ECU football staff working to mend its relationship with former coach Ruffin McNeill

By Tom Shanahan

During the offseason, East Carolina offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick went to Oklahoma to pick the brain of Sooners’ head coach and former Pirates’ assistant Lincoln Riley.

But Kirkpatrick also had another assignment on the trip: Patch up the school’s relationship with Ruffin McNeill, the former ECU football player and head coach who was fired following the 2015 season. McNeill has been Oklahoma’s defensive line coach since Riley hired him in 2017.

“Coach (Mike) Houston asked me to go out there and visit with Ruff about the possibility of him coming back to a game or something to honor him for all his true love for the university,” Kirkpatrick told The News & Observer Saturday at ECU football’s media day. “Ruff was full speed ahead. He was onboard for that.”

McNeill told the N&O Sunday by phone he would welcome such an invitation.

“It’s hard to work out something like that in the season,” he said, “but when something is planned, I’ll be humbled and honored to attend with my wife (Erlene).”

Kirkpatrick was the right go-between for the task, having coached with Riley when they were on McNeill’s staff and later for Houston as his offensive coordinator at James Madison University (2016-18).

McNeill, an ECU defensive back from 1976-79 from Lumberton and fan favorite as a coach, led the Pirates to four bowl games in six seasons (2010-2015). Riley was his offensive coordinator for five (2010-2014); Kirkpatrick was his receivers coach throughout his tenure.

“Ruff is a true Pirate,” Kirkpatrick told the N&O. “There is not a better man in the world than Ruffin McNeill. We’re still close. I owe him a lot for the opportunity he gave me to work with him at East Carolina. I’m good friends with Lincoln as well. When I go out there to see Ruff and Lincoln, we talk a lot of football and a lot of golf.”

Before ECU, McNeill had been Texas Tech’s defensive coordinator and interim head coach, replacing fired Mike Leach, when the Red Raiders beat Michigan State in the 2009 Alamo Bowl. When Texas Tech hired Tommy Tuberville over promoting McNeill, then-ECU athletic director Terry Holland brought McNeill back to Greenville.

His record was 43-34, highlighted by a 10-3 record in 2013 that included wins of 55-31 over North Carolina, 42-28 over N.C. State and 37-20 over Ohio in the Beef O’Brady Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla. In 2014, the Pirates beat Virginia Tech 28-21 and North Carolina 70-41.

But after a 5-7 record in 2015, Holland’s successor, Jeff Compher, dismissed McNeill in an unexpected move. As the football program declined, Compher was forced out in April 2018.

“I can’t deny it was tough, but not so tough I couldn’t handle it,” McNeill told the N&O. “I’m fortunate to have a great family and great wife. I’m working for a great guy now. I’m happy.”

McNeill and Houston have spoken and McNeill is optimistic about the Pirates’ future.

“I think Mike is a great hire,” McNeill said. “He’s had success all along the way. He’s worked his way to this opportunity at East Carolina. I think he’ll do a great job.”

Although plans haven’t been set, ECU has home games during Oklahoma’s two bye games on Sept. 21 against William & Mary and Nov. 2 against Cincinnati.