Luke DeCock

DeCock: Bar set high to replace McNeill at ECU

ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill yells at the offense as Pirates beat UNC 55-31 at Kenan Stadium in September, 2013.
ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill yells at the offense as Pirates beat UNC 55-31 at Kenan Stadium in September, 2013. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

It doesn’t matter who it is, where he comes from or what he has done elsewhere. Whomever Jeff Compher hires as East Carolina’s new football coach to replace Ruffin McNeill has to be a superstar.

That’s true in any firing and hiring, but the bar is set even higher on this one: double-digit wins, conference championships, big-time bowls and an impeccable ambassador for the university.

No one cared more about East Carolina football, not to mention the players he recruited, than McNeill, a former player and forever Pirate. That simple fact doesn’t automatically give him tenure, but it does mean the new coach better be an exponential improvement on McNeill, who was fired Friday after his team sunk to 5-7 this season.

Compher made it clear that McNeill’s failure to win the AAC and his 8-8 conference record in the two seasons since East Carolina moved into that league played a critical role in his dismissal. But McNeill also went 6-6 against the ACC – 5-1 over the past three years – which is a better record than a third of this season’s ACC coaches. He beat Virginia Tech twice, North Carolina twice and N.C. State twice.

Ideally, East Carolina needs an offensive-minded recruiting specialist who understands North Carolina, especially east of I-95.

“I was kind of shocked, actually,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said Friday. “I know Ruffin personally. I played against him back when I was at Southern Miss and at North Carolina. I think the world of the guy. I hate to see that happen.”

So where does East Carolina go next?

Ideally, East Carolina needs an offensive-minded recruiting specialist who understands North Carolina, especially east of I-95. That doesn’t leave a long list of candidates. McNeill, when he was hired, checked two of those boxes. By bringing offensive whiz kid Lincoln Riley with him from Texas Tech, he checked the third.

Above all that, the Lumberton native embodied and embraced everything that’s good about East Carolina football – the passion, the belief, the expectations. McNeill cared deeply about the players, seeing himself in them, believing in their futures. At the core of his recruiting pitch, he sold himself as a father figure. And he meant it.

When the Pirates won his debut, beating Tulsa on a Hail Mary in the east end zone of Dowdy-Ficklen, McNeill wiped away tears as he said, “It’s good to be home.” Last season should have been his best, with East Carolina poised to claim the Group of 5 spot in a New Year’s bowl game, but losses to Temple, Cincinnati and Central Florida scuttled those dreams.

There’s a legitimate discussion to be had about the direction the program was going under McNeill, and consistent areas of concern that never seemed to show improvement – penalties, for one – but it seemed only fair to give McNeill at least another season.

Riley, who left this season for Oklahoma and is a finalist for the Broyles Award that goes to the nation’s top assistant coach, is the natural successor, but he may (and probably should) have higher ambitions. Riley is under consideration for the South Carolina opening and won’t have to wait long to do better than East Carolina, even if he was willing to take the job that his longtime colleague just lost – especially if McNeill was unwilling to make staff changes and that contributed to his firing.

Looking back, the writing was on the wall when East Carolina announced earlier this week it would not accept a bowl bid even if offered one. (That was exceedingly unlikely anyway given East Carolina’s APR, the academic metric the NCAA is using to fill bowls with 5-7 teams.) While noble, the decision to forgo the extra practices that would come with a bowl game makes a lot more sense if you know a coaching change is coming.

Only Compher did. That doesn’t mean firing McNeill was the wrong decision, only that Compher is now under extraordinary pressure to get the next part right.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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