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Pirate Notebook No. 417
Saturday, January 23, 2010

Denny O'Brien

"Ruff" ready to lead for the long haul

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

GREENVILLE — There is a lot to like about Ruffin McNeill. Almost too many qualities to list.

From his down-home humor to those unbreakable East Carolina ties, McNeill connected with Pirates fans during his official introduction as the new head football coach.

And that’s selling his first public performance as the captain of the ECU program short.

Before a standing room only crowd, McNeill told stories. Funny Stories. Like the day when former Pirates coach Pat Dye essentially sealed a verbal commitment with McNeill because they shared the same palate for collards.

It certainly won McNeill’s mother over.

McNeill presented himself fatherly, the type of man who commands respect in the locker room and displays love in the living room. On several occasions he assured any eavesdropping parents that their sons will be in strong, capable hands should they sign with ECU.

That means an emphasis on academics, discipline, and no shortage of bear hugs. Athletics Director Terry Holland can already attest to the latter.

McNeill even gave his share of fist pumps, from the second he walked into the Harvey Hall banquet room to the minute he concluded his press conference. “Ruff” made it clear that he is a lifelong Pirate and that ECU — not Alabama, Florida, or Texas — was his ultimate destination job.

“That was certainly part of it,” Holland said. “We’re settling this thing for the long term, and knowing that he’s not going to leave here.

“As long as things are going well, he’s going to stay right here with us. If we can win 12 games a year, he’s still going to be here.”

If first impressions are an indication of what East Carolina fans can expect from their new football coach, my guess is entertainment is in their future. At the very least.

Both in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and along the rubber chicken circuit, there is reason to believe McNeill will be a hit.

A big one.

Because success has followed McNeill everywhere he has gone. From Lumberton to Greenville and eventually to Lubbock, he has always been associated with winners.

So why should this be any different?

“It’s amazing, but not surprising of what can be accomplished here at East Carolina University,” McNeill said. “This is a special place.

“It is a destination job for me. I see the buildings. I see the construction going on. I know what kind of fans we have. I’ve had a chance to make a few plays in front of our fans. I’ve had a chance from afar to watch our fans and our football team. The loyalty and the enthusiasm that we have here in Pirate Nation is no secret to anyone.”

Just like McNeill made it no secret that ECU will implement the offensive system with which he grew comfortable during his ten seasons at Texas Tech. That’s why he’s bringing offensive prodigy Lincoln Riley along to run the show, and why many of the elements that left opposing secondaries gasping for breath will be installed.

It’s a system that should draw the attention of skilled high school passers and quick, sure-handed receivers. But it’s not one, he says, in which defense will be sacrificed simply because the offense can score.

During both the interview and in the press conference, McNeill said all the right things. He almost said them too well. And it’s hardly uncommon for a head coach to sizzle in the press conference and then regularly fizzle on game day.

But something tells me that won’t happen with McNeill.

Maybe it’s because he was a decade-long fixture at a Texas Tech program with a proven blueprint for success. Or maybe it’s because in the wake of a crisis — the type during which the distractions seemed too many to overcome — he held the Red Raiders together at the Alamo Bowl when they had every reason to fold.

Perhaps it has something to do with his demeanor, the type that should make him successful on the recruiting trail and in the locker room. Based on what we heard yesterday — along with numerous accounts from his former players — parents, players, and high school coaches in North Carolina will be drawn to him.

Maybe it’s just the conviction and passion that clothed his rhetoric, which seemingly was absent of that same ole, same ole coach-speak.

Ruff hasn’t coached a down yet at East Carolina, let alone an entire game. He hasn’t so much as hired a staff, signed a recruiting class, or run a practice.

But on his first full day on the job, McNeill made many believers in his ability to lead the flagship sport at his alma mater. Count me among them.

E-mail Denny O'Brien

Denny O'Brien Archives

01/23/2010 04:20 AM

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