All bridges, no matter how badly they’re burned, can eventually be rebuilt. It just takes a little wood, a hammer and some nails, and the right set of circumstances.
When it comes to the relationship between East Carolina and its once-favorite son Ruffin McNeill, there’s no better time than the present to begin work on repairing the pathway that will allow the former Pirate football coach to formally reconnect with the school he loves.
The bridge between McNeill and ECU was scorched to ashes when he was abruptly fired by then-athletic director Jeff Compher following the 2015 season despite having taken his team to bowl games in each of the three previous years.
Whether you agreed with the decision or not, it was hard to argue that the situation was handled poorly. And it’s an indisputable fact that four losing seasons and two coaches later, the Pirates’ program hasn’t been the same since McNeill has been gone.
Thankfully, the situation finally seems to have stabilized with the hirings of new AD Jon Gilbert and a coach in Mike Houston who has both experience and a proven track record of winning.
Between their arrival, completion of the TowneBank Tower project and the emergence of star quarterback Holton Ahlers, ECU’s football program is once again showing signs of life.
How symbolic of a gesture would it be to bridge the gap between the Pirates’ successful past and its hopeful future by bringing McNeill back to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium — not necessarily to apologize, but rather to say thank you for his loyalty and service to his alma mater.
It was reported last summer that the school’s new athletic leadership unofficially reached out to the former Pirates defensive back, who played for coach Pat Dye from 1976-80. While visiting Oklahoma, where McNeill served as an assistant, ECU offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick raised the subject of a return home to be honored.
But the logistics couldn’t be worked out.
Now, however, circumstances have changed. Just before the turn of the new year, McNeill announced that he was taking a leave of absence from his job with the Sooners to return home to Lumberton to care for his ailing father.
“This was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make. But in the end, being near my dad was a necessary choice,” McNeill said in a statement announcing his decision. “Right now I need to be a son again and I need to help my brother and other family members take care of my dad, who is battling significant health issues.”
McNeill made it a point to say that he does not consider this a retirement.
“I still want to coach in some form or fashion,” he said. “But right now that can’t be the case. My focus needs to be on my dad in North Carolina.”
It is unclear how much time and effort that focus will entail. But since McNeill is back in his home state just a short drive down Interstate 95 from Greenville, it wouldn’t hurt for ECU to invest in the building materials necessary to repair the charred bridge across which he could return.
If nothing else than to give Pirate Nation an opportunity to reach out to the former coach and show him the kind of love he has always had for them.