When East Carolina University fans sit around their tables on Thanksgiving Day, Ruffin McNeill will be the topic of much conversation.
The Pirates head coach, who came to the team as an assistant at Texas Tech University, returned to his alma mater to coach a Pirate team that lacked discipline and unity. While implementing a new offense into the East Carolina game plan, McNeill has given much more than play books to his team.
Entering the Pirates game versus the Naval Academy on November 6, McNeill was 5-3 and hoped to clinch a victory against the Midshipmen to earn bowl eligibility. The rain and harsh wind seemed to match the feeling in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium as fans looked on in disgust as their Pirates, coming off of a 49-35 loss at the University of Central Florida, were thrown around on the field by Navy. In the third quarter, the Pirates turned the ball over four of five times.
By the fourth quarter, the stands had cleared and only the occasional purple and gold poncho-wearing, diehard fan could be seen shaking his head miserably from his seat. As the rain fell in Greenville, so did the Pirates and they fell hard 76-35. The Pirates had given up the second most points at home in school history.
Walking into the press conference, many reporters thought that they would finally get a glimpse of a disheartened McNeill; however, that was not the case. In that press room on November 6, people got to see how truly special McNeill was.
“I look at this as a great opportunity for us as a football team," McNeill said. "The glass is always half full. To be able to come back from some adverse situations, we can show what type of team we are and what we're made of."
Jonathan Williams, a Greenville native who was arrested when Skip Holtz was the Coach in 2008, fumbled the ball twice during the Navy game, and reporters were quick to place blame on the infamously mischievous running back. McNeill, immediately showing true fatherly instincts, was quick to shoot down any blame on Williams.
“Did you know that Jonathan played hurt all night?” McNeill asked. “Well he did, and he did a good job. He is fighting through a very painful injury and was unable to practice all week. He will be alright, and he did a good job for us tonight.”
Next the reporters questioned McNeill’s choice to leave his starters in even after they were losing by such a large margin. McNeill did not flinch in addressing his decision.
“I have always told them to keep fighting until the end, and tonight was no different,” McNeill said. “That has been my thought process from the very beginning, to never give up.”
Before McNeill left the press room, he was asked what he told his team in the locker room after suffering such an ugly loss.
“I told them that I love them, and that I have a lot of faith in them,” McNeill said. “I told them that I believe in them and that everyday is not going to be rosy.”
McNeill’s love of his team was evident in the players’ voices as they then answered questions from the media later that night.
Dwayne Harris, East Carolina’s leading wide receiver, left the game during the first half with back issues and was asked why he decided to go back into the game.
“I told Coach I was ready to go back in and that I had to go back in for my team,” Harris said. “I had to suck it up for my team, I do it for them.”
East Carolina’s quarterback, Dominique Davis, had a record-setting performance with five touchdown passes for the Pirates, and even set school records with 43 completions and 65 attempts. He also finished 1 yard short of tying David Garrard's single-game passing record with 413 yards. When asked about his individual performance, Davis wanted to talk about his team instead.
“After a game like this, we just have to stick together,” Davis said. “Through the good and the bad, we are going to get through this as a team.”
The character instilled in these Pirate players by McNeill was illustrated after that loss more so than any victory ever could.
And how did this team, bent but not broken by its two consecutive loses, handle their Thursday night game versus the University of Alabama Birmingham that very next Thursday?
East Carolina outscored UAB 27-7 in the fourth quarter and left Birmingham with 54-42 victory. The Pirates improved to 6-4 overall, becoming bowl eligible for the fifth-straight season, and 5-1 in Conference USA play for the second consecutive year.
Dominique Davis threw for 331 yards and five touchdowns to become the program's single-season leader in touchdown passes. He also became just the second quarterback in school history to throw for over 3,000 yards in a single-season (passing Jeff Blake).
Jonathan Williams had a career day as well, claiming his first touchdown by way of air and had 115 receiving yards. He became the first ECU running back since Chris Johnson in 2007 to tally over 100 yards in one game.
McNeill entered the press room, just as he did during their loss versus Navy, and addressed the media with an obvious love for his players.
“Our team talked last night, and we said that in a fight when you get knocked down you can stay down, or you can pick yourself up and keep swinging,” McNeill said. “I promised my players that I would never quit on them, and they promised me that they would never quit on me.”
Players, coaches and all of the Pirate Nation will break bread and wishbones this Thanksgiving in hopes that McNeill sticks around Greenville for many holidays to come. Why? Because everyday isn’t going to “be rosy,” but the Pirates have a coach that brings out the true integrity of his team in times of adversity.
That is something that the East Carolina football program should be extremely grateful for.