Ruffin McNeill never shied away from some of his blueprints for the type of program he wanted East Carolina to be. Among them: Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina and Frank Beamer’s Virginia Tech.
“They don't just win for a season, they win for seasons, and I would like to get our program where it's understood that we are going to be successful for seasons, not a season," McNeill told ESPN.com last season. "And the belief and commitment to the team and belief and commitment to our mission and vision -- it's very important that that is continued."
That belief and commitment went out the door Friday when McNeill was fired after six seasons at his alma mater. A 5-7 record this fall — just his second bowl-less campaign — ultimately led to his undoing.
At East Carolina.
Forget, for a moment, that few got a bigger kick out of coaching their alma mater than McNeill did. Or that he was beloved by virtually everyone he came across. (Offensive coordinator Dave Nichol had earlier described working for him as “freaking awesome.”)
Two years ago, the Pirates won 10 games for the first time in 22 years. That was in Conference USA. A year later, they fit right in while playing in a much better league, the American Athletic Conference. A converted Hail Mary in the regular-season finale is the only thing that kept them from nine wins.
For ECU, 18 victories in a two-year span is nothing to scoff at. Especially when those victories include two routs of in-state ACC school North Carolina, a blowout road win at another in-state ACC school, NC State; and a win at Beamer’s Virginia Tech. (Yes, another ACC school.) They gave Spurrier's Gamecocks a good game last year, too.
All from a program that was in C-USA two years ago.
This year’s ECU team had its faults, though that didn’t stop it from beating Beamer and the Hokies again. This uneven season was to be expected, though, as the Pirates were replacing quarterback Shane Carden, who had won Player of the Year honors in both C-USA and the AAC. Carden’s successor, Kurt Benkert, had his season end before it began because of a knee injury.
ECU was also replacing all-everything wideout Justin Hardy, and all he did under McNeill’s watch was set the NCAA career receptions mark.
And what did McNeill do when prized offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley moved on to greener pastures last winter? He hired from within, promoting Nichol, his outside receivers coach.
It sounds a lot like that Beamer guy who McNeill looked up to. Familiar, too, is the fact that three of McNeill’s staff members either played for him or coached with him during his time as a Texas Tech assistant. And the fact four of his assistants had been with him at ECU for all six years.
Such continuity certainly played a part in landing Carden, as the quarterback was on his way to an FCS school before the idea of running an offense from a Mike Leach protege piqued his interest, right after McNeill was hired.
In recent years, McNeill would say he expected ECU to win its big games, and it often did. Perhaps 5-7 made him a victim of his own success, as ridiculous as that might sound for a guy who spent six years at a non-Power 5 program. McNeill said last year that, upon taking the job, he decided on two things: He would always remain himself, and he would not “microwave” his program, instead building it block-by-block.
“It’s a difficult juggling match in some ways, but in other ways I think if someone comes in and can create a winning program, build a winning program and they look at opportunities elsewhere, then it’s easier for the next person to come in and continue that legacy,” ECU athletic director Jeff Compher said Friday when asked about the ECU job.
He added: “That’s what we’re looking for, is to build an entire program that will last, regardless as to who’s the leader of it from a coaching standpoint.”
Compher said this after firing McNeill -- the man who accomplished everything the athletic director is now looking for in a replacement.