Ruffin McNeill, an alumnus of East Carolina University, had already been a sympathetic figure in the college football world before he came to Greenville, North Carolina, as an African-American head coach.
McNeill, you will remember, was Texas Tech's defensive coordinator at the end of the Mike Leach era. McNeill had to stand in the center of a media-fed political hurricane in which Leach and Craig James fought virtually every day. By the time the (January) 2010 Alamo Bowl between Texas Tech and Michigan State began, McNeill -- not ready to coach a Big 12 school but deserving of a head coaching gig -- needed a landing spot.
East Carolina, his alma mater, called him home.
The results were worth the phone call... or at least, they should have been.
In McNeill's first six seasons at the helm of the ship, the Pirates reached four bowl games. Their two non-bowl seasons were 5-7 near-misses. ECU went 10-3 in 2013 and won a bowl game.
Moreover -- beyond bowl-related milestones and achievements -- East Carolina regularly bothered the heck out of regional rival Virginia Tech. The Pirates defeated the Frank Beamer-coached Hokies in both 2014 and 2015. Being able to stand up to a program which -- just six years ago -- had been the gold standard in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and which regularly reached the Orange Bowl under its now-retired coach, represented the foremost accomplishment of McNeill's tenure. The Pirates -- very much located in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States -- played as though they belonged in the ACC when they faced Virginia Tech during McNeill's tenure.
Ironically, that might be the very thing which sunk McNeill's Pirate ship.
East Carolina athletic director Jeff Compher fired McNeill after this recent 5-7 season in 2015. Never mind the fact that ECU's projected starting quarterback suffered a season-ending injury before opening day in early September. Never mind the fact that former offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley - who guided the Oklahoma Sooners to the College Football Playoff semifinals - had left Greenville to pursue a career opportunity with Bob Stoops. Never mind the fact that East Carolina was thrust into the American Athletic Conference at a time when the league overachieved across the board, making life much more difficult than the Pirates reasonably could have expected when they joined the conference.
Compher felt ECU should be a top-three AAC program -- maybe not better than Houston or Cincinnati, but almost certainly better than Memphis, South Florida, and this other program in Annapolis, Maryland...
East Carolina? Better than Navy? In football?
I know -- you're rolling on the floor and laughing just as much as I am, right?
Nevertheless, Compher sacked McNeill, and in came Scottie Montgomery, the second Montgomery to be a head coach in the AAC (Philip at Tulsa is the other). East Carolina wants to be a Big Deal (capital B and D), but Compher did not get a proven head coach to replace a man (McNeill) who had done admirably well under his circumstances and with his resources.
It all raises a very simple question about the Pirates in 2016: How will they respond -- against Navy and everyone else?
Yes, ECU's scheme might be different under Scottie Montgomery, who worked under David Cutcliffe at Duke before grabbing this opening in Greenville, but that's a separate matter. If ECU's players are disheartened by the loss of McNeill, a man they loved to play for, any schematic questions will become secondary in importance.
Will ECU's aspirational move to change head coaches under curious conditions harm the program, or will players -- gut-punched last December -- respond more favorably than anyone could have imagined on the day Ruffin McNeill was sent packing? That's the East Carolina question which will greet Navy in the 2016 season.