Ruff, and ready, down by the Red River

Published 11:22 am Monday, July 31, 2017

He’s a Carolina boy who I thought had come full circle when he returned to the Tar Heel state to coach his alma mater.

Apparently, I needed to make that circle a little wider, maybe a lot wider, stretching all the way to Texas and Oklahoma.

Ruffin McNeill is back coaching football in the Big-12 Conference.  Lincoln Riley, to whom McNeill gave his first shot at top play-calling when Riley was named offensive coordinator at East Carolina back in 2010, has re-paid his mentor.  Riley, successor to Bob Stoops as head coach of the Oklahoma Sooners, named McNeill as defensive tackles coach and assistant head coach.

McNeill, a Lumberton native, moves to Norman from Charlottesville and the University of Virginia, where he was an assistant head coach to Bronco Mendenhall and the Cavaliers’ defensive line coach for the past season.

Both McNeill and Riley spent six years together in Lubbock, on the plains of the Lone Star State, at Texas Tech before parking it at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for five more with ECU.  Between them they accounted for 37 Pirate wins, including a 10-win season in 2013.  Along the way, ECU went undefeated against N.C. State and split its series’ with UNC and Virginia Tech.

It’s always gratifying when a former assistant ascends to the top job and looks back with pride to the former head coach who first gave that young assistant a shot to make their own name.

One of my best examples is current Fresno (Cal.) State coach Rodney Terry, whom I remember toiling in the trenches as an assistant at UNC-Wilmington under Jerry Wainwright.  When Wainwright left the beach for the job at Richmond he brought Terry along, even though Rodney would later bolt for Texas where he recruited Kevin Durant while assisting Rick Barnes.  When Terry got the head job in central California, one of his first assistant hires was Wainwright.

Back to McNeill, from a recruiting standpoint, I don’t think he’ll be ‘stealing’ any outstanding gridiron talent from this area. He will though be on more familiar ground around the Red River (Texas/Oklahoma), where I’m sure he still has plenty of contacts.

For McNeill, joining Riley’s coaching staff gives him a unique vantage point to watch his mentee take the reins of one of the most heralded programs in college football.

“My ethos is earned, not given,” McNeill said in an interview prior to Big-12 Media Day. “Everything is earned. That’s my life ethos. Lincoln has earned it. At 19, I remember him coming and being a student assistant and not getting his dime. He worked like he was full time. Then I remember when he became a grad assistant, it was the same mentality with Lincoln. Then he became full-time and it was the same mentality. He’s always listened with big ears and big eyes, listening and learning.”

Even though he’s earned a head coach position, the student is far from the master, and if Riley ever needs to access McNeill’s wealth of advice gained from five years as a head coach and more than three decades in the coaching profession, he only has to walk a couple steps down the hall in the south end zone of Norman’s Owen Stadium.

“I took over his old office,” McNeill says with a grin. “His office here is bigger than the one I had at East Carolina.”

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at or 252-332-7211.