Bill Connelly mentioned in his 2016 preview of the East Carolina Pirates that if you believe that East Carolina is strongly in pursuit of a ceiling (American Athletic Conference Champion) that Ruffin McNeill was never going to touch, then it most certainly made sense to change coaches as soon as possible, regardless of the blowback.
Well, we are here to tell you that what the ECU Pirates actually did was fire a coach they didn't need to in order to hire a coach they shouldn't have in pursuit of a ceiling that doesn't exist (not for them, anyways). OK, that's a lot to digest, so let's take it one at a time.
The unceremonious firing of Ruffin McNeill
So let's start here. You have a man who receives effusive praise from the players who have played for him, on a personal level, because of how much he cares about them. You could focus on the fact that East Carolina finished the season 5-7 with four losses by a touchdown or less, and the Pirates' 4-9 record in one-possession games the last three seasons.
You could also consider it a minor miracle that they almost went to a bowl game. Bill C. himself has written about the importance of continuity year-to-year at the offensive skill positions. Well, McNeill was replacing his offensive coordinator, the best quarterback in program history, the best wide receiver in program history, and a long-time stud starter at center - 59% of their offensive production from 2014, all together.
You know damn well that a team replacing that much offensive talent, and which plays in an offense-heavy conference, is going to struggle. Not only that, but the presumptive replacement for that stud quarterback got injured ten days before the season started.
His teams may have underachieved a bit, but McNeill's 26-13 record from 2012-2014 is still ECU's best three-year record since they transitioned to Division I in 1978. Athletic director Jeff Compher should be thrilled that the offense saw that much turnover, plus an extremely late quarterback change, and still managed to be in contention for a bowl game as late as the 4th quarter of their last game.
The unimpressive hiring of Scottie Montgomery
As one of my fellow staffers mentioned, it's possible that you can justify getting rid of a coach like Ruff if you are pursuing a proven commodity. Someone like Willie Fritz (who they will conveniently be coaching against), that would have been a strong hire. And I understand where the Pirates were going with this hire, playing in an offense-heavy, wide open conference and wanting to snag a coach who is young, energetic and strong offensively.
Montgomery is only debatably that guy, though. As recently as three years ago, he was just a former WR with a whole bunch of experience as a WR coach. Yes, Duke had a strong offense in his two seasons there, but two good-but-not-great offensive coaching seasons at a middle-of-the-pack ACC team aren't exactly screaming "give me an entire team to run!"
Then, look around the AAC. Last offseason Houston landed Tom Herman from Ohio State, SMU grabbed Chad Morris from Clemson, and Tulsa picked Phillip Montgomery away from Baylor. Then this offseason Central Florida pulled Scott Frost away from Oregon, Tulane got Willie Fritz to leave Georgia Southern, and Memphis was able to hire Mike Norvell away from Arizona State.
Ken Niumatalolo isn't a new, fresh face, but he and his 68 wins in eight seasons just turned down the opportunity to coach BYU; he's definitely a very good coach. So that leaves South Florida, UConn, Temple and Cincinnati as teams that are not absolutely better than ECU at the head coach position. Even those coaches can stake claims.
Willie Taggart is a strong recruiter that has at least modest success at two programs that struggled before he arrived. Tommy Tuberville has "only" won 25 games in three years at UC, but he has been coaching for a long time for a reason. Bob Diaco is still a question mark beyond his defensive coaching abilities, but Matt Rhule just took Temple to their second-ever 10-win season and a conference championship game.
Every coach in this conference has either been coaching much longer, has had more success, has a stronger resume behind him, or a combination of those. This is not a strong hire, especially compared to who he'll be coaching against. At this moment, Montgomery is nowhere near the best coach in the conference; hell, he isn't even "the best coach in the AAC named Scott."
What is their actual ceiling, anyways?
Let's be honest, there is a pretty good chance that the Pirates' ceiling was already met with McNeill's three-year run where he won two-thirds of the games he coached. Is ECU a perennial 10-12 win team? I highly doubt it, considering that their 10-win season under Ruffin was only the second time they reached double-digit wins in their history.
In the short term, ECU's ceiling is as the best AAC team not named Houston, Memphis, Navy, Temple or South Florida - which they more or less are already. In the long term, they have a gap to close with those other programs in terms of spending, recruiting, and coaching that isn't going to happen soon, if at all, and definitely isn't going to happen under Montgomery.