10 Questions (and one horror movie review) With: East Carolina head coach Ruffin McNeill
After a quarter century spent in the waiting room - including stops at Clemson, Austin Peay, North Alabama, Appalachian State, East Carolina, UNLV, Fresno State and Texas Tech - Ruffin McNeill was called back to his alma mater for his first head coaching job in 2010. In three-plus seasons as a head coach, McNeill has compiled a 20-19 record and has the Pirates primed for a big 2013 after an 8-5 2012 saw East Carolina close the regular season with five wins in six tries.
We talked with the top Pirate Monday about coaching defense in an offense-based world, what it means to coach for your alma mater, and he takes a turn as The Scoop's Official Movie Reviewer.
To view past installments of 10 Questions With, please visit the archives.
1) Earlier this month you signed a three-year contract extension. How important is it to receive that kind of validation now three years into your tenure?
It gives you a vote of confidence to know that you're doing some things correctly and it's appreciated by our administrative leadership team here on campus. I really am appreciative for those reasons.
2) When you hit the 20-year mark as an assistant did you ever feel like you would never get the chance to be a head coach?
I was coordinating in the Big 12 at Texas Tech with Coach Leach. There comes a time when you know it may come, it may not. One of the things I tried to do when I was an assistant, I prepared to become a coordinator. Someone told me, whatever your goals are you work as if you're there. When I became a coordinator I began to think and tried to act and react as a head coach would do in case I did get an opportunity. It was a blessing after everything that happened at Texas Tech for my alma mater to come calling and have an opportunity to come back home to where I played, it was truly an honor for me.
3) You were a defensive coordinator in the Big 12 and now you're in Conference USA, two conferences that have been notoriously unkind to defenses. How do you prepare for that offensive onslought you typically receive on a weekly basis?
Really it began in practice going against our own offense with Coach Leach, and our attempt to defend then. And then against Oklahoma and Texas with Vince Young and the variety of offenses we faced there, brought us here to where we really understand how they attack. I think it's not just us but all defenses now are getting spread across the field from hash to hash and numbers to numbers so you have to be ready to defend the spread offense. Now people are adding quarterback designed runs, which really put all defenses under a unique type of pressure.
4) With so many offenses going up-tempo, what do you do to help your defense to prepare for possibly being on the field for 80-plus plays and 35 minutes every Saturday?
When we were in the Big 12 we found out quickly that you always have to have at least 22 to 26 players on defense to rotate and give you different sub packages and to be able to keep people fresh. The old days of playing that starting 11 defense are out the window. You have to be able to sub and keep them fresh. We are an up-tempo offense here at East Carolina as everyone knows, we're trying to get a very high number of plays run during the game. Defenses have to be ready to attack but also have a significant amount of substitutions to be able to add to their team.
5) Seeing the pressure the Texas Tech offense put on the opposing team every week, did you decide pretty early on after you got the East Carolina job that you wanted Lincoln Riley to come with you as your offensive coordinator?
When I had to take over at the Alamo Bowl versus Michigan State, I named Lincoln offensive coordinator in that game. He did a great, great job. We had worked together before then, of course. I saw Lincoln when he came in as a student assistant, then to a GA and then to a full-time (assistant), and the way he handled himself and understood the offense. He worked hand in hand with Coach Leach so when he had the opportunity in the bowl game to call plays, it was a no-brainer for me when I got the job. He's done a great, great job. We've broken a lot of offensive records here at East Carolina. You're talking about Jeff Blake and David Garrard, who set a lot of offensive records here before we came. It's been a great fit and I'm really proud of Lincoln and the way he's developed. He's even added to the package as he's taken over as offensive coordinator.
6) Including yourself there are 10 East Carolina graduates on your staff. Where you looking for a little extra passion that an alum may give to his alma mater for your staff?
It's a big part of it. One of the things that I particularly want is somebody that understands the culture and what our university means and stands for. We talk about the pride and passion and tradition that we have here, and having people that understand that and understand what it means to go to school and play here I think are beneficial. When we're talking to recruits or when we get players in here, we've gone through the same thing that they've gone through - from practice to class attendance to any number of experiences. It helps a great deal.
6a) You also have five Texas Tech grads on your staff, and the Red Raiders' staff is also littered with a bunch of former Texas Tech players. What is it about that program that turns out so many successful young coaches?
The way we got together as a family, work together as professionals, we're all on the same page as far as work ethic and doing the little things that it takes to be successful no matter what they are as a head coach or a coordinator or an assistant. The working relationships I think are the most important thing. The biggest thing in any business is to have trust and verification of trust. Having worked together or knowing the systems that we all have come under and through helps when working. The Texas Tech connection has been big as well as the East Carolina connection has been very vital in our staff presentations.
7) You mentioned verification of trust. What do you mean by that?
Trust is one thing but if you've gone through an experience with an individual before, in our case, on the field experiences, tight games, tough losses, great victories, off the field situations where having to count on the man beside you. We have an acronym, TBAC - Trust, Belief, Accountability and Commitment. If a guy's been through those things with you, the trust part, the belief, the accountability and commitment, that's where the verification comes in. You verify that trust through situations, through experiences good and bad. In this job, one of the things that I've made sure is that those two elements are fulfilled by a candidate that comes to work here and even through our players I want that to be one of the thermometer readings that we go on is that trust and verification of trust.
8) It's the time of year where the strength and conditioning staff takes over a football program. What instructions do you give your strength coach during the summer?
I've been around Jeff Connors. He understand and we get together and talk about individual and specific trainings with each position. Jeff has done that for a quarter of a century now. He understands just what we talked about, up-tempo offenses, defenses needing to be well-conditioned, and the offenses to be up tempo have to be well conditioned. I think that's a plus and that's incorporated to our offseason training. The team chemistry and the bond is built during the summer. You win championships and contend for championships in the summer and by summer work, not when we report for fall camp. Fall camp is a part of it but the main core of your team and your team personality and chemistry are shaped during summer workouts.
9) What do you like to read whenever you get a chance?
I read and I watch movies as well. I've read Joe Gibbs, his book which is great. It's the spiritual side and teaches you balance. Nick Saban, I read a lot from him. I've had the chance to go down and visit Coach Saban and his staff. Mike Tomlin with the Pittsburgh Steelers, I always try to go back and research what he does. And then my dad, who coached me in high school and has been not just my dad and a friend but a great advisor in the coaching world, he's been there and done that, we communicate quite a bit. I'm always researching and trying to read of people that have been successful at all levels. Those are just to name a few.
10) What type of movies do you like?
I'm an adventure guy, an exciting guy. Last night I was watching "Law Abiding Citizen" with Jamie Foxx. I've watched "300". I've watched "Zero Dark Thirty." I can go on and on about movies. All those adventure, exciting, suspense movies, I dive into those quite a bit. That's sort of my escape as well. I've seen "Black Hawk Down" about 30 times but it's like I just watched it for the first time. Those are just a few of the movies that I've watched. I watched "The Purge" yesterday, that was pretty different as a Father's Day gift. My younger daughter Olivia, she took me to see it after church on her dime, too, which was surprising.
10a) Can you give us a review of "The Purge"?
Hold on to your seat. It's an exciting movie. Unemployment is down to one percent, everything is going great and one night is chosen so everyone can purge. You can do any crime you want to for one night of the year, it's the annual purging is what they call it. Ethan Hawke is starring in it. I don't want to give away too much so you can watch it. I enjoyed it. It didn't have too many good reviews before but Olivia and I enjoyed it.