Ruffin McNeill knows how to use that chip to motivate the 120 players on the Pirates football team, which ranks with beaches and barbecue as the most beloved features of eastern North Carolina. Since returning to his alma mater almost six years ago, McNeill has emerged as the most prominent representative of the institution that UNC System Board Chairman John Fennebresque and others call the region’s most important asset. He’s also the school’s highest-paid employee at $1.4 million annually, if he hits his bonus targets. With tobacco and textiles no longer packing much economic punch, much of the eastern third of the state is increasingly reliant on ECU, prompting Chancellor Steve Ballard to emphasize “regional transformation” throughout his 11-year tenure. It has the third-biggest enrollment among the 17 UNC System campuses, employs almost 7,300 full- and part-time workers and spends about $800 million annually on personnel, goods and services, according to a system study in January. With Ballard retiring next year, the UNC system is poised to add a new, enthusiastic leader capable of expanding ECU’s importance. Ruffin McNeill’s approach might just provide a model.
“He instills a tough love, and he understands these are kids and kids make mistakes.” – ECU board chairman Steve Jones
Started as a teachers’ college in 1907, ECU’s profile soared in 1974 when state lawmakers agreed to open the UNC system’s second medical school there instead of Charlotte. Brody School of Medicine now ranks as the 25th best primary-care school nationally, according to U.S. News & World Report. A school of dentistry opened in 2011 with a mission of training more students for rural, small-town practices. While Fennebresque praises Ballard as among the top-performing UNC system leaders, his successor will have plenty of work to do. Though school pride is as ingrained in Pirate alumni as any North Carolina campus, ECU boasts a relatively small $170 million endowment, including its medical affiliates. The school’s in-state undergraduate tuition rate is the lowest among UNC campuses at a time when the state is cutting spending on basic university expenses. “From the perspective of everyday ordinary operations, we are still on the short end of the stick,” says Rick Niswander, chief financial officer.
ECU also isn’t attracting many of the state’s best students. Less than a third of incoming freshmen in 2013 ranked in the top 20% of their class, while their average SAT scores ranked eighth among system campuses. “SAT scores are predictive of whether a student will actually graduate,”says Jenna Robinson, president of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a Raleigh-based research group affiliated with the conservative John Locke Foundation. “If you let in students with lower GPAs, they tend to be less prepared to succeed than their counterparts at other campuses.”
The underdog role fits McNeill, who was among the first African-Americans to integrate his Robeson County high school. He earned a football scholarship at ECU, where he played for four years, and then spent 25 years building credentials, much of it in the backwaters of college football, that enabled a triumphant return to Greenville. He has continued ECU’s tradition of playing above its weight against rivals with more money, clout and top-ranked athletes. ECU rarely attracts more than a couple of the highest-rated high school football players in the Carolinas. Most head for the “Power 5” conferences, including the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern, which to date have refused to accept ECU as a member able to share the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual television-rights revenue. The result is a “have-and-have-not” disparity that McNeill predicts will widen. ECU spent about $39 million on its athletic program in 2013-14, compared with $84 million at UNC Chapel Hill and $64 million at N.C. State, according to NCAA data compiled by USA Today. ECU’s athletic booster club takes in about $10 million annually, compared with about $25 million at the Rams Club at UNC Chapel Hill, financial reports show.
“Everyone here has fought through some adversity, and they’ve been told most of their life, you are too this, or too that,” says McNeill, whose baritone voice delivers short, staccato sentences that leave no room for misunderstanding. “Facing challenges and adversity is something I appreciate and welcome. I’m not afraid of it. In fact, I look forward to it.”
While UNC Chapel Hill and N.C. State typically play lesser schools in their nonconference games, ECU packs its schedule with tough competition — this year, its second in the upstart American Athletic Conference, the Pirates face Florida, Virginia Tech and Brigham Young. Yet McNeill has guided ECU to four straight winning seasons, made it to four bowl games in five years, and defeated both UNC Chapel Hill and N.C. State two consecutive times. Win or lose, games in Greenville remain among the region’s biggest social events, with average attendance of more than 45,000, the most of any non-Power 5 conference school except for Brigham Young. The economic impact on the city of about 90,000 is obvious.
“Greenville’s atmosphere on game days is similar to the SEC schools in many ways,” says local developer Thomas Taft Jr., referring to the powerful football conference whose members include campuses in Athens, Ga.; Auburn, Ala.; and Starkville, Miss. “Pre-sunrise tailgating, masses of fans descending upon a relatively small city with a fervor that is tough to describe, even when facing inferior opponents or a 1-11 season … The electricity that takes over the stadium when ‘Purple Haze’ blasts over the loudspeakers and Coach Ruff leads the team on the field is second to none.” Players run out of a large skull emoting so much smoke that, during one pregame entry, McNeill didn’t see the fake sword wielded by the Pirate mascot before it slammed into him, nearly knocking him over. “We’ve made sure that won’t happen again,” he says.
Greenville wants to replicate that energy the rest of the week, aiming to make the city 85 miles east of Raleigh more appealing to students and young professionals. More than $120 million has been infused to revive the downtown district, mostly from private investors, and the city hired its first full-time economic-development director in 2012, Mayor Thomas says. ECU placed its registrar’s office in a privately owned downtown building, a shift after decades of avoiding leases with local developers. The old policy had caused a rift with local businesspeople and cost the city property-tax revenue, Taft says.
“Ruffin has that special something that you only get when you go back to your school.” – Henry Hinton, Greenville broadcaster
Amid an atmosphere where football is so beloved, ECU has avoided calamitous publicity such as the sham-class debacle in Chapel Hill that prompted a national accrediting agency to place the state’s flagship university on a 12-month probation in June. One reason is that ECU’s faculty and administrators are more in sync on oversight than peer institutions, says John Stiller, a biology professor and chair of the faculty senate. “The faculty has all kind of concerns over the balance of big-time sports and demands on athletes,” he says. “But compared to other places, we haven’t seen some of these problems that have become very public.” Ballard deserves special credit for forming a 12-member academic success committee, made up of professors, athletics department officials and university administrators, says Cal Christian, an accounting professor who is the faculty’s main liaison with the athletics department. The committee studies how ECU’s 450 scholarship athletes are faring in classes, and looks for clustering by athletes into certain classes, a practice that contributed to the UNC mess.
The main enforcer, however, has to be the coach, and McNeill’s way of dealing with his players provides a rare positive story in a college-sports environment marked by academic and admissions shenanigans and an obsessive drive for money and wins. On Sept. 12, ECU nearly upset the Florida Gators, which were a 20-point favorite playing at home before 82,000 fans. After the game, McNeill sat on a locker-room chair and, without raising his voice, gave his team an uplifting talk on the importance of family, staying together, and picking each other up — the kind of speech seen in feel-good movies that leave audiences in tears, according to an ECU official who was in the room. Nearby, at a post-game press conference, Florida coach Jim McElwain berated his team for selfishness and called them an embarrassment. “It was horrible. It was inexcusable,” he said, according to a Tampa Bay Times report. “We won the game. But that’s not acceptable. It’s not acceptable. You guys should be embarrassed having to write about it.”
Such negativism isn’t McNeill’s style, according to a dozen people familiar with him interviewed for this story. Virtually everyone cites McNeill’s trademark of bear-hugging everyone who enters his wood-paneled office, which is filled with family photos, a framed jersey from his playing days, books on leadership and personal notes from friends and community groups that reflect an unusual passion for relationship building. McNeill gets a big assist from his wife Erlene, who regularly entertains players at dinners at their home and is a confidante for many of them. Donnie Duncan, a former Oklahoma University athletics director who is 75 and battling cancer, calls McNeill the most genuine coach he’s ever known. “Ruffin’s story isn’t about how many games he’s won — it’s how his kids have done better academically and behaviorally because of him,” Duncan says. “Those are the lasting things and no football coach has a record as rounded as Ruffin. I’ve never seen anything like him.”
McNeill said his team’s family atmosphere “is not jibber-jabber, coaching chatter or a cliché, but we believe in it.”
Jones, the trustees’ chairman, credits McNeill’s success to an uncommon interest in others. “He instills a tough love, and he understands these are kids and kids make mistakes. The issue is how you deal with it, and Ruffin treats his players like he is their parent.” David Glenn, a sports-talk radio show host in North Carolina for 16 years, says McNeill is among only two regular guests — Duke University football coach David Cutcliffe is the other — who are universally celebrated by every caller, regardless of their university affiliation. “Ruffin is a charismatic individual who people naturally like to follow. Assistant coaches want to stay longer, and players want to play harder.” When ECU hosted its annual preseason event for fans at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in August, McNeill’s line of autograph-seekers exceeded any of the players, says Henry Hinton, a Greenville radio-station owner. “It’s clear he has an above-average love for his job.”
McNeill’s story reflects remarkable social changes sweeping the state and nation throughout his life. (He turns 57 this month.) He grew up in Lumberton, where his parents were some of the first black teachers in Lumberton’s once-segregated schools, and he was one of the town’s first black students to receive a college scholarship, at ECU in 1976, playing under future Auburn coach Pat Dye. After graduating in 1980, he returned to Lumberton High School as an assistant coach. In 1985, he broke into college football coaching at Clemson, kicking off a career in which he’s worked as an assistant coach in garden spots such as Clarksville, Tenn.; Florence, Ala.; and Fresno, Calif.
His big break came in 2000 when Texas Tech coach Mike Leach hired him to coach the team’s linebackers. Leach, credited as among the most innovative offensive coaches in collegiate history, relied on McNeill to shore up the team’s defense. Under their direction, Tech made it to post-season bowls for 10 straight seasons. It’s a remarkable record given that Tech shares many similarities with ECU — that chip on the shoulder thing. Based in dusty, isolated Lubbock in west Texas, Tech has an inferiority complex with more renowned University of Texas and Texas A&M, which attract most of the football-crazed state’s top talent. One night before an annual preseason media event aimed at promoting Big 12 football, Leach called Duncan, who then oversaw the conference’s football program, from a Hawaiian vacation and said he couldn’t get home in time to represent Tech. McNeill showed up instead, and his passion wowed the hundreds of journalists and coaches attending the event, says Duncan. “I told Mike he could stay in Hawaii during future media days because Ruffin was just fine.” In December 2009, Tech fired Leach for alleged inappropriate treatment of a player, and promoted McNeill to interim head coach, a few days before the team’s bowl game. Tech beat Michigan State 41-31, but quickly hired former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville as head coach. He then fired McNeill.
Minorities have struggled to land head coaching jobs in college football, which Duncan contends held back McNeill’s career. (About a dozen of the 128 coaches at Football Bowl Subdivision universities are African-American, while half of the players are black.) But he got his chance within two weeks after his Tech dismissal, when former ECU Athletic Director Terry Holland hired him to lead the Pirates. McNeill’s popular predecessor, Skip Holtz, had bolted for the University of South Florida in Tampa. ECU supporters, who’ve become used to seeing coaches leave after achieving success in Greenville, have a special bond with McNeill because he had played and previously coached at the school, says Hinton, the radio-station owner. “Most of these football coaches come in and pledge allegiance, but the reality is the minute they get a better opportunity, they are gone. Ruffin has that special something that you only get when you go back to your school.”
When McNeill arrived, a small minority of team members showed the necessary spirit, he says. “I wanted kids who thought team first, last and always. No entitlement, both on and off the field.” Now, the percentage has flipped, he says, with only a few athletes lacking a team mentality. “I came here to build an environment so we would win in all those phases: the classroom, off the field and on the field.”
Like most coaches, McNeill has admitted talented athletes with less-than-stellar backgrounds. Dominique Davis was suspended from Boston College for academic issues and transferred to a junior college, then a year later enrolled at ECU, in 2010. Over the next two years, he became the school’s career leader in touchdown passes. This summer, McNeill raised eyebrows by taking in Philip Nelson, who wanted to transfer to ECU after two years as starting quarterback at the University of Minnesota. With last year’s record-setting quarterback Shane Carden graduated and his expected successor sidelined for the year by a knee injury in August, McNeill had a massive hole to fill this fall. It seemed logical to welcome Nelson. Just one problem: Nelson had pleaded guilty to fifth-degree misdemeanor assault in March after kicking an unconscious man’s head during a May 2014 bar fight in his hometown of Mankato, Minn., leading to his departure from the Big 10 school.
Such is the dilemma facing big-time college football coaches: take a talented athlete who may deliver a few more victories or block admission because of well-publicized problems. McNeill doesn’t flinch when asked about Nelson. “When I met with Philip, I looked him in the eye and asked him the hard questions, as did the other coaches,” he says. “But the true test comes when I take that person and put him in our pool of players. And these guys are so protective of what we’ve got here that they will not allow anything to get in their way. They will not accept mediocre achievers.” Nelson, who does not have a scholarship, passed his new teammates’ test. He is listed on the team roster, but he’s likely to sit out a year because of NCAA transfer rules.
“We read a lot about the ugly underbelly of college athletics, but Ruffin is one of the guys who does it right,” says Glenn, the talk-show host. The UNC scandal “would never have happened under Ruffin.” McNeill agrees: “We’re not going to do anything to just let a kid get by, because that’s not helping the kid. I’m obsessed with my guys because I want them to become great husbands and dads.”
If players misbehave, McNeill has shown no reluctance to suspend them, including key starters benched before bowl games. Early in his tenure, some team boosters urged him to reinstate some suspended players, “but that’s not happening now,” he says. “If I had listened to them, I would have lost the team. My dad told me it’s not how much money you have, but only two things: your word, and what you are known for. So I don’t hesitate on discipline with anyone. I’d rather have a player that makes the team great than have a great player.”
McNeill’s style is a source of pride at ECU because he’s repeatedly shown that he knows his players and their families intimately, says Christian, the accounting professor. ECU doesn’t give excessive academic exemptions to entering freshmen athletes who haven’t excelled in the classroom — less than 10% of the 450 athletes on 17 teams, he says. “I have no problem with that because we are enrolling students with a talent in athletics or music who may have weak test scores, but otherwise had good grades. We track our athletes, and their graduation rates are higher than the overall student population. Their retention rate is great.”
From his own life story, and having seen how globalization has hammered his hometown of Lumberton, McNeill says he understands how higher education is pivotal in economic development — and football’s role in galvanizing a community. “ECU is key to the whole area east of I-95. I love it. The realization that a lot of people are depending on me is a good thing. It’s why you push through, why you stay a little bit longer, why you work a little bit harder.”