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East Carolina fires Ruffin McNeill after failing to claim title

GREENVILLE, N.C. -- East Carolina has fired coach Ruffin McNeill after six seasons, with athletic director Jeff Compher saying Friday that the program "was not meeting competitive expectations."

"I'm deeply thankful to East Carolina University for the opportunity to fulfill my dream of being a head football coach," McNeill said in a statement. "Six years ago, we set out to renew the passion of purple and gold and am proud of what we accomplished at ECU."

Compher said at a news conference Friday afternoon that he made the decision earlier this week to part with the former Pirates defensive back, saying he "did not expect it to be a popular one" with fans.

"In my opinion, the trajectory of the program was not going in the right direction," Compher said.

East Carolina is "just trying to upgrade the program," a source told ESPN's Brett McMurphy, noting that ECU has not closed strong the past two years, finishing 2-4 in 2014 and 1-4 in 2015.

McNeill's contract runs through June 2018. He signed a three-year extension before the 2013 season, and Compher said he will receive about a $1 million. Compher said McNeill wasn't asked to make any staff changes before the decision.

"I know many people were shocked by this," Compher said. "I felt like we needed to make this decision now and not wait a year and potentially be faced with the same situation."

The Pirates were 5-7 this season -- their first losing season since 2011 -- and finished in fifth place in the American Athletic Conference East Division with a 3-5 record. They ended the year with a 19-16 home loss to Cincinnati last weekend.

McNeill, who played for East Carolina under Pat Dye in the late 1970s, was 42-34 at his alma mater with one bowl victory. He took them to three straight bowls from 2012 to 2014 but never reached a championship game in either Conference USA or the American. McNeill previously coached the Pirates' defensive line in 1992.

The 57-year-old McNeill took over in 2010 after Skip Holtz left for South Florida and after serving as Texas Tech's interim coach in the 2009 Alamo Bowl.

His best year was 2014, when the combination of quarterback Shane Carden, receiver Justin Hardy and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley helped the Pirates spend five weeks in the Top 25. Carden set the school's passing yardage record in a career, and Hardy became the NCAA record holder for receptions.

But when those two players graduated and Riley went to Oklahoma as offensive coordinator, East Carolina took a step back this year.

The Pirates lost four games by seven or fewer points, including a 31-24 loss on the road to eventual SEC East Division champion Florida. They stumbled down the stretch, including a 10-point home defeat to nationally ranked Temple -- a game they led with less than four minutes to play -- and a 22-17 loss to South Florida.

The final straw came in last week's loss to Cincinnati. East Carolina led 10-0 but lost on a last-second field goal, leading to the announcement of McNeill being fired six days later.

Compher promised a national search for McNeill's replacement, saying the goal is "to move expediently" and adding that "I am confident our candidate pool will be deep."

East Carolina does not have an agreement in place with a replacement, the source told ESPN, and Collegiate Sports Associate will assist with the school's search.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.