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View from the East
Thursday, December 13, 2012

By Al Myatt

Al Myatt

Ruff repeating history

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

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If Ruffin McNeill wasn't so intent on preparation for East Carolina's pending game in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, maybe he could get together with some of his old teammates like Zack Valentine, Leander Green, Theodore Sutton, Anthony Collins and Terry Gallaher and they could reminisce about the Pirates' last trip to play a postseason football game in the Pelican state.

When the Pirates tangle with Louisiana-Lafayette in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome at noon on Dec. 22, they will in effect be the visitors playing in the opponent's home state just as was the case with the ECU team that snared a milestone bowl berth during Ruff's playing heyday.

That would have been 1978. The 34th anniversary of ECU's 35-13 win over Louisiana Tech in the third annual Independence Bowl in Shreveport will be Sunday. It was the Pirates' first postseason excursion since becoming a major college independent in 1977. It was ECU's first postseason trip since the 1965 Tangerine Bowl.

Those who contend that history repeats itself might note that the Pirates were coming off a win over Marshall in the last game of the regular season. ECU's 45-0 pasting of the Thundering Herd back in 1978 was significant from the standpoint that Marshall had a linebacker named Mike Hamrick, who would be athletic director at East Carolina from 1995 to 2003. It was the first time the Herd had played in Greenville since the tragic crash of a Marshall plane returning from a game at ECU in 1970.

"Talk about something eerie," Hamrick said. "We all knew the significance of that flight."

Hamrick, now AD at his alma mater, was back in Greenville on Nov. 23 for ECU's record-setting 65-59 double overtime win over the Herd.

McNeill played strong safety for the Pirates 34 years ago and the secondary had a busy day against Louisiana Tech as the Bulldogs threw 52 passes. ECU generated seven turnovers three interceptions and four fumbles to negate a Louisiana Tech offense that managed just 12 yards rushing but 263 yards through the air.

"They threw a bunch that game," McNeill said. "That was unusual for that time. ... There were not as many bowls and to be chosen to go to one was an honor. We knew we were facing a competitive team. We had watched them on film. ... Our offense and defense and special teams got it rolling. It was a good game. I was very happy to come out of there with a win."

Special guests at that Independence Bowl, General Omar Bradley and legendary actor John Wayne, made a lasting impression on McNeill, an admitted movie buff. Bradley had received the bowl's first Spirit of Independence Award and was on hand to present Wayne with the honor in 1978.

"They were at the game," McNeill said. "We saw them. They stood up."

That was one of Wayne's last public appearances.

"A tornado had come through the Bossier City and Shreveport area (Dec. 3)," McNeill recalled.

The opportunity to play the game was special.

"It's always a reward, just like I say now for the players and the players at that time, and I'm sure the coaches and their families," said the Pirates coach. "I remember getting ready for the game. We had great weeks of practice leading up to the game and great practices when we got to the bowl site."

McNeill said his coach, Pat Dye, another legend, emphasized the basics.

"It was a lot like what we do," he said. "The fundamentals. Making sure you do what you do going into the game. Making sure you're prepared physically and mentally. If you're in a bowl game, the team you're playing is deserving to be in that bowl game. Make sure you're ready to compete and play at a high level. There was always a fundamental emphasis with Coach Dye and execution of your offense, defense and special teams."

Then, as now, the Pirates were bidding for their ninth win of the season in 1978.

Postseason priorities

After a week spent on development within the ECU program, the Pirates turned their attention to preparing for the Ragin' Cajuns on Sunday. Cody Keith, walk-on Ethan Long and receiver John Worthy have the job of simulating ULL dual-threat quarterback Terrance Broadway on the scout team.

"John's got the speed and can throw," McNeill said. "Cody has the best arm. All of those guys have been doing a great job."

A bowl game is like an extra spring practice.

"I really am proud of our team, 8-4," McNeill said. "That was not expected but I think by our team, it was. Then to finish 7-1 in the conference, I thought that was big to end up co-division champions. Winning five out of the last six games, we felt good about momentum going into the bowl. It has carried over. ... They're only 70 teams in bowl participation right now and to be one of them we feel blessed. We don't take it for granted."

McNeill credited effective leadership from the seniors.

"This team had significant accomplishments," he said. "This team could have folded and this group held it together. The leadership part was great, not just by the players but by our staff. The recruiting and development are key and we'll continue to do that."

The Pirates narrowly missed bowl eligibility last season but made the extra time count in terms of recruiting with personnel additions such as running back Vintavious Cooper, receiver Jabril Soloman and defensive backs Adonis Armstrong and Chip Thompson, who have all made significant contributions during the course of the 2012 season.

"It was disappointing that we didn't go to a bowl," McNeill said of last season's conclusion. "East Carolina has been used to going to bowls. Our staff has, too. I can't remember many times Erlene and I have been home for Christmas in my whole coaching career. We've usually been in a bowl game or playoff game. It was unusual but we used it to our advantage. We got on the recruiting trail. We started the offseason with our young men, but it was still disappointing not to be playing in postseason.

"This year we were able to (get a bowl berth) and we're still able to get out to recruit. We'll still do some recruiting. We'll have some guys go out after Friday's practice."

Holland's news surprising

It was announced Wednesday that ECU athletic director Terry Holland will be transitioning into an emeritus position while grooming his successor. Holland has been overseeing Pirate athletics since 2004. His current contract runs through the end of 2014.

The 70-year old Clinton native hired McNeill and basketball coach Jeff Lebo in the primary revenue sports. He oversaw significant facility enhancement during his tenure and finally got ECU's foot in the door in the Big East with a football invitation.

"I saw the news and it was surprising," McNeill said. "Coach is 6-8 and he's 6-foot-8 of class. Nothing but first class. He's done so much for the athletic department and he's brought so much to our university. I read where they're going to name (the Olympic sports complex) in his honor. That's a great honor for Coach. We'll still have him around and we'll still be able to see his presence.

"I wish Coach well. He's not going anywhere too soon. I'll get a chance to say a lot of goodbyes to him."

Renewal of Ruff's contract

McNeill has coached his third season for the Pirates after signing a five-year contract after the 2009 season. Oftentimes, administrators will extend a successful coach's contract period so that he can tell potential recruits that he will be there for the duration of their careers.

McNeill has expressed his loyalty to the Pirates.

"I'd love to be here for a long time, but I haven't been approached as of yet," he said. "I hope that's on the horizon."

Whether Holland will address an extension for McNeill or leave that for his successor is an important issue in the pending transition.

AD candidates

Nick Floyd, executive associate athletic director, has been the right hand man in athletic administration at ECU since 2001 and spent about a year as interim AD after Hamrick left for Nevada-Las Vegas. Chancellor Steve Ballard made a point to recognize Floyd's efforts when the future affiliation with the Big East was announced in late November.

Floyd would have to be considered to have the inside track for the AD position among in-house candidates. There also may be a push among some influential and wealthy Pirate supporters for former ECU football player Dennis Young, who retired during the 2011-12 school year from a position as associate athletic director for major gifts.

There will also be a faction advocating Liberty athletic director Jeff Barber, a Greenville native and ECU alumnus who has also worked in athletic administration at Furman and South Carolina.

The pool of candidates likely will expand as the expectations and parameters of the search are defined.

The next AD certainly will be expected to continue enhancing ECU's league affiliation(s) and keep top personnel in coaching positions. There apparently have been discussions about bringing the fundraising efforts of the Pirate Club within the realm of the athletic department, which would expand the scope and importance of the position.

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12/13/2012 10:55 AM


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