Ruffin McNeill was, is and always will be a Pirate. That’s why his dismissal as ECU’s football coach last December was such an emotional event for so many people in and outside the program.
But as much as McNeill loves and misses his alma mater, he’s found both a new home and peace as an assistant to first-year Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall.
His official title is assistant head coach and his primary responsibility is working with the Cavaliers’ defensive line as it prepares for its 2016 season opener against Richmond on Sept. 3.
It’s a much different role than the one he had when he was the man in charge at ECU. And yet, while some might look at his situation as a step down on the professional ladder, McNeill’s trademark enthusiasm and optimism make him totally believable when he calls his current position “the best job I’ve ever had.”
“I love coaching the D line, I love coaching for Coach Mendenhall and the staff we have,” said McNeill, who is doing much more hands-on instruction than he did in his role of CEO with the Pirates.. “Coaching is coaching. I’ve done it for 36 years. I’ve coached every position on defense. You name it, I’ve coached it. So I’m coaching again, just getting in the saddle, going after it, attacking, loving each day.”
McNeill didn’t have to wait long to get that opportunity after being cut loose by ECU following a disappointing 5-7 season. He was unemployed for less than a week before being being scooped up by Mendenhall.
The former BYU coach had met McNeill during a “staff exchange” back in 2010, when McNeill and the defensive members of his ECU staff traveled to Provo, Utah, to trade notes on the 3-4 scheme. The following year, Mendenhall and his assistants returned the favor by coming to Greenville.
The meetings were set up by Mendenhall’s offensive coordinator Robert Anae, who befriended McNeill while working together at both UNLV and Texas Tech.
McNeill and Mendenhall renewed their acquaintance, at least briefly, last season when they chatted on the field before BYU’s 45-38 win against the Pirates. Little did the coaches know that just two months later, they’d be working together.
For Mendenhall, hiring McNeill to his staff was a no-brainer.
“I was so impressed with not only him as a person but the way he had coached his team in the past six years at ECU,” Mendenhall said. “I was very surprised and I think everyone was that he was out of a job after this year. If it wasn’t the next day or the same day, one of those two is when I called him and asked him to join us. It was a great move for us.”
As big a contribution as McNeill is expected to make on the practice field, the sideline and in the meeting room, his most valuable asset to the Cavaliers’ building process — at least for the time being — is as a recruiter.
His knowledge and track record of success throughout the state of Virginia, especially the talent-rich Tidewater area, has been a major boost to a staff whose leader is still in the process of learning his way around his new surroundings after spending the majority of his career out West.
“It’s not just me,” McNeill said, correctly deflecting some of the credit to former Cavaliers star and fellow assistant Marques Hagans. “I think we both have helped our staff. I know Coach [Mendenhall] has appreciated [what we’ve done], not just the Virginia Beach area, but the whole East Coast from New York down to Florida. That’s been a very good match.”
McNeill’s biggest recruiting coup to date isn’t a incoming freshman, but rather a veteran quarterback that should be just as familiar to Pirate fans. Kurt Benkert followed his former coach from Greenville to Charlottesville shortly after receiving his undergraduate degree from ECU last spring.
On Wednesday, Benkert was named the Cavaliers’ opening day starter.
It was an announcement that has special meaning for McNeill considering how intertwined their football fates have become.
Had Benkert not suffered a season-ending knee injury a week before last year’s season opener and only a few days after being named the Pirates’ starter, both he and McNeill might still be wearing purple and gold today instead of their current blue and orange.
Though McNeill isn’t one to dwell on “what ifs,” he’s happy to have Benkert back on his side. He made that abundantly clear when asked earlier this week if he’s enjoyed being around another former Pirate in their new home.
“Enjoyed is probably not the right word,” McNeill said. “If there’s a word better than enjoy. . . .
“ I’ve known Kurt since he was 16 years old. We both agree that things happen for a reason. It’s more or less when I promise each young man when I go into their home that I’m going to be their dad. That happened five years ago, maybe, so it’s good to reconnect here.”