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Pirate Notebook No. 439
Monday, August 2, 2010

Denny O'Brien

McNeill ready for new set of challenges

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

Ruffin McNeill is no stranger to adversity. Eight months ago he was Associate Head Coach and Defensive Coordinator at Texas Tech, helping prepare the Red Raiders for their Alamo Bowl contest with Michigan State, when calamity struck.

With less than a week before the game, head coach Mike Leach was removed from his position over accusations of player abuse, and McNeill was handed the job on an interim basis.

The result was a 41-31 victory over the Spartans that was fueled by a 579-yard offensive explosion. But that wasn't enough to earn McNeill top dog in Lubbock, nor was it enough for him to maintain a position on new Tech coach Tommy Tuberville's staff.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and another opportunity would arise when Skip Holtz bolted East Carolina for South Florida, leaving the Pirates without a head coach and National Signing Day just a month away. Pirates athletics director Terry Holland would eventually ask the former ECU defensive back to return to his alma mater.

Upon accepting the position, McNeill proclaimed emphatically that he had gotten his dream job, though that dream already has produced more than quick slants and three-step drops. In less than eight months as the face of ECU football, McNeill has already encountered his share of tumultuous swells.

It started with an off-the-field incident that forced him to remove one running back from the program and suspend another. It continued in spring practice with an academic suspension to one of the Pirates' most explosive playmakers, Darryl Freeney.

But the kicker occurred just last week with the sudden resignation of special teams coordinator and defensive ends coach Mark Nelson, who stepped down for violating an NCAA rule mandating that coaches not view off-season workouts. It left McNeill scrambling with barely more than a week before fall camp to fill a vitally important position on his staff.

You would think McNeill could at least get a season under his belt before experiencing this type of internal turmoil. Or at least a game. But if there is a silver lining behind all of this, it's that McNeill is a seasoned veteran within the coaching ranks, one who has worked with many high-profile head coaches and has been exposed to almost every situation imaginable.

And he's been able to see how the best of the best respond when the football bounces in an unpredictable way.

“I was very fortunate that my dad was a coach,” McNeill said. “I've been around some very good head coaches. I played for one in Pat Dye, and I've worked for some.

“When I was an assistant I was able to prepare to become a coordinator. When I was a coordinator, I prepared to become a head coach. I've been blessed to have the opportunity. The thing now is managing your time, which I've had to learn to do. I can't be everywhere with everyone.”

Yet, when you are the head coach of a major college program, it remains an unwritten line in the job description.

Figuratively, you are expected to escort players to class, to tutoring sessions, and to their rooms for curfew. You are supposed to keep tabs on all of your assistants, steal the show along the rubber chicken circuit, and be chummy with the media.

Yet you won't find a coach historically who has successfully accomplished all of that. Not Knute Rockne. Not Bo Schembechler. And certainly not Urban Meyer.

To some degree, what McNeill has endured in his first eight months comes with the territory of being a head coach. And while he hasn't sidestepped the numerous questions from the media about the recent Nelson resignation, he would much rather talk football.

“I just want to take it one day at a time right now,” McNeill said. “I'm pleased with the personnel. I think we have guys who can fit into the offense. I just want to make sure that we develop fundamentally all fall camp.

“I think the guys have done a really good job of grasping the system. No one person is more important than the other in this offense, as well as this defense, as well as special teams.”

Yet McNeill does make it clear that one of the primary keys to success this season will be the development of a capable triggerman under center. For the Air Raid offense to work, he'll need an astute decision maker who delivers the football with pinpoint precision.

Offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley has said that he'd like for a decision on the Pirates starting quarterback to be made fairly early in fall camp, and two new competitors join the derby for the position. One-time starter at Boston College Dominique Davis and true freshman Shane Carden both have impressed All-Conference USA receiver Dwayne Harris during summer workouts, and McNeill looks forward to seeing them join the QB competition.

“I'm anxious to see Dominique and Shane,” McNeill said. “Dominique has been a guy who I'm really proud of his work ethic. I haven't had a chance to watch him at all this summer, of course, but I'm anxious to see how Dominique will develop.

"Shane is another guy. I'm also anxious to see how Brad Wornick will develop. He was the most consistent quarterback this spring. I'm anxious to see how those guys will develop.”


O'Brien: McNeill ready for new set of challenges
Myatt: BYU legend guided Simmons into coaching
BVL: Nelson out after workout infractions
Bailey: McNeill at ease as coach or diplomat
O'Brien: Offensive focus spreads eastward
O'Brien: Hot topics plentiful at C-USA Kickoff
Batten: Brawny hoops star plots path to Ficklen
Myatt: Lebo looking to build facility, program
Bradsher: Davis primed to blossom in Greenville
O'Brien: Difficult docket poses dilemma for ECU

You can certainly understand McNeill's perspective on that. Though it no doubt will be the most important, and perhaps even the most difficult call he makes this fall, he favors that challenge over some of the unfortunate ones he faced during the spring and summer.

E-mail Denny O'Brien

Denny O'Brien Archives

09/04/2010 02:01 AM

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