CAROLINA & CONFERENCE USA
View from the East
Thursday, December 13, 2012
By Al Myatt
Ruff repeating history
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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
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
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
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.
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
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
"I wish Coach well. He's
not going anywhere too soon. I'll get a chance to say a lot of goodbyes
Renewal of Ruff's
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.
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
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