0

Ruffin takes over at alma mater as ECU coach

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

GREENVILLE, N.C. -- Ruffin McNeill didn't say a word. He just walked into the room filled with reporters and fans waiting to hear from East Carolina's new coach and repeatedly pumped his right fist in the air.

He was home, back at his alma mater and in his native North Carolina.

"This is my destination job," McNeill said Friday. "Let's get that out front right now. This is not a stepping-stone hop for Ruff. This is where I want to be until you tow me away from here. You'll have to drag me away."

The school held a news conference for McNeill, who was hired this week after Skip Holtz left to take over at South Florida after five seasons here. The 51-year-old spent the past 10 seasons as an assistant at Texas Tech, where he served as defensive coordinator and took over as interim coach when Mike Leach was suspended then fired just before the Alamo Bowl.

A formal contract hasn't been signed and won't be approved until the school's trustees meet next month. Instead, the two sides are operating under an outline for a five-year deal that could pay him $1 million per season with benchmarks for season-ticket sales, fundraising and academics.

There is also a $50,000 bonus if East Carolina reaches the Conference USA championship game, $100,000 if the Pirates win that game, and $50,000 if the Pirates win the bowl game following a league title.

McNeill -- a Lumberton native with 24 seasons in college coaching, but none as a full-time head coach -- inherits a program that has been to four straight bowl games and has won consecutive C-USA championships, a record of success that McNeill must maintain if he plans to stick around as long as he wants.

It's also a program with a unique set of challenges, from fighting for headlines in a state dominated by Atlantic Coast Conference programs like North Carolina and North Carolina State to a perennially challenging nonconference schedule.

In addition, East Carolina has broken ground on an expansion to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, meaning McNeill will have to put a winning team on the field to maintain ticket demand.

Not to mention hire a staff and maintain most of the program's recruiting commitments with less than two weeks left until national signing day.

"This is a fun challenge," McNeill said. "There's nothing intimidating or hard about this."

Athletic director Terry Holland had said he preferred to hire someone with head-coaching experience. One of his top targets was Middle Tennessee's Rick Stockstill, who announced earlier this week he was withdrawing his name from consideration due to the short time before national signing day next month.

Holland said he spoke with seven candidates about the job and had four come to campus. But McNeill's experience as assistant head coach at Texas Tech was "very unique," highlighted by his leading the Red Raiders to a win against Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl just days after Leach was fired.

"I realize that's one bullet, but it certainly tells you that if you can walk into that situation and stay calm, cool and collected, and move everything ahead with all those distractions, then you will be able to do it consistently," Holland said.

McNeill was a candidate to be Leach's permanent successor, but left after Tommy Tuberville took over in Lubbock. He has already added a former colleague to his staff, naming former Texas Tech receivers coach Lincoln Riley as his offensive coordinator.

Riley was acting offensive coordinator for the Alamo Bowl.

McNeill met with the players after the school announced his hiring Thursday night and said he has also spoken to all the recruits who have verbally committed to the Pirates.

His next job, he said, was reaching out to the parents of the current players and assuring them he would take good care of "their most prized possession." From there, he planned to focus on recruiting, saying he would see how many flights he could catch and hotels he could stay in next week.

"This is a dream come true for an East Carolina boy," McNeill said. "This is my alma mater. This was an easy sell."