By Bethany Bradsher
Photography by Forrest Croce
uffin McNeill '80 has practiced a forward-looking philosophy since he first began coaching football three decades ago: Work hard at the job you have now, but also do everything you can to prepare for the next one.
When he was an assistant coach he did the things that would prepare him to be a great coordinator. When he became a coordinator he started learning the nuances of the job that would prepare him to become a head coach. The years he served as an assistant head coach at two different schools groomed him for the well-chronicled day when he had to step up to lead his team at a most difficult time.
All of that was preparation for the day he returned to East Carolina, put on a purple cap and embraced his new job as the school’s 20th head football coach. It was a role McNeill, 51, seemingly was made for. “I’ve known for a long time that he has unique motivational skills, and he needs to be a head coach more than any man I’ve ever known,” said new associate head coach John Wiley. McNeill, Wiley added, is one of the few people who could have convinced him to leave Appalachian State after a 19-year career there.
Left to right: Clay McGuire, running backs; Donnie Kirkpatrick, recruiting coordinator/inside receivers; Lincoln Riley, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks; Ruffin McNeill; Dennis Simmons, outside receivers; Landon Hoefer, staff assistant/offense; Brandon Jones, offensive line.
Left to right: Mark Nelson, special teams coordinator/defensive ends; Ruffin McNeill; John Wiley, associate head coach/linebackers; Chris Bland, staff assistant/defense; Marc Yellock, defensive tackles; Tripp Weaver, student assistant/defense; Brian Mitchell, defensive coordinator/secondary.
McNeill brings a new staff and a new offensive scheme to Greenville, but his is a familiar face in eastern North Carolina. He played defensive back for the Pirate football team in the late ’70s and graduated in 1980; his wife, Erlene, earned her master’s degree at ECU. He knows it sounds clichéd, but in every sense this was far more than a job change. It was coming home.
“It’s a blessing,” he said. “My simple mind started thinking about what was next, when really it was God’s plan the whole time.”
The elation the McNeills felt upon returning to Greenville was all the more pronounced because of the turmoil that had surrounded them in their last months at Texas Tech. There, head coach Mike Leach was fired over accusations that he mistreated a player, and as his top assistant McNeill felt the tension among players and the relentless media scrutiny. Amid the uproar, McNeill was handed the responsibility of preparing the Red Raiders in the Alamo Bowl game. He coached the embattled Texas Tech team to a 41-31 victory over Michigan State, but then he was passed over for the head job. After 10 years in Lubbock, McNeill was looking for the job he had been practicing for. Enter East Carolina, with an opening left by the Jan. 15 departure of Skip Holtz.
“Coach Holland called, and the committee, and we interviewed, and it happened,” he said. “It was one of the most stress-relieving parts of our lives. Because, one, we were at a place where we were home. Two, all of our family is from North Carolina, everyone. It was an emotional deal, and I still get a little emotional, because of what we had gone through. To have a chance to come back, it was very awesome. We were just looking for some recovery, but this has gone far beyond recovery.”
“Coach McNeill’s interview revealed his strong commitment to doing things the right way and his love of coaching young men to grow in every part of their lives,” Athletic Director Terry Holland said the day McNeill was introduced. “His excitement for what ECU football can become in the future was contagious, and his deep and abiding appreciation for what East Carolina University has meant to him and his family was truly moving.”
With national signing day looming only two weeks after he was named the new head coach, McNeill hardly had time to glance at his new office before hitting the road. As a product of Pirate football, he didn’t have any trouble selling the program to the young men he visited. Amid those recruiting trips he also hired a staff, starting with 26-year-old Lincoln Riley as offensive coordinator.
Hiring, recruiting, community relations, facilities, budget and academics are just a few of the issues that cross a head coach’s desk in a given day, even when his chief role is to coach football games. As a head-coach-in-training the past several years, McNeill hasn’t been surprised by the many hats he finds himself wearing. His energy tackling the challenges he’s faced so far seems undimmed from the day he was introduced as the head coach.
“I really relish the challenge,” he said. “I know it’s hard work, but I’m not opposed to hard work. I was asked, ‘Am I overwhelmed?’ No. Because I’ve been prepared for it. ‘Am I intimidated?’ By no means am I intimidated, because I’ve made sure I’m prepared for this, and I’ve surrounded myself with men and women who are prepared to handle this with us.”
McNeill said he will do what is required to continue ECU’s football success, but he said he will never let what is necessary get in the way of what is most important—his responsibility to his players. “My main reason is to coach the football team, and that will never get lost in the shuffle, and I hope that everyone around the program understands that my primary responsibility is to the players,” he said. “Whenever I feel like that’s getting lost, then I’m going to take a step back, because the most important thing are our players, and their well being.”
Many who have played for or coached with McNeill say he is a consummate player’s coach. Texas Tech running back Eric Stephens captured his team’s admiration for McNeill after the Alamo Bowl when he said, “To the world outside Tech football this week was chaotic. But inside Tech football everyone knew Coach Ruff had this team under control.”
A four-year letter-winner at East Carolina from 1976-80, Ruffin McNeill was a three-year starter at defensive back and was the team captain for two seasons. He helped lead ECU to the Southern Conference championship in 1976 and an Independence Bowl berth in 1978, the school's first bowl game in the modern era.
Coach and counselor
When his collegiate playing career ended, McNeill returned to his hometown of Lumberton as an assistant coach at Lumberton High School. After four years there, the door to collegiate coaching opened in 1984 when he took a job as a graduate assistant and linebackers coach at Clemson University. He credits coaches like Pat Dye and Clemson colleague Woody McCorvey with believing in him and helping him find opportunities during those years. But his time at Clemson proved to be a crucial rung on his career ladder.
While he was at Clemson, McNeill earned a master’s degree in counseling. Both of his parents and many of his relatives are teachers, and he knew that he would want to work in a school if coaching ever ran its course. Intended as something of a career insurance policy, the degree changed the way he coached. He learned how to listen to players, how to understand what they want and to help them redefine their limits.
“The thing with counseling is that you have to listen, and you have to analyze personalities, you have to analyze what each person is saying to you,” said McNeill. “And every word’s a pearl. So the counseling degree I’ve used probably as much as the coaching experiences when dealing with a young man.
“Sometimes it may not be what that person wants to hear, but if they come in here, I’m going to be very, very honest with them.”
McNeill, who names trust, commitment and caring as the three pillars of his coaching philosophy, expects a great deal from the young men on his roster, he said. He expects them to work hard on the practice field and on game day. But they also must give their time and energy to the community and to the university. At his first press conference, he made a statement that has already become associated with him around ECU. He said that he wakes up each morning and asks, “What can I do today to make ECU better?” and he expects everyone around him to ask that question, too.
‘We’re going to play fast’
As McNeill has gotten to know his players, he made some early assessments of each athlete’s role in the new scheme he brings from Texas Tech. The hiring of Riley confirmed his intention to employ the same wide-open offense that made the Red Raiders the No. 1 passing team in the Big 12 in 2009.
A more pass-happy incarnation of the West Coast offense developed by Bill Walsh in the 1980s, the offense the Pirates will run in 2010 will use one running back and four wide receivers. Each of those five players will be equally involved in the offense, said Riley. It is a high scoring, up-tempo scheme that is often frustrating for opposing defenses and entertaining for fans.
“We’re going to play fast,” said Riley, who coached with McNeill at Texas Tech, working primarily with wide receivers. It’s going to be one of those things where if you turn around, if you reach down to grab your drink or something, you’re going to miss a play. I think it’s going to be more exciting. I think the fans are going to love watching it.”
Directing the defense will be Brian Mitchell, another former Texas Tech assistant coach who helped the Red Raiders become the best pass defense in the Big 12 in 2006 and 2007. Riley and Mitchell were two of the top hires on a staff that McNeill believes had a unique ability to lead plus an exceptional attention to detail. He made most of his hires in just a few weeks, but there was nothing haphazard about it, he said.
“I wanted to be sure that we moved in a very sequential type manner, and I’m very pleased with the guys that we’ve hired,” McNeill said. “They’re all really good football coaches, really good recruiters and X and O guys, but they’re all better men. And that was the key.”
McNeill’s staff is also notably diverse, with five African-Americans among the 10 new coaches that he has hired. He is the first African-American head football coach in ECU’s history and one of only 13 in the nation in NCAA Division I. But he is not looking for a social crusade, just to do his job so well that ECU becomes a postseason mainstay and a viable threat to the BCS monopoly.
“One of the things I take seriously is being a role model,” he said. “If I do it with class and professionalism, that may lead to another young coach to have an opportunity. I plan to work extremely hard, stay extremely focused, and do the best job I possibly can. I know that I’m not coming to a downtrodden program. I’m coming to a program that understands how to win and has won. My job is to continue that and perhaps take it to another level.”