s ears – if not their arms behind their backs – to fire a coach they didn’t hire in a marketplace now flooded with coaching vacancies.
When Skip Holtz left, McNeill kind of fell into the Pirates’ lap. He returned to ECU in January 2010 after serving as Texas Tech’s interim coach for one game. He had experience, alumni who backed him, and players who bought into what he was selling. There are few such slam dunks out there now.
But maybe this is an end of an era. At one time, alumni coaches were all the rage: John Bunting at UNC, Chuck Amato at NC State, Al Groh at Virginia, Chan Gainey at Georgia Tech and Ralph Freidgen at Maryland. Add McNeill to that bunch and the common denominator: they’re all gone now, and not up the coaching ladder.
The AAC is emerging and ECU has to fight for its place in the fledgling league that wants to prove it’s a national championship contender. So glean hard over those resumes coming into Greenville, because off-year or not – I may be writing about Compher’s job status in the near future if he doesn’t nail this hire.
Gene Motley is a Staff Writer with Roanoke-Chowan Publications. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-332-7211.