Ruffin McNeill’s 36-year college coaching career includes stops at 10 programs – with return stints at two, Appalachian State and East Carolina – yet taking his first job at N.C. State somehow feels like a homecoming.
McNeill, one of the most respected and liked coaches in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately businesses, joined the Wolfpack staff as special assistant to head coach Dave Doeren, the school announced Tuesday.
“I’ve known Ruffin since the beginning of my coaching career,” said Doeren in a statement. “Not only is he one of my closest friends in the profession, but he’s been a mentor to me since I was 24 years old. We’ve crossed paths on the recruiting trail many times over the past 22 years and have been friends and competitors. Having a former head coach on our staff who I can trust and have known for almost my entire career is a huge benefit for me personally, as well as for our entire program.
“As a North Carolina native and a former coach at Appalachian State and ECU, Ruffin has great relationships and ties across our state. I am looking forward to working with him and want to welcome him and his wife Erlene to the Wolfpack family.”
McNeill, an East Carolina alumnus from Lumberton High, had been coaching at Oklahoma the past three years (2017-19), where he was reunited with Lincoln Riley, the Sooners’ head coach. McNeill left Oklahoma in January to return to North Carolina’s state boundaries to care for his ailing father in Lumberton.
Riley and McNeill began coaching together at Texas Tech. McNeill was with the Red Raiders from 2000 through 2009, with the 2008-09 seasons as assistant head coach/defensive coordinator. Riley joined the Texas Tech staff after his playing days at the school. He moved from student and graduate assistant coach (2003-06) to the wide receivers coach (2008-09).
But when Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach was fired shortly before the 2009 Alamo Bowl against Michigan State, McNeill was named interim head coach. His first move was having Riley fill Leach’s offensive coordinator role.
“I didn’t take any time at all,” said McNeill in a 2019 preseason interview with AllsportsDiscussion.com. “I said, ‘Lincoln, you got the offense. I had seen him work. I knew he could handle the situation. There wasn’t any hesitation at all.”
When Texas Tech passed on promoting McNeill to full-time head coach, he later landed the job at East Carolina, where he was respected as a star player along with stints as a defensive line coach in 1992 under Pat Dye.
“Our relationship has been as a boss, a brother, a dad and a son,” said McNeill in 2019, “but it’s not just Lincoln and me. It’s our families. It’s my wife Erlene and his wife Caitlin. We’re all close.”
With Riley guiding an explosive offense, the Pirates were 42-34 with four bowl trips. McNeill had a knack of knocking off ACC schools with a 5-4 record.
After 1-3 record against the ACC his first three seasons, his Pirates were 4-1 the past three, highlighted by a 70-41 win over North Carolina in 2014. McNeill was 2-0 against N.C. State, winning in 2010 and 2013; 2-3 against UNC; and 2-3 against Virginia Tech.
Riley was with McNeill 2010 to 2013 until taking the offensive coordinator job at Oklahoma in 2014. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops asked for permission to speak with Riley.
“I told Bob, ‘You’ve got to hire him. You need to hire him,’ ” McNeill said. “I didn’t want to lose Lincoln, but he had already turned down jobs that paid more than I could pay him. It was a great opportunity for Lincoln to work for a coach like Bob Stoops at a program like Oklahoma.”
McNeill was unceremoniously fired at ECU at the end of the 2015 season, a controversial move many Pirates fans protested. But he wasn’t out of work long. Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall hired him for the 2016 season. It was only one season, but it adds to his ACC background.
“Ruffin McNeill is a larger-than-life figure, and I loved having him on our staff,” Mendenhall said at the 2019 ACC media days. “He’s an amazing leader of men, a family man and great person. He has had so many unique life experiences.
“When he was fired by East Carolina, I thought, ‘Who and why would anyone fire Ruffin McNeill?”
McNeill planned to stay at Virginia until Riley was named Oklahoma head coach in 2017. Riley put in a call to McNeill to join him in Norman as Oklahoma’s assistant head coach/defensive tackles coach.
ECU head coach Mike Houston, upon taking the job last year, reached out to McNeill over the summer of 2019 about returning home for a game to be honored at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. He wanted to patch up the messy departure. But it’s not easy finding an open weekend for a football coach.
And now McNeill has a new job, but he’s a lot closer to home.