The last time East Carolina won at Kenan Stadium, Ruffin McNeill was a senior at Lumberton High. Thirty-eight years later, he joined the fans and the East Carolina band in the northeast corner of the field for the alma mater, waving his arms above his head, the game ball clutched in his left hand.
As the song ended, he pointed to his wife Erlene in the front row. She came running out of the stands, and they clasped hands over the hedge. The fans chanted his name over and over, “Ruffin! Ruffin!” No East Carolina coach had come off this particular field a winner since 1975, and McNeill was determined to savor every moment of his exit.
This wasn’t just a big win for the 54-year-old coach, perhaps the biggest of his four seasons at East Carolina. It was a big win for a program that had lost 10 of its previous 11 games against ACC teams, missing a great chance to knock off Virginia Tech two weeks ago in Greenville.
Perhaps more pertinent, East Carolina had not won in an ACC stadium since 2006. That is exactly what East Carolina fans expect from their football team. For the first time in his tenure, McNeill delivered with a 55-31 win against the Tar Heels on their own turf.
“It’s a big win, but we needed a win,” McNeill said. “We feel like we have a chance to have a pretty good ball team if we keep improving from week to week. To get the win was big, having played in this game. I’ve been asked about that quite a bit. It’s special.”
Often when East Carolina plays opponents from BCS conferences, the Pirates rely on their skill players to overcome deficiencies on both sides of the line. Saturday, East Carolina dominated the line of scrimmage, clearing wide-open gaps for Vintavious Cooper time after time, on his way to 186 yards. Quarterback Shane Carden, so harassed by Virginia Tech, was barely touched on his way to throwing for three touchdowns and running for three more.
For such a long legacy of failure in Chapel Hill, the Pirates looked comfortable from their opening drive, a 11-play tour de force, to their final touchdown, a 48-yard toss on 4th-and-1 with two minutes to play. And why wouldn’t they feel at home? They’re playing an ACC team with a Conference USA-style offense and a Conference USA-caliber defense.
The tables were turned in so many ways: North Carolina, on the fringes of the top 25 before the season, looks headed for a 1-5 start, while East Carolina is one or two plays against the Hokies away from being 4-0, 2-0 against the ACC.
“That’s a happy locker room right there,” McNeill said. “This is a big win for the players. If you know me by now, it’s about the kids. If the kids win, the program wins. If the program wins, the university wins.”
Four of ECU’s coaches weren’t born the last time the Pirates won in Chapel Hill. Duane Price, the outside linebackers coach, was a month and a half old in October 1975. The closest East Carolina had come since was a 24-24 tie in 1979. McNeill, a senior safety, recovered a fumble in that game.
He came away with a football in this one, too, the game ball he carried off the field, the one awarded to him permanently by his team in the locker room. McNeill said he will give it to his 79-year-old father in Lumberton, a man who has lived long enough to see East Carolina win in Kenan Stadium for a second time.