East Carolina

McNeill, ECU ready to take next step as bowl game looms

When East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill arrived in Greenville five years ago, he took over a Pirates team that lost numerous players from the Skip Holtz-led squad that won the Conference USA championship in 2009.

McNeil vowed that he would construct a football team that was built to last, and over the course of time he has proceeded to do just that. The foundation was put in place last season when the Pirates won 10 games for only the second time, while earning their first bowl game win since 2007.

“When we got here we lost the most lettermen in the country. There were some lumps early,” McNeill told reporters Monday. “A lot of you (media) where here that day when I stood behind (the podium) and told you we were not going to microwave this. We were going to build it brick by brick, and we didn’t want to win for a season, we wanted to win for seasons.”

McNeill, who has gone 37-26 at East Carolina, can add another brick or two if ECU (8-4) can top Florida (6-5) in the Birmingham Bowl on Jan. 3.

A victory over a brand-name team such as the Gators would not only be another feather for McNeill and Co. but would give the Pirates back-to-back bowl-winning seasons for the first time.

Florida is in the midst of a transition period. After losing to South Carolina 23-20 in overtime on Nov. 15, the Gators fired coach Will Muschamp, effective after the regular season.

Florida tapped defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin as the interim head coach and hired former Colorado State coach Jim McElwain to coach the team next year.

McNeill, who was the defensive coordinator at Texas Tech before joining the Pirates, was placed in a similar position in 2010, when he was asked to lead the Red Raiders in the Alamo Bowl after the dismissal of Mike Leach. McNeill, who led his team to a 41-31 victory over Michigan State, said he can relate to what Durkin is going through and that he expects the Gators will be well prepared.

“Florida right now is going through a change,” McNeill said. “I’ve been where D.J. has been. I was there before we came here. All the guys I brought with me from Texas Tech were there. They went through that. The ‘interim’ tag is different. I know he’ll have those guys ready to go.”