For fifth-year coach Ruffin McNeill, though, his team is his family and that wasn’t just a meeting. It’s more than lip service when he refers to the team as his 120 sons, so Jan. 3 marked the end of something special.
McNeill sat down for the post-game press conference, but before he addressed anyone, he asked athletics director Tom McClellan to let his wife and children in for the conference.
“The reason I like this is because this is family to me. These are my sons,” McNeill said referring to Shane Carden, Justin Hardy and Brandon Williams, who were also there to speak with the media. “Family means more to me than anything. They’re not players to me. Football? Great. These are great people that have graduated or are getting ready to.”
Some of those sons of his will be moving on from the program. Carden, Hardy and Williams are among the 17 seniors that played their last game on Jan. 3 in Birmingham, Ala. It’s never easy to watch a group of seniors play their final game, but knowing what this particular group meant to the program makes it that much tougher.
Carden and Hardy attracted national attention as one of college football’s most prolific quarterback-receiver duos. Individually, Carden was briefly discussed dark-horse candidate for the Heisman Trophy. He was also a semifinalist for the Davey O’Brien Award for quarterback of the year.
Carden wasn’t the only individual to stand out. Hardy won the Burlsworth Trophy as college football’s most outstanding player to start his career as a walk-on.
Individual accolades aside, this group of seniors played a big part in a historic season that saw ECU ranked for the first time since 2008. The Pirates made it into the polls after upsetting Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and annihilating North Carolina at home.
“These guys have done so much for this university,” said McNeill. “It’s beyond measurement. The reason I can speak is because I’m not just a student and graduate of this university, but I’m a former player of this university. Now I’m blessed to be the head coach. I know exactly what they’re going through. I could write a book about what they’re going through.”
With all the time McNeill has spent around the sport—and especially with ECU and its program—he’s confident that the players moving on are prepared for whatever the future holds.
“Now they’re ready to go off into life,” said McNeill. “The things and the experiences they learned from this university are the ones things I learned. I hope that I gave them knowledge that they’ll be able to take into their career.”
Earlier in the afternoon, McNeill had a chance to give his team one last fourth-quarter pep talk. He didn’t remember the specifics of what he told them, but it clearly inspired the team as ECU went on to shut the Gators out in the game’s final 15 minutes.
“I told them how good they are,” said McNeill. “It’s been 35 years. I’ve watched a lot of football players develop, so I just reiterated that with them. I talked about everyone just doing their job and everyone making competitive plays. They did…I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I was just flowing with them. They bring that out in me.”
The Pirates weren’t able to take advantage of the opportunity and tie the game. Florida’s defense held them to a lone field goal en route to the one-score victory. Despite the outcome, a loss in their final game won’t define the impact left by these sons of McNeill’s.