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To suggest that Ruffin
McNeillís third season as East Carolinaís head coach is a pivotal one is
While itís premature to
state that McNeill will be coaching from the hot seat, consecutive
losing seasons havenít left much wiggle room. As such, it is imperative
that the Pirates get off to a convincing start Saturday.
A result similar to the
last time ECU faced Appalachian State ó
a nail-gnawing 29-24 victory ó
wonít do much to ease the anxiety of the home faithful. With the
Piratesí next three games on the road against opponents that routed them
last year, there wonít be much room for error after the opener.
There also wonít be anyone
remaining on the schedule with less talent than the Mountaineers, which
is why it is important that ECU get off to a convincing start.
A commanding win over App
would build much needed momentum with a difficult gauntlet looming, and
would reinforce fans' confidence in McNeill. It also would help soothe
some of the wounds that were inflicted by the Big Eastís most recent
The latest round of
conference shuffling has generated additional unrest from ECU diehards.
It also has reemphasized the urgency with which East Carolina must
operate its athletics programs ó especially football ó given that the
Pirates will be unable to leverage conference affiliation as a
springboard to prosperity.
Because given the current
environment, failing to win in the short term could seriously damage the
Pirates chances to succeed in the long run.
This isnít to suggest that
ECU fans are demanding a change or that ECU athletics director Terry
Holland is itching for a switch. There are no indications to suggest
that to be the case.
In fact, a quick analysis
of McNeillís tenure produces many bright spots. His staff recruits as
well, or better, than any group before, and does so while facing
McNeill also brought with
him an exciting brand of offense with which fans easily identify. The
attacking, pass-heavy mentality is how East Carolina branded itself in
the 1990s, and itís what even the most casual football observers will
tout when you mention the Pirates.
That McNeill and defensive
coordinator Brian Mitchell rethought their defensive philosophy after a
disastrous 2010 campaign also canít be overlooked. Reconfiguring the
defense to a 3-4 look to better fit the current roster and the players
they were recruiting already has paid huge dividends.
The Pirates went from the
worst defense in the nation to a respectable, at-times-stout unit in
McNeill also deserves
credit for his ability to upgrade his staff following departures last
season. By adding Kirk Doll and Dave Nichol, it improved the collective
experience and expertise of his staff, which was a definite need.
And when you measure the
likability of ECU head coaches ó a quality that canít be understated
with donors ó it simply doesnít get much better than Coach Ruff. His
career as an ECU player, his personality and his Down East demeanor make
him a major hit with fans.
Still, McNeillís ultimate
evaluation will be tied directly to the numbers that comprise his
win-loss record. You have to think that anything less than a winning
season and bowl berth would not guarantee his return in 2013.
It wasnít long ago that
athletics directors operated under the philosophy that head coaches
received a requisite four years before an overall assessment could be
made. That no longer is the case. Given the amount of money at stake,
ADs can no longer operate with that level of patience.
deep-pocketed donors seldom do.
The overwhelming majority
of those who fill Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium this Saturday will be pulling
for McNeill to succeed and remain the Piratesí head coach until he
decides to hang up the whistle. But an unexpected loss to Appalachian
would quickly change the mood. The last thing McNeill needs is for the
season to quickly shift into panic mode.