We thought the shocks of the coaching carousel were now limited to who gets hired where, but on Friday morning, East Carolina added one more firing shock to the list.
Ruffin McNeill has been fired after six seasons in charge of the Pirates. With a 42-34 record in Greenville, despite a 5-7 mark in 2015, it seems like an overreaction to say the least. Just 30 months ago, ECU extended McNeill through the 2017 season at a clip of $1.15 million a season.
ECU has one of the larger fanbases in the Group of 5 with a stadium that seats 50,000 people. Expectations are high, but the Pirates haven't always been a top program. 10 years ago, ECU went through a four-season stretch (2002-2005) that saw them go a combined 12-34. That 2005 season was the first under Skip Holtz, who would take the Pirates to 9-5 seasons and conference championships in 2008 and 2009.
After Holtz left for South Florida, who was in the Big East at the time, McNeill, a letterman from 1976 to 1979 was brought home after being the interim head coach at Texas Tech during the Mike Leach/Craig James fiasco.
A coach is always measured in his success versus the school's rivals. ECU had the interesting situation in that their rivals were in non-conference and didn't play the Pirates every season. Add on the flux of the Great Realignment of 2012/2013 and it was hard for ECU to call any conference foe a rival.
For ECU fans, they measure themselves with their games against ACC foes NC State, North Carolina and Virginia Tech. The Pirates once threatened state legislation to get the Wolfpack and Tar Heels to play them and now those three face off on a semi-regular basis. Add on Virginia Tech, who takes on ECU almost every season, and the non-conference slate is often the highlight for Pirate fans.
McNeill has beaten Virginia Tech in the last two seasons after losing the first three. The last meeting with the Tar Heels in 2014 saw a 70-41 ECU victory plus a 42-28 triumph at NC State in 2013.
Despite a 4-0 record against ACC teams in the last two seasons, according to ECU AD Jeff Compher, the termination had more to do with the conference record.
Since the Pirates accepted membership in the American Athletic Conference in 2014, ECU has posted an 8-8 league mark, which includes a recent 3-5 ledger and fifth-place East Division finish this fall. During its inaugural year in the AAC, East Carolina was 5-3 and stood fourth behind Cincinnati, Memphis and UCF.
So in 2014, a fourth-place season in the 11-team American is an example of how bad McNeill is? All three of the teams listed ahead of ECU won a share of the American in 2014. Not to mention the final game against UCF was lost on a last-second hail mary.
In 2015, yes the Pirates went 5-7, but they had several close calls. ECU fell to SEC East Division Champion Florida by a touchdown, lost by a touchdown at BYU, by five to South Florida and by three to Cincinnati.
This was all after starting quarterback Kurt Benkert suffered a season-ending knee injury just a week before the season.
Yes, the American Athletic is a competitive conference with Tom Herman at Houston, Navy being a power, UCF hiring Scott Frost, Temple's resurgence and so on. But ECU wasn't that far behind. You can't win every season, despite what Compher thinks.
"Our expectations are to compete for championships," Compher added. "Our goal will be to move expediently in the search process, and based on the outstanding support of our Pirate fan base and enhanced visibility in the American Athletic Conference, I am confident our candidate pool will be deep."
For one, that talent pool might not be as deep as he thinks.
I would be SHOCKED if Lincoln Riley even would answer the phone if #ECU calls him. He and Ruffin McNeill have a great bond.
— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) December 4, 2015
And if Compher is looking his old stomping grounds Northern Illinois and Rod Carey, just look at your main rival NC State to see how Carey's predecessor is doing there. 18-19 in three seasons for Dave Doeren in Raleigh doesn't translate well for Carey.
Looks like it's time for ECU navigate some rocky waters, and don't be surprised if they hit a few along the way. And it will be no one's fault but their own.
EDIT: Regarding the first-half of the title of this story......
East Carolina does not have an agreement w/anyone to replace Ruffin McNeill. "Just trying to upgrade the program," source told @ESPN
— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) December 4, 2015