East Carolina announced Friday that it had fired head football coach Ruffin McNeill after six seasons with the Pirates.
McNeill, who played football for ECU from 1976-79, compiled a 42-34 overall record and went 1-3 in bowl games during his tenure.
It turns out that was not enough to preserve his job.
“After observing and evaluating the program for three straight seasons I came to the conclusion that our football team was not meeting competitive expectations, and that, in my opinion, the trajectory of the program was not going in the right direction,” said ECU’s third-year athletic director Jeff Compher. “The decision was difficult because of who Ruffin McNeill is as a man. We’ve all come to know him as an outstanding person. He’s a great family man and a caring coach and has nurtured this team throughout his six seasons here at ECU.”
Compher said he made the decision earlier in the week and told McNeill Friday morning.
“We met in my office (Friday) and had a conversation. It was brief,” Compher said. “It was very professional.”
McNeill, 57, guided the Pirates to a 5-7 (3-5 AAC) record and a fifth-place finish in the AAC East Division this year. It was McNeill’s third losing season at East Carolina.
The Pirates narrowly missed clinching bowl eligibility this season as they fell 19-16 to Cincinnati in the final game of the year after Bearcats kicker Andrew Gantz booted a 42-yard field as time expired in the fourth quarter.
When asked if McNeill, a Lumberton native, would still be the ECU head coach if his team qualified for a bowl game, Compher said, “That would depend on the outcome of the bowl, potentially, and on other factors. Certainly, that would have given us more to talk about and more for me to evaluate.”
The firing might have shocked McNeill as much as the Pirates’ fan base. Compher said he did not let the ECU alum know he was on the hot seat until it was already on fire.
“I think you support your coach throughout the season. I never went in and said, ‘You better win the next one,’ or something like that. That’s just not what we do,” Compher said. “I think what you need to do is support your coach and your team throughout the entire season and then take some time to sit back and evaluate it.”
Compher said he does not have a candidate in the waiting and is aware that his job status is on the line should his next move backfire.
“No doubt about it. I totally understand the gravity of my decision. It’s something I gave a lot of thought to. I did not take it lightly,” he said.
McNeill was hired on Jan. 21, 2010 to replace Skip Holtz, who left for South Florida after winning a Conference USA championship, and put together teams that would re-write the offensive record books. McNeill also presided over the Pirates as they shifted from C-USA to the American Athletic Conference in 2014.
McNeill went 6-7 (5-3) in his first year at ECU, then 5-7 (4-4) in 2011. He captured his first winning season with the team in 2012 when the Pirates went 8-5 (7-1).
In 2013, ECU (10-3, 6-2) hit the 10-win mark for only the second time in school history and beat Ohio, 37-20, in the Beef ‘O’Brady’s Bowl for the school’s first postseason victory since 2007.
In 2014, the Pirates switched from C-USA to the AAC, and with the record-setting tandem of quarterback Shane Carden and wide receiver Justin Hardy, began the year 6-1 and were ranked for six weeks. However, ECU would get tripped up down the stretch and finished the season 8-5 (5-3) to place fourth in the conference.
This year, the Pirates took a hit early when starting quarterback Kurt Benkert sustained a season-ending knee injury, the effects of which would reverberate throughout the entire season.
“The reality of Division I football is that there are always going to be injuries, there’s always going to be challenges, there’s always going to be a need for the next person up mentality on your team,” Compher said. “I know we’re not about excuses, we’re about production. I think that’s really important.”
Compher said there is no timetable put in place for a new coach, but quoted former UCLA coach John Wooden by saying he wanted to be “quick but not hurry.”
McNeill, whose contract was extended to 2018 in 2013, will receive an estimated $1 million buyout from the school.