Lewis: ‘Coach Ruff’ feels right at home at East Carolina

By TED LEWIS

Advocate sportswriter

Funny how things work out sometimes.

Three years ago, Ruffin McNeill went through the worst disappointment of his coaching career, only within the month to land on his feet at his alma mater.

McNeill, then defensive coordinator at Texas Tech, served as interim coach of the Red Raiders for the 2009 Alamo Bowl after the suspension and firing of Mike Leach, with whom he’d spent a decade, over the alleged mistreatment of a player.

But despite a 31-21 upset of Michigan State and the support of the players, Ruffin was not only passed over as Leach’s successor in favor of Tommy Tuberville, but he wasn’t retained by Tuberville either.

Downhearted, Ruffin was prepared to take a co-coordinator job at Stanford. But unexpectedly the job at East Carolina, where Ruffin had been a defensive back in the mid-1970s, opened up when Skip Holtz left for South Florida.

Rick Stockstill of Middle Tennessee had been offered the post at East Carolina but turned it down. Athletic director Terry Holland then reached out to him, and McNeill won the interview.

“This is where I want to be until you drag me away from here,” he said.

Chances are, they won’t be doing that anytime soon.

“Crazy things happen in this business,” McNeill said during Thursday’s Media Day activities for the New Orleans Bowl. “But I’m home. They’ll never call me a ‘Lookin’ Louie.’ ”

The man everyone calls “Coach Ruff” is indeed home. He’s a native of Lumberton, N.C., about 100 miles from Greenville but still part of the “East of I-95” portion of the state, which is distinctively different from the burgeoning Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte areas.

Not only did McNeill meet his wife, Erlene, at East Carolina, but his brother, sister, sister-in-law and brother-in-law are ECU grads as well.

Even if he were an outsider, McNeill’s down-home ways would have quickly won over the populace. But he acknowledges that even his Pirate Purple bona fides can only serve him well for so long.

His first team finished 6-7, losing to Maryland in the Armed Forces Bowl. Last year, the Pirates were 5-7, snapping a streak of five straight bowl appearances.

This year’s team is 8-4, but the seven victories against FBS teams came against opponents with a combined record of 22-62. The Pirates are No. 88 in the Sagarin Ratings to ULL’s 62.

“Not making a bowl last year hurt me, not just as a coach but as a former player and student here,” McNeill said. “In my mind, we’re building a foundation here, and we have to get better.”

In two years, East Carolina is scheduled to move to the Big East, which is looking more like Conference USA — which the Pirates are exiting — than a league that has one more year to go as a BCS automatic qualifier.

“It’s still going to be a fine league, and it’s getting a great program with great tradition in East Carolina,” McNeill said.

One of the Pirates’ new conference foes will be Cincinnati, now coached by Tuberville, who unexpectedly bailed out at Texas Tech.

And coaching Louisiana Tech, one of the teams replacing East Carolina in C-USA, is Holtz, who wound up there after being fired by South Florida.

Funny how things work out sometimes.