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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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.