Ruffin McNeill is coming back to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The former East Carolina player and coach is now a special assistant to N.C. State coach Dave Doeren and will be on hand when the No. 13 Wolfpack opens the season as guest of the Pirates on Saturday, Sept. 3, at noon (ESPN).
McNeill, who was 42-34 at ECU from 2010 to 2015, went 2-0 against his present program during that span.
The Lumberton native did a Zoom call with media Friday and talked about his role as a visitor for the first time at his alma mater. He’s not entirely sure what to expect.
“I don’t really know,” McNeill said. “I’ve never been an opponent in this stadium as a player or a coach, so I’m sure it’s going to be exciting. I know both teams have been in great preparation for the game. I know the fan base at East Carolina very well. They’ll be excited and energized.
“And I know our players are looking forward to it. I know Coach (Mike) Houston has that group looking forward to it. So, it’ll be exciting looking forward to the competitive (time) to start … next Saturday, but we need the rest of the week to keep practicing.”
McNeill was back at ECU last year.
“When I was able to be inducted to the Hall of Fame there, was my first time going back and the question was asked then and … I didn’t know how I would feel, but it felt good to be back,” said the former Pirate defensive back. “Now, during competition time, like I said, I’ve never been in this arena. I’ve always been either the player or the coach, so I’m sure it will be emotional, but then it’ll get straight to the competition part.”
McNeill was the first Pirate coach to recruit ECU quarterback Holton Ahlers at D.H. Conley.
“I offered him as a ninth grader and I remember going to the school,” McNeill said. ” … And so did Coach Doeren. We both had the same deal, but I knew he’d be a great, great leader. He was already a great athlete in baseball and basketball, as well as football, so now watching him develop and then being able to watch him on film, I know he and Devin (Leary, State quarterback) went to the same quarterback school this summer. I had no doubt that he would be leading and be a great ambassador for the team and the university.”
Dismissed by Compher
McNeill was fired by former ECU athletic director Jeff Compher after a 19-16 loss to Cincinnati left the Pirates 5-7 in 2015. Compher was jettisoned as McNeill’s successor, Scottie Montgomery, turned in three straight 3-9 seasons.
McNeill was asked about the emotional aftermath of his departure.
“Got to admit a disappointment, hurt,” he said. “It was my alma mater. … Everybody knows the story. My brother graduated from there, sister-in-law, brother-in-law, my nieces. That part was tough, made a lot of friends and family, so it was tough. I mean, I’m only human with that, but no, never any negative words for my part.
“Things happen in this business. I’ve been in it a long time, but to say it didn’t bother me, yes, but the pain or anything like that is nothing but wishing them well. I know Coach Houston extremely well, known him a long time, back to the LR (Lenoir-Rhyne) days, James Madison days and the staff. I have some of my guys on that staff as well. Donnie Kirkpatrick and Tripp Weaver. Those guys on that staff. I know most of the guys, so it was a challenging time in my life, but that’s what life is. You got to learn to deal with it.”
State has 10 starters back on defense from a 9-3 team and Leary is the ACC preseason player of the year.
“We have an experienced team, but so does Mike,” McNeill said “They have what? 16 returning starters I think, last count, and a lot of transfer guys that came in. We have used that too. I guess that’s the way of the world. So, we both have experienced teams.
“I think our group, with the experience, what we try to do is use it in a positive way, and also present to our team these are things that will hurt if we don’t do them. So, it’s been a two-prong deal. This is what we have to do to be successful. And if we do this, we will not be successful. So, the experience helps that way. The expectations are great to have. I think I’ve been a part of teams where no expectation was there and teams in my coaching career that had expectations. I like the latter.
“I think that now what it comes down to is learning how to handle it. And these guys understand preparation is key. They understand daily focus is key. They understand that we got to, what we call our ‘One more’ and stack days getting into getting ready for competition, so this group has done a great job from off season, to summer, to fall camp. And now we’re right in the game week now. So, I think that’s what helps this team. They learn to keep things and handle the day. Don’t look forward, don’t look back, just handle the day. And that’s like today, that’s what we’re doing now.
“Everybody’s got to put big boy pants on and the big boy pads. It’s a big boy day. It’ll be a big boy game.”
Thrills, memories at ECU
McNeill’s head coaching career at ECU started with a 51-49 home win over Tulsa on a Hail Mary from Dominique Davis to Justin Jones.
McNeill came to ECU as a player in 1976.
“As a player, it was great,” McNeill said. “I was learning, had great teammates. Pat Dye, Hall of Fame coach was our coach, and had great team unity.
“As a coach, that first game … was big because it was my second stint as a head coach. I had served as the interim at Texas Tech before then, but that was a big, big, big, big day. Another day was when Justin Hardy broke the (NCAA) record for (career) receptions. I thought that was great.
“And then the last day, any time those seniors had to leave, it was our last game in Dowdy-Ficklen. It was tough. Well, it was very memorable to me, and it was very special to me. Each group, that hug, that final hug of leading them to the next stage in their life, like going from a lamb to a ram, the next part of them. Those things that come to mind quick.”
McNeill goes on the field early in pregame.
“I’m hoping the fans will be somewhat friendly,” he said. “I know they’ll be a little bit weighed-in there who they’re pulling for in the game, but I look for a positiveness from the fans. So, they’ll receive nothing but positiveness from me. I’m not sure about before the game, there might be some … But I’m sure it’ll be all in fun. All in spirit in the spirit of the game.
” … The emotion will be different. I know I have … played on that turf, and also coached on that turf, so I’m sure there would be some emotional feelings there. I was 17 years old the first time I played on that thing. So that was many moons ago. And so, I’m looking forward to that and then I’ll be able to tell you how it feels once I stepped on that. I’ve never had an opportunity to ever have that comparison and that mutual competition or feelings that I’ll have next Saturday.
Start of the saga
McNeill made a game-ending, game-winning tackle at State in a 28-23 Pirates win in 1977.
“I think Johnny Evans threw for about 5,000 yards in that game against us as a secondary,” McNeill said. “And I just happened to have been in the right place at the right time. And my first start, our first start, our first game of the season and I was glad to be in the right spot and able to play because I think Coach Dye, if I remember, even still got after us that next day on about giving up so many yards to Johnny Evans.
“I see Johnny from time to time right now. So, I know he brings that up a little bit, but it was very emotional being the first time, first starter, first start ever in my career as a sophomore. We also knew we had a lot of work to do after that game, but I was glad to have the chance to be a part of it.”
Care for his dad
After serving on staffs ay Virginia and Oklahoma, McNeill returned to North Carolina to help care for his father.
“Well, I did, it was really right after when I was at Virginia, coach at Virginia with coach (Bronco) Mendenhall, my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia, and we began that action, what comes along with that.
“Right after that, Lincoln got the job at Oklahoma and Lincoln Riley had called and I turned it down four times, because of what was going on with my dad and the family said, ‘Hey, it’s opportunity to go help Lincoln and be a part and help him get off to a great start as a head coach,’ so I did that.
“About the third year, I think after that playoff game, we played LSU in the Peach Bowl and had a good team. After the bowl game came home and a lot of work was put on my brother, my brother was handling all of it by himself and I felt like as one of the sons, the oldest son, that it was my time to come back and do my part and help and be there for him.
“We’re going to see him tomorrow. Coach is giving us off on Saturday, tomorrow as a staff and a team. So, I’m going down to Lumberton to check in on him tomorrow. So, he’s hanging in there, he’ll be fired up and I’m looking forward to seeing him.”
Game day responsibilities
McNeill has a specific routine on the sideline on game days.
“One is the support for the team, the coaches as well,” McNeill said. “They know I’ve been in a lot of battles, the coaches as well, the players, but support also in watching the game. My eyes are there to help Dave. So, I watch the game as in such that manner from all three sides of the football and then whatever adjustments I see, Dave and I talk at halftime and then come back again in the same field support observations. I’m used to doing that as a coordinator and head coach and I’ll watch anyway, observing. So that’s my main duties.”
McNeill has known Doeren for a long time.
“I met Dave when he was 23, 24 years old, back in ’98, ’99 back in Southern Cal, and I was at Fresno State and we’ve been close since then,” McNeill said. “There’s a love and a friendship and a mentorship, all those combined in one. I consider Dave and Sarah and the boys, family. And my dad is family to Dave and I guess to his dad, family to me. And he considers Erlene and my girls, family.
“So that’s a tight relationship. He is boss. So, I know that pretty clearly. So, I call him “Boss”, not Dave. Well, sometimes Dave, most time Boss, but it’s a great relationship. We have so much correlation between our families, histories and coaching, and then with his dad and my dad having similar and going through similar experiences, it’s a constant communication. It’s a love that you really can’t measure.
“I’ve known him most of his entire adult life. And I know it’s been documented as well, during some challenging times in my career, the first phone call I get and have gotten was from Dave. I mean, you can’t make that up. And the next challenge and each challenging experience, the first call I get was some Dave. Again, you can’t plan that and it’s a call of, ‘Are you good? You need anything?’ And of course, we tell each other we love each other and all that.
“But yeah. So, our relationship is now working together for three years. We’ve been opponents for years. We’ve been opponents on different sidelines, but even then, we were friends and communicating, but last three years have been special.”
Some bowl history
McNeill has coached against ECU before when he was on the defensive staff at Texas Tech for the galleryfurniture.com Bowl in Houston in 2000. The Pirates topped the Red Raiders, 40-27, after getting out to a 34-0 lead. Quarterback Kliff Kingsbury helped Texas Tech rally.
McNeill guided ECU to its last postseason win in St. Petersburg, FL, in 2013, 37-20, over Ohio.