Former East Carolina University head football coach Ruffin McNeill hasn’t coached football in Greenville, North Carolina, since 2015, but claims his love for ECU and eastern North Carolina has never faltered in the past five years.
McNeill is currently a member of North Carolina State University (4-3, 4-3 ACC) head coach Dave Dorean’s staff as the special assistant to the head coach. However, long before his time as a member of the NC State Wolfpack, McNeill played defensive back for the Pirates under former head coach Pat Dye from 1976 to 1980. According to McNeill, the chance to play as a Pirate was one of the most rewarding experiences he’s ever been a part of.
“As a freshman at East Carolina and playing for Hall of Fame and legendary coach Pat Dye, we had great teammates, a great team unit and we had a chance to bond during a time when it was unusual,” McNeill said. “We had a lot of success, had a chance to play with some really good players.”
After he graduated in 1980 and wrapped up his football career at ECU, McNeill began to coach that same year as an assistant coach at his high school alma mater, Lumberton High School.
McNeill said he’s grateful to have had the opportunity to coach in his hometown of Lumberton, North Carolina, as his parents had been able to watch him as he began his career.
“From coaching high school football in Lumberton, where I played my high school football,” McNeill said. “Had a chance to go back home and coach and be a part of that and I learned a lot about some of the base theories that I’ve kept throughout coaching. My mom, who was living at that time, and my dad had a chance to start the coaching career at home with me.”
After some time coaching in the high school ranks, McNeill went on to coach at a number of universities across the country. He made stops as an assistant coach or position coach at Clemson University, the University of North Las Vegas, Appalachian State University and Texas Tech University were all places and experiences McNeill said he enjoyed. He said each position was unique in its own way.
McNeill said each experience was one of its own as he had the chance to work under coaches who coached him at ECU and being able to coach just about every position on the field. Having coached so many different places and positions in the game, McNeill said he doesn’t have a favorite; he enjoyed them all.
“The Clemson experience was great,” McNeill said. “Had the chance to work for another great coach Danny Ford and learned a lot about college football and that part of that life. Every move from then was great and similar. Some expected, some unexpected, but each experience was one of its own.”
Eventually, McNeill found himself as the head coach of the Pirates in 2010 where he would remain for the next five years. Finally, he achieved the position of head coach at his alma mater and ended up in eastern North Carolina where he grew up.
“It means a lot, I’m an eastern North Carolina boy,” McNeill said. “Grew up and was raised in eastern North Carolina, participated in sports in high school eastern North Carolina and then I was able to continue that at East Carolina in college. Then able to go to East Carolina and graduate, my brother also graduated and my wife has her masters from there. It’s great to see what that university has done for me and whatever little bit I did for that area is rewarding.”
At the end of the 2015 season, McNeill was relieved of his duties as head coach at ECU where he finished with an overall record of 42-34 and a conference record of 30-18. Still, the veteran McNeill found his way back onto the sidelines when he became the defensive line coach at the University of Virginia in 2016.
After his brief stay in Virginia, McNeill went on to coach under his former offensive coordinator at ECU and current head coach at the University of Oklahoma, Lincoln Riley in 2017. McNeill and Riley first coached together when Riley served as a graduate assistant on former Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach’s staff in 2005.
McNeill said to help Riley get to where he is today and to be able to help inspire him from the beginning was just a part of who he is and how he was raised to be.
“It was how I was raised and brought up,” McNeill said. “My mom and dad said it was part of the job to serve, it’s the rent you pay to be on this Earth is service and also to share experiences and to help the next person up to pay it forward. Lincoln (Riley) was one of the young men I met early and he was great and our relationship has grown.”
Additionally, McNeill said he has built a similar relationship with his current head coach Dorean who he met while on staff at California State University, Fresno. Dorean was a graduate assistant on staff at the University of Southern California.
No matter how long McNeill served as the head coach of the Pirates or how it ended, he said he knows eastern North Carolina to be home.
“Since 17 years of age, East Carolina has been a part of my life, so I always wish them well,” McNeill said.