It's been a successful run for East Carolina, including back-to-back Conference USA titles. But gone is coach Skip Holtz, moving up to the Big East and USF.
Taking his place is former Texas Tech defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill, who led the Red Raiders to a bowl win after Mike Leach's dismissal. McNeill returns to ECU where he was a defensive back to continue sailing the Pirates' ship in the right direction.
I got ahold of Coach Ruffin for a quick Q&A about how things are going and here's what he had to say.
CBSSports.com: What does it mean for you to take over at your alma mater as your first head coaching job?
Ruffin: Well, it's an honor, as I mentioned on numerous occassions. I don't think it's my right, but it's a privilege and an honor. A chance to first come back to my alma mater, a place I was able to attend and graduate and be a part of some successful programs. It's also a place where my wife attended and got her Master's degree, my brother got his undergraduate degree, my sister-in-law got her undergrad, my brother-in-law ... so we have a family history here. Secondly, I have a chance to come back to Eastern North Carolina as I'm an Eastern North Carolina boy, I'm from Wilmington, so I grew up in this area. And then coming back to my home state is really second to none. I mentioned the first day that it's a destination job. Well it is. I'm able to come home and I'm able to be a part of a great program and a great university that has benefitted my family beyond the numbers and it's been priceless in my estimation.
CBSSports.com: So the transition has been relatively easy, correct?
Ruffin: The transition has been really great. I tell ya, it starts with a couple of factors. 1) The administration has been fantastic. The second, which you always have to remember, are the players. The players have made the transtion for myself and my staff unbelievable. They have had ... I use the term big eyes and big ears. They've been ready, sitting, waiting on go, listening to what we want and demand and they've been doing exactly what we want them to. So that's been an added plus. The support, the Pirate Nation, our support people in the community and through the state also have done a great job of making this transition as smooth as possible. For me personally I've had a chance, this is my 25th college season I'm starting up right now, 30 years total, but five at the high school level, but this is my 25th Fall campaign. I've had a chance to be in various situations with different head coaches and come into new programs, programs that were down, programs that were up. So I've been blessed to have that experience to get ready, prepare and I look forward to what we got coming here in the next four to five weeks of preparation.
CBSSports.com: Speaking of previous stops, what did you learn from the end of your time at Texas Tech, including coaching in the bowl game?
Ruffin: Well it was the most challenge time of my coaching career. And, if you can relate to this, it was one of the most rewarding times of my coaching career. I was very fortunate, working for Coach Leach, to do head coaching duties, as far as media, interviews, head coaching responsibilites off campus for Coach Leach while I was there. So I think that helped in my preparation. A part of the learning philosophy from my dad, who was a coach, was as an assistant prepare to be a coordinator. As a coordinator prepare to become a head coach. You don't wait until it happens. So I was able to prepare mentally for that, and then when I got to Texas Tech I had some physical chances to prepare. The last two weeks there were really a whirlwind, challenging. But it was fun at the same time because we were ready for it and that experience I think I can fall back on. I know it's only one game, but that week was full of media and how to relate, which I had practiced, and how to communicate and also deal with some adversity. So I had a chance to deal with adversity and success all at one time in the multitudes. And we were able to win the football game, which makes it great. But after the game I wasn't able to get a job with Texas Tech, but right around the corner East Carolina calls, Skip takes the job at South Florida, then I'm able to come, interview and get this job. So it's like a storybook, well not really a storybook, it's more of a God's plan in my mind. There are certain things that are man's plan, and there are certain things that are God's plan. This is definitely a God plan and a God wink on me.
CBSSports.com: Sounds like it was a kind of crash course for you.
Ruffin: Yeah, it was! It was a crash course like "OK, you ready? Go!" From the head coach, the administrative duties to the media requests, to handling the media bfore the game, during the week, before the game and after the game ... it was a crash course. Really the experience was very, very beneficial.
CBSSports.com: So now you've moved to ECU and you have a lot of changes that have to take place with this team. First I want to ask about the offense. You are bringing Lincoln Riley with you as offensive coordinator. How do you expect that transition to the air raid offense to go?
Ruffin: Lincoln and I worked together. I was able to observe Lincoln in a number of different experiences there at Texas Tech. When I took over the job there -- when I was asked to take over the job there, let me rephrase that -- there was no doubt in my mind who I wanted to call plays. I had watched Lincoln, I knew he understood what we wanted and what I would want offensively. So the first day I took over Lincoln was called in, I said "Lincoln I want you to do this" and he ran with it. He did a great, fantastic job. The installation of the offense, its schemes and thoughts, we introduced in the Spring, which allows us 15 days, then the kids have to do it on their own over the summer. We'll see how much they did. And about this offense, the skill positions, it's really exciting for them because they get the chance to toss the ball around, catch it and those type of things. So I'm sure they enjoyed it this summer and the excitement was there from the skill positions. Since we arrived on campus, Lincoln and his offensive staff have done a great job of installing the protections up front from the offensive line as well as the route running and audibles from quarterback to receiver and receiver back to quarterback. It's still a process, it's not a finished product yet. We have 28 days here in Fall camp and we have to dive into it. Each rep is precious. Each day is precious. So we have to take advantage of each rep, each day we have to keep improving on installing the concept. But I think the kids are ready and willing to learn. As a matter of fact, I know they are. I think it will be exciting here. There will be some bumps and bruises because it is new to them, the speed of it will be new to them. That will be the difference. I want to get as many plays in a game as we can. We are shooting for 100 plays a game if possible, but that's a tough deal. We want to get a lot of plays in and I think that excites the kids.
CBSSports.com: At quarterback, the most important position on the offensive side, you had Patrick Pinkney there, obviously now he's gone. So what is the quarterback situation looking like? You have to open a new offense. Is it a benefit to have a new quarterback?
Ruffin: The most important position is the offensive line, those five guys.
CBSSports.com: Fair enough.
Ruffin: The most important thing is solidifying that group up there because they have to work as a fist, as a hand. So we have a good group we're working with. We have to solidify the right tackle position. We have two guys vying for that. The quarterback, as you mention, is very important. We have four guys we'll have to do some quick evaluations on. Brad Wornick from the Spring, Rio Johnson from the Spring. Those two guys, Brad being the most consistent out of that group from the Spring. Josh Jordan was in the mix, but he's moved to what we call the Big H position, or the Y. So he can be used as a fullback/runningback type or in a receiver, tight end spot. He asked to be moved to help the football team. We had two guys come in, Dominique Davis and Shane Carden, freshmen from Houston. So we have four quarterbacks right now in camp. It's hard to get four quarterbacks ready to go, so our evaluations will have to be quick and precise and decide on the guy that's most consistent, a guy that understands when and where to go with the football and we'll make that decision here pretty quickly. But, it has not been made yet. So we have four guys right now vying for that, and I'm sure Lincoln's evaluation methods, and I've had the chance to be around offense for ten years now and sort of know what it needs, what it takes. I'll be involved in that, too.
CBSSports.com: On the defensive side, this is a team that only returns two starters, an entirely new front seven. How much are you going to be involved with the defense. Obviously you have a defensive coordinator there, too, but with your background on the defensive side, how much do you anticipate being involved?
Ruffin: I'll just be involved from an outside point of view. I have a lot of confidence in Brian Mitchell, he'll be a guy that is noticed very quickly in his coaching ability, motivational techniques and ability to be a really, really good play caller. The staff of John Wiley, who won three national championships as a coordinator at Appalachian State, I think his record speaks for itself. He's my associate head coach and linebackers coach. Marc Yellock, a really great football player here who's been coaching, Chris Bland, and Duane Price just joined our staff. He's a veteran coach who has coached high school football in Texas, been a part of Conference USA at Tulane and with us at Texas Tech. We have more than enough mental and physical capabilities in that room to get it done. You mention, we did lose a great group of players over there, only two returning starters. So we have to have some guys that are willing and waiting and ready to grasp their opportunity, but they have to get used to playing a number of plays. Those guys that we lost played a high number of plays. There will be some bumps and bruises again and a learning curve for those guys, so the staff and I as a head coach, I have to be patient. Our fans may not be as patient, but I have to stay patient. The talent's there, the experience is something you just have to get from blowing the whistle and getting the game under way. I see nothing but upside for that group. Those guys that left did a great job here. And some things I think that people forget, we lost the bodies, but the thing is replacing the leadership. So we have to form that leadership. One of my main concerns during the Fall camp is shoring up the leadership positions and responsibilities.
CBSSports.com: Lastly, what do you see for this team? Back-to-back conference titles under Skip Holtz, as I said, a lot of turnover, so what are your expectations for your first season at ECU?
Ruffin: Well, the first thing is that it's a team that has had some great success. Skip and his staff did a great job. The 28 guys that we lost and one junior that declared early are heavy hits. That's well documented and I can't just wipe that out of my mind, you know that. But at the same time, the winning attitude and expectations are still within the team, which as a staff, it's one of the hardest things to get the team to believe in themselves. Well, this team does believe in themselves. They're used to playing games that "mean something," that have meaningful results and consequences. That's something you get from being around a winning program. So I look at that as a major, major plus. The new guys, the inexperience will be the new thing you have to get used to, but the winning experience overrides that. I will be looking to make sure we are focused from week to week. Understanding there's one game each week, not looking ahead, just focusing on the task at hand and making sure we get better as a football team and as a program each week. Playing as hard as we possibly can, being fundamentally sound, week in and week out and really working on the execution of our offensive, defensive and special teams schemes.