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Pirate Notebook No. 461
Monday, January 17, 2011

Denny O'Brien

McNeill facing his most pressing hire

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

You can’t overstate the importance of the immediate task facing Ruffin McNeill. That’s because the hiring of the football program’s next strength and conditioning coordinator could be the most critical staffing decision he makes as East Carolina’s head coach.

The position is open after Mike Golden's departure to South Florida to rejoin former ECU coach Skip Holtz.

A wise decision by Ruff could help secure the longevity of his tenure with the Pirates, whereas a bad one could significantly shorten it. It certainly is no stretch to suggest that filling the position is as vital to any program’s success as the offensive and defensive coordinators, if not more.

Ask many former Pirates and they’ll tell you the latter. Kevin Wiggins is one of them.

The one-time walk-on eventually worked his way into a starting role along the Pirates’ offensive front during the mid 1990s, and it wasn’t a tribute to his blue-chip credentials. Under the intense tutelage of former strength coach Jeff Connors, Wiggins was able to reshape both his physique and mentality, adopting a warrior mindset that defined many of the players who played during his era.

“East Carolina might get two to three big-time athletes each recruiting class,” Wiggins said. “This year, for instance, Lance Lewis was one. Back when we were coming through, Morris Foreman and Jerris McPhail were examples.

“But we don’t get, across the board, that many big-time athletes. They are going to have to outwork people. That’s what East Carolina is. You have to go out there and outwork people. If you don’t understand that, you’re not going to be successful here.”

What made Connors so successful at East Carolina was his innate ability to relate to the type of athletes the Pirates’ often attracted. He fully understood what made them tick, and he tapped into any pent-up frustration players had from being overlooked by other schools to transform them into fierce competitors and workaholics.

He did that habitually. As a result, much of East Carolina’s roster often performed at a level that exceeded the talent that composed it.

How else do you explain much of the Pirates’ success throughout the 90s?

For certain, ECU had solid personnel and outstanding coaching. You don’t win the number of games the Pirates did during the 90s and against the caliber of opponents they were beating without having both.

But when you examine the how and why of many of ECU’s more impressive victories during that period, you must acknowledge that superior conditioning played a vital role in the Pirates’ success. Just consider how dominant fourth quarters propelled the Pirates to wins over highly-ranked Miami teams in both ’96 and ’99.

"Conditioning was huge, if not the defining factor," former Pirates defensive back Kevin Monroe once said. "Simply because we were not the most talented team week in and week out when we stepped on the field.

"But the fact that we were always — not sometimes — we were always the most conditioned team, we would win ball games. We played Miami in '99 and they were a better team than us. That's just a fact. That's evident by probably 8-10 of those guys that are starting in the NFL right now. We outlasted them. They got a big lead, but we came back. That's all conditioning and the mindset of the players."

In college football, games are won and lost as much in February and July as they are in October and November. It’s during those off-season training months when players belong solely to the strength and conditioning staff.

Such responsibility requires that conditioning coaches possess the type of wide-ranging skills that will ensure players are progressing significantly both physically and mentally.

They must be equal parts mad scientist, psychologist, and drill sergeant. The position requires the intelligence to research and implement new training methods, the discernment to know how to connect with each personality and push the appropriate buttons, and a presence that commands respect through the demanding, yet motivational tactics that produce results.


Batten: Family ties lead star linebacker to ECU
O'Brien: McNeill facing his most pressing hire
BVL: Home sweet for Sherrod, Pirates
BVL: New date set for ECU-UAB clash
BVL: ECU-UAB hoops battle on hold
Bradsher: Macy system gains a convert in Jackson
Bailey: Home at last, but no time to relax
O'Brien: Fox deal makes dollars and ‘sense’
BVL: No. 21 Tigers dodge ECU upset bid

The really good ones often find that players respond with an assortment of emotions: they have a healthy fear of their strength coach, semi-hatred for him during workouts, followed closely by intense admiration and loyalty when they leave the gym. It’s the latter that motivates athletes to return to the weight room to endure more pain and sacrifice.

East Carolina needs that type of mindset to underpin its program once again. McNeill’s challenge is to identify and hire someone who can produce that on a daily basis.

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01/17/2011 04:58 AM

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