My first thought upon hearing East Carolina fired head coach Ruffin McNeill is the old college athletics expression, “Your alma mater doesn’t love you as much as you love it.”
That certainly fits Friday’s surprise announcement from East Carolina athletic director Jeff Compher. McNeill played at the Greenville, N.C. school from 1976 to 1980 and he was an assistant coach in 1992. He returned as head coach the past six seasons.
The second thought was: I wonder if Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh is interested in hiring McNeill… again? Harbaugh is suddenly in the market for a defensive coordinator, with D.J. Durkin leaving the Wolverines to take the head coach job at Maryland. That’s not to suggest inside knowledge McNeill is a candidate at Michigan, but Harbaugh respects his coaching ability. McNeill also provides a recruiting connection to the talent-rich South.
You might be surprised to learn Harbaugh has hired McNeill in the past. So was I when I had a chance to interview the personable McNeill this time last year.
The Harbaugh connection goes back to January 2010 following the bowl games. McNeill was let go as Texas Tech’s interim head coach despite beating Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl. He had been the Red Raiders’ defensive coordinator the previous two seasons and assistant for 10 when Mike Leach was abruptly fired and McNeill tabbed coach the bowl game.
At the same time, Harbaugh was Stanford’s head coach and in the market for a defensive coordinator. He and McNeill shook hands on the deal and were scheduled to meet in Atlanta on a recruiting trip before it was finalized.
Meanwhile, then-East Carolina athletic director Terry Holland also had McNeill on his mind. He wanted to know if he was interested in coming home. McNeill said he was, but he had to know it was not a cursory interview simply so that Holland could check the box that said he had interviewed a black candidate.
“I told Terry I had accepted the Stanford job,” McNeill told me. “I said, ‘Coach, no disrespect, because I appreciate the phone call. But if you’re not serious let me know. If you are serious, I’m interested.”
That’s the man of integrity East Carolina has let go.
Holland assured him it was a legitimate interview, and the rest has been history for the past six seasons, including a 10-2 regular-season record in 2013.
But the period before the Holland interview left McNeill in a quandary. What should he tell Harbaugh? It turns out, college football fans, that the quirky Harbaugh does have a good guy side. McNeill called Harbaugh about the East Carolina job opportunity.
“Jim said, ‘Ruff, that’s great. Look, you go for it. If you get it, let me know. If you don’t get it, I’ll meet you in Atlanta. He wished me well instead of being mad like a lot of coaches would have been. He encouraged me to get the job.”
By the time of my interview with McNeill in December 2014, prior to the Birmingham Bowl, reports of Harbaugh wearing on people and his demise as the San Francisco 49ers head coach were widespread.
“I have no idea what they’re talking about in San Francisco,” McNeill said. “I love Coach Harbaugh. I would work for Jim Harbaugh in a heartbeat.”
Well, thanks to Compher’s dubious decision, McNeill is suddenly available. He won’t be on the market long. He is widely respected and liked in college football circles. When Texas Tech beat Michigan State with McNeill the interim coach, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio’s opening remarks included stating Texas Tech should take the interim label off McNeill.
Note that Holland hired McNeill and that Compher fired him. This happens often in college athletics. The new AD wants the head coach, particularly in the high-profile money-generating sports, to be their guy.
But it seems to me an unwarranted move. East Carolina slipped to 5-7 this year, but the Pirates would have been bowl eligible for the fifth time in his six seasons if Cincinnati’s field goal as time expired would have missed.
McNeill led the Pirates to a 10-3 record in Conference-USA before a 2014 move to the American Athletic Conference that finished 8-5.
When ECU beat Virginia Tech this year, it bumped McNeill’s Pirates record against ACC schools to 5-0 the past three seasons, including wins over North Carolina of 70-41 in 2014 and 55-31 in 2013.
McNeill’s offensive coordinator was Lincoln Riley, who followed him from Texas Tech to Greenville, N.C. Riley left in 2015 as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator.
ECU’s offense fell off this year, but part of that was the quarterback position remained unsettled after Kurt Benkert was lost for the season with a knee injury in fall camp.
Maybe Compher thinks he can find a Tom Herman-like coach at Houston. Herman left Ohio State and turned around the Cougars to an AAC West title. But Herman also received a $3 million deal to stay once he was a hot name on the coaching carousel. East Carolina may not be able to keep such a successful coach.
McNeill, 58, with his age and alma mater ties, provided stability at a school that is considered a stepping-stone job. He wasn’t going anywhere and his coaching has demonstrated he can lift the Pirates to higher heights. He was highly popular with fans. He was ambassador for his school that made himself available to events and the media.
Pat Dye left East Carolina after six seasons to take the Wyoming job in 1980 for one season before moving on to Auburn. From 1980 forward, with the exception of San Francisco 49ers assistant coach Steve Logan coaching the Pirates from 1992 to 2002, the average length of stay was 3.9 years.
Maybe there is something going on in the background with boosters we’re unaware of or changes the AD wanted that McNeill resisted that led to the questionable move. But what I do know is East Carolina fired a coach that Jim Harbaugh once hired at Stanford and Mark Dantonio once endorsed at Texas Tech.
Editor’s Note: This story was edited to correct Pat Dye coaching at Wyoming for one season before Auburn.