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Friday, December 4, 2015

By Al Myatt

Al Myatt


Stunningly, a new era at hand

By Al Myatt
2015 Bonesville.net
All rights reserved.

UPDATED 12.05.15 | 12:02 AM

As head football coach at his alma mater, Ruffin McNeill avoided treating the position as though he were Chief Executive Officer of a business. McNeill favored a family model. He was daddy. The players were his sons. The assistant coaches and coordinators were uncles.

McNeill's abrupt dismissal Friday after an injury-plagued 5-7 season was a reminder that big-time college athletics is indeed a business.

With fan support seemingly wavering, East Carolina athletic director Jeff Compher will go forward with a coach of his choosing, a tough decision that could have implications for his own career as Steve Ballard is on his way out as chancellor at ECU at the conclusion of the current school year.

Compher may be evaluated on his football hire quickly as a new administration takes over.

That's the wild card in the entire dynamic. Who will be the next chancellor and what will be their degree of interest and involvement in the athletic realm?

In this day and time, especially at ECU, football is a huge player in the higher education picture.

Ballard has an athletic background as a former shortstop on a College World Series team at Arizona. He has been an active supporter of the football program. He was seen getting off the south side elevator at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium with American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco during the Cincinnati game in Greenville last Saturday.

The Pirates were leading 10-0 at the time.

Had ECU maintained the advantage, the Pirates would be going to a bowl and the news of McNeill's departure would not have resounded nationally six days later.

What if ECU had converted a third-and-two at its 35 on its last possession of the six-year McNeill coaching era with the score tied at 16 late in the fourth quarter?

What if Travon Simmons had been able to pick off a pass that appeared to go through his hands on the final Bearcats possession that resulted in a 42-yard game-ending field goal by Andrew Gantz?

The sun may have gotten in Simmons' eyes as he turned and looked back toward the west end of Bagwell Field.

The difference between winning and losing can be that close.

The difference between winning and losing ultimately determines coaches' longevity.

McNeill finished 42-34 at ECU. His teams were at their best against ACC opposition. His contract ran through the 2018 season. The recently-announced deal with adidas may have provided the financial resources to let him go.

The Pirates lost some tough ones this season. A 24-14 Thursday night defeat by Temple that took ECU out of realistic contention for the AAC East Division title appeared to be a blow from which the Pirates never recovered.

There were questions as to why James Summers played exclusively at quarterback in a 22-17 loss to South Florida when the program had apparently been committed to splitting time between him and Blake Kemp.

Kemp was reinstated the next game, throwing for 456 yards and four touchdowns in a 44-7 win over hapless Central Florida.

Then came the 19-16 loss to Cincinnati that apparently defined the future for ECU football.

One wonders if the players had known they were playing for their coach's job if the outcome would have been different.

Compher acknowledged Friday at a news conference on the club level of the stadium that the decision would not be a popular one. To his credit, he has the guts to do what he thinks will be in ECU's best interests in the long run. McNeill went the extra mile to show his appreciation for coaches, players and fans.

Compher's announcement earlier in the week that the Pirates would not accept a bowl bid in order to prepare for future championships made sense in retrospect. If McNeill was staying then the extra practices a bowl trip would allow would have been the best course of action.

Strength and conditioning assistant athletic director Jeff Connors will remain on staff and recruiting coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick will be at ECU for the near term.

There will be a degree of alienation from the players with which the new coach will have to deal. How a promising recruiting class will hold up is a cause for concern.

Most anybody in college football will tell you that coaching continuity is a factor to be valued because when systems change there is inevitably a teaching process that slows the cycle of repetitions in practice. Recruiting relationships with high school coaches have to be re-established.

McNeill exits at a time when some of his peers, Frank Beamer, Steve Spurrier and George O'Leary, have stepped away, too.

It's definitely a demand on time and energy to run a college football program. McNeill appeared to be struggling physically to a degree after two hip replacements.

Perhaps a less-demanding lifestyle will be a blessing for him personally.

I know he'll miss coaching miss the bonds and energy of being around his brothers and sons. There will be a lot of players with diplomas who will tell you that Ruff was responsible. I'm sorry he couldn't leave on his terms but that's the nature of the business.

The ball is in Compher's court. He made an excellent hire with Cliff Godwin as baseball coach.

The situation is similar to Steve Logan's. ECU's winningest coach (69-58) was dismissed by an AD who didn't hire him after a losing season (4-8 in 2002). The down year followed the departure of David Garrard at quarterback.

Coincidentally, Logan's last game at ECU was against Cincinnati, too.

This year, the Pirates were dealing with the exit of Shane Carden at quarterback and then a season-precluding knee injury to his replacement, Kurt Benkert.

The loss of three starters on the offensive line to injuries and the preseason dismissal of another from the front certainly impacted the effectiveness of that unit.

Some Pirate fans were cringing Friday at the thought of the 3-20 span that followed the two seasons after Logan left.

The first name to pop into mind for the vacancy would be Lincoln Riley, who left after five years as offensive coordinator at ECU for the same responsibilities at Oklahoma. His arrival with the Sooners has corresponded with a likely berth in the 2015 College Football Playoff. South Carolina and Memphis are apparently interested in Riley, too. Riley's respect for McNeill might prevent him from becoming his replacement.

Compher is expecting lots of applicants.

His man will have to do some healing with the fan base, win the confidence of the players, prevent a mass defection by the recruiting class, bring in some quality coordinators and hire capable staff.

The big names on the nonconference portion of the schedule next year also will be dealing with transitions. South Carolina and Virginia Tech will have new coaches. N.C. State will have an inexperienced quarterback.

The Pirates will have a broad and deep quarterback competition this spring.

It will be interesting to see how things play out in ECU's segment of the business driven by television revenue.

In TV terms, it's no longer Father Knows Best. That's for sure. It's the Shark Tank.

E-mail Al Myatt

PAGE UPDATED 12/05/15 03:53 AM.

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