Luke DeCock

ECU football faces season of change in era of stability

ldecock@newsobserver.com

Ruffin McNeill’s first car wasn’t flashy, other than its color: his 1972 Ford Pinto was lime green. It also had staying power.

“It kept all the way through college,” the East Carolina coach said Thursday. “We got back and forth. My roommate and my brother packed all our stuff in that one Pinto.”

That’s the kind of question posed at the Pigskin Preview, the annual luncheon with the five local football coaches to benefit the Bill Dooley chapter of the National Football Foundation. It’s always a bit of a throwback. There’s something quaint and small-town about it, even as college football has never been a bigger business.

There is always change – this year, WRAL’s Jeff Gravely replaced the late Don Shea as host, with Shea memorialized by a few of his props, a leather helmet and referee’s jersey – but it inevitably feels like something that’s been around for longer than 13 years and has somehow outlasted its era, especially with Dooley sitting in the back of the room.

That’s kind of how it feels with McNeill in Greenville – his roots run so deep, the transition after Skip Holtz’s departure so smooth, it feels like he’s been at East Carolina for more than five seasons. He has brought stability to a program that was thrown into turmoil when Steve Logan was summarily fired, suffered through the dismal debacle of two seasons under John Thompson and saw Holtz jump to South Florida.

Among the other coaches on the dais Thursday, only Duke’s David Cutcliffe, who was hired before the 2008 season, has been to more of these events than McNeill. Like that old Pinto, he has staying power.

McNeill grew up in Lumberton, played at East Carolina and coached elsewhere, but when he came home, he came home for good.

“You finally feel like getting settled,” McNeill said. “You never have everything wrapped up as you hope, always some tinkering here and there. But to have stability there for six years … I do feel settled in as far as what we want each year, each day.”

Entering his sixth season at his alma mater, McNeill is securely established at East Carolina. His teams have gone to three straight bowl games and continue to vex ACC opposition while managing the transition from Conference USA.

That’s what I said from Day 1. We were going to build it brick by brick. We weren’t going to microwave it.

East Carolina football coach Ruffin McNeill

But this also a season of transition for the Pirates, with offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley gone as well as record-setting passing tandem Shane Carden and Justin Hardy.

“Shane, those guys that left, left a great blueprint of how, why and what to do,” McNeill said.

Carden and Hardy will be missed, but at good programs, players come and go. Riley will be missed, but at good programs, coaching staffs are prepared to lose people to bigger jobs.

The question isn’t whether East Carolina can weather those departures. The question is whether McNeill has built a program strong enough to weather any changes from year to year, whether the foundation is strong enough to endure the comings and goings of college football, even if that includes the going of the man entrusted entirely with the offense during McNeill’s entire tenure.

That is the kind of program McNeill was trying to build when he arrived back in Greenville. This season will put it to the test.

“That’s what I said from Day 1,” McNeill said. “We were going to build it brick by brick. We weren’t going to microwave it.”

After six years, McNeill is feeling comfortable at the Pigskin Preview. He’s certainly settled in Greenville as East Carolina enters a season of change in an era of stability.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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