January 21, 2010
If anyone came out of the sordid saga of Mike Leach's demise at Texas Tech not looking like a self-serving egotist, it was his put-upon defensive coordinator, Ruffin McNeill, who was suddenly tasked with keeping the Raiders loosely resembling a coherent unit as the entire sports world descended on the bizarre soap opera unfolding around them. He did well enough in the interim role to win the Alamo Bowl while earning the unanimous praise of the same players who seemed ambivalent at best about Leach's departure, and to earn multiple interviews for a promotion he wanted badly enough to openly lobby for the job on national television. When Leach's old seat went to Tommy Tuberville instead, leaving McNeill unemployed after almost every major job had already been filled, it looked like the good guy had been left out in the cold.
Appropriately enough, it was his alma mater who welcomed McNeill in to his first head-coaching gig Thursday, at a vacancy that only existed in the first place because of a misbehaving coach elsewhere. McNeill will take over at East Carolina, the last I-A job on the board, which opened up last week when ECU coach Skip Holtz left for South Florida to replace Jim Leavitt, who joined Leach in professional disgrace by allegedly slapping a player in the locker room during a game. In coaching as in life, what goes around comes around.
McNeill played defensive back at ECU in the late '70s and has spent his entire career coaching the defensive side of the ball, including the last two-and-a-half as defensive coordinator for a team that didn't have to ask much from that side of the ball. 2009 was probably the best defense any of Leach's team fielded in a decade at Texas Tech, but McNeill clearly isn't getting the job because he delivered some kind of miracle with a beleaguered Rebel defense that had struggled mightily under his predecessor as defensive coordinator, Lyle Setencich:
No, the Pirates are getting a quintessential "players' coach," a veteran with a long but bland resumé who inherits a solid program with high expectations off back-to-back Conference USA championships under Holtz. ECU knows the depths, having endured a dismal 3-19 stretch in two years under John Thompson before landing Holtz in 2005, and -- good guy and alma mater notwithstanding -- isn't going to accept sliding back into that abyss.