Summer Journal: McNeill Builds His Legacy

GREENVILLE, N.C. — ECU Head Coach Ruffin McNeill is rarely discussed as one of the school's greatest coaches, but that could change soon.

Skip Holtz was beloved at East Carolina when he brought the Pirates’ football program back from the disastrous lows of the John Thompson era to consecutive Conference USA Championships in 2008 and 2009.

After five seasons in Greenville, Holtz had already gained praise as one of the best coaches in school history — being mentioned in the same sentences as Steve Logan and Pat Dye — before leaving for what he deemed to be greener pastures at South Florida.

Current ECU coach Ruffin McNeill’s name has typically been nonexistent in those coaching-great conversations. But what if I told you McNeill had more victories in his first four seasons (30) than Holtz (29) and Logan (23)? Would that make a difference?

Sure, Holtz was unquestionably left with an emptier cupboard than McNeill when he took over a program that had won just three games in the previous two seasons. Under Holtz’s leadership, ECU rose to new heights in 2008 — ranking fifteenth in the national poll after upset wins over Virginia Tech and West Virginia — that it has not since returned to.

Hardware doesn’t lie. The facts are McNeill failed to capture a conference title or appear in a C-USA Championship game in four years. However, the first-time head coach broke through several glass windows in 2013.

ECU reached double-figure wins for only the second time in school history, beat N.C. State and North Carolina in the same year for the first time ever and did it on the road, nonetheless (the Pirates hadn’t won in Chapel Hill since 1975). Then, of course, ECU won its first bowl game since 2007 in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl.

It’s also worth noting that McNeill is ECU’s first African American head football coach and the school’s first alum to hold the position since Ed Emory. During his introductory news conference, McNeill called ECU his “destination job” and said, “I’m not leaving East Carolina until they haul me away,” in the immediate aftermath of Holtz leaving for USF.

Does his approach to ECU not being a stepping-stone job matter in legacy-related discussions? Does his background of playing at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium under Pat Dye mean anything? Or is it all exclusively limited to on-the-field success?

Criteria for judging such things vary from person to person, but McNeill does have a golden opportunity to bolster his resume this fall.

ECU returns a talented roster that is highlighted by its standout tandem of quarterback Shane Carden and receiver Justin Hardy. The Pirates have a non-conference schedule that features South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia Tech, and late in the season will play American contenders Cincinnati and UCF on national television.

If McNeill isn’t already on the short list of ECU’s greatest football coaches, a regular-season American title, a second bowl victory and at least one more marquee non-conference win would likely change that narrative.

Holtz created a legacy in just five years at ECU. McNeill is entering his fifth season and is eight wins away from surpassing his predecessor’s win total (37).

It can’t be emphasized enough what Holtz did to make ECU relevant again. It was incredible. But what McNeill is doing now is elevating the program from one that is occasionally relevant into a nationally-recognizable brand that can occasionally be a contender.

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