By TOM SHANAHAN
The decade-long coaching bond linking Ruffin McNeill and Lincoln Riley is — on its surface — a typical old-boy network story. McNeill twice appointed Riley as his offensive coordinator. When Riley was named a head coach, he hired McNeill.
And you say, So what?
Head coaches routinely hire a familiar colleague. The coaching network has always worked that way – both in college and the NFL. Two coaches mesh closely and continue to turn to each other over the years.
Except in this example McNeill is black and Riley is white. For more examples like this one there needs to be more black head coaches.
They are music’s Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney, Ebony and Ivory.
“It goes back to ethos,” said McNeill, who serves on Riley’s Oklahoma staff as associate head coach/outside linebackers coach. “It’s about what is earned between coaches and not given. It’s not just trust; it’s a verification of trust in each other. It’s the same with Lincoln. That is one of the binding principles that we live by. Lincoln and I have never looked at color.”
Riley, OU’s third-year head coach at age 35, likes to joke that McNeill, 60, has been a grandfatherly (as opposed to fatherly) mentor. Well, they open another season together when No. 4-ranked Oklahoma plays host to Houston Sunday night in Norman.
“Our relationship has been as a boss, a brother, a dad and a son,” said McNeill, “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.”
The McNeill/Riley Rapport is an example of how networking is supposed to work in a color-blind society, but it doesn’t always spin that way. There are only 12 black head coaches in the Football Bowl Subdivision and three in the NFL, although college and NFL rosters are made up predominantly of African-American players.
Coaches typically come from the ranks of former players, but the decision-makers are mostly white executives, administrators and owners. When making their hires, they more commonly trust a rising young white coach than a rising young black coach. The same is true of a naming a young white coach over a black coach with more experience.
McNeill was a rare example of a black coach in the pipeline at a young age. He was hired to coach linebackers at Austin Peay at age 28 and worked his way up to a coordinator (Appalachian State, 1993-96; UNLV, 1997-98; Fresno State, 1999; and Texas Tech, 2008-09) until he eventually earned his chance as a head coach.
Rod Graves, a former NFL executive recently appointed chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, proudly points to McNeill’s career as an example, but with the caveat it is too rare an instance. Although the Pollard Alliance’s focus is on NFL coaching and executive positions, its overarching goal is promoting diversity and equal job opportunities.
“When you talk about minority coaches in the pipeline, there are professionals like Ruffin McNeill who have dedicated their lives to being outstanding coaches,” Graves said. “They are making a huge impact on our game. Like Ruffin, they have also shaped the lives of players in many positive ways.”
“The frustration is many coaches with experience haven’t had the opportunity that Ruffin has had. Ruffin earned the opportunity to excel as a position coach, a coordinator, and as a head coach.
“The frustration shared by many minority coaches today is that the opportunity to participate as coordinators and head coaches has not come frequently enough. Talk of a weak pipeline is just misdirection. There are coaches out there like Ruffin who are prepared for leadership roles.”
But even for McNeill, it wasn’t smooth sailing to finally gain his chance to navigate the Pirates’ ship.
McNeill was the defensive coordinator at Texas Tech under Mike Leach at the time the Red Raiders’ iconoclastic head coach was dismissed. Leach was embroiled in a 2009 season controversy over treatment of a player with a concussion and fired on the day of Texas Tech’s first team meeting prior to Alamo Bowl practices. McNeill learned he was named interim head coach just 30 minutes before the team meeting.
Without Leach, McNeill needed someone to call plays as the OC of the Air Raid offense. Riley, at the time, was a 26-year-old wide receivers coach, but McNeill quickly turned to him.
“I didn’t take any time at all,” McNeill recalled. “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.”
The offense didn’t sputter as the Texas Tech beat Michigan State 41-31. In the post-game media session, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio offered an unsolicited comment that Texas Tech should keep McNeill as its head coach.
Instead, the Big 12 school hired Tommy Tuberville, a recycled white coach that had been out of football a year since he had resigned under pressure at Auburn. Tumberville lasted three seasons. Kliff Kingsbury was hired and fired after six seasons, adding to the instability of the program that turned away McNeill. In another twist to the Fritz Pollard Alliance concerns on diversity and opportunity, Kingsbury was soon named head coach of the Arizona Cardinals despite no NFL coaching experience.
McNeill wondered if he had missed out on what might be his last chance as a head coach. Then 51, he resigned himself to taking another coordinator job. Then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh was about to announce McNeill as his DC, but East Carolina athletic director Terry Holland had McNeill on his radar when the Pirates’ job opened up.
ECU is McNeill’s alma mater. He grew up in nearby Lumberton. He was ready to jump at the job, but he feared it was a “show” interview to demonstrate the school had interviewed a black candidate. Holland, though, assured McNeill that this was a legitimate interview.
Once McNeill was hired, you can guess who he called first.
“I made an immediate call to Lincoln,” McNeill said. “He was getting ready to take a job at Southern Miss, Baylor or Rice. Those were good opportunities for Lincoln, but I said, ‘I got the job. Come on, let’s go.’ ”
The McNeill/Riley Rapport proved more than a one-game explosive tandem. The Pirates compiled bowl trip seasons of 8-5, 10-3 and 8-5 at the American Athletic Conference school. In 2013, the 10-3 Pirates pulled off a road trip sweep of ACC members North Carolina, 55-31, and N.C. State, 42-28. In 2014, ECU swept two more ACC schools, beating North Carolina 70-41 and Virginia Tech 28-21.
As a head coach, McNeill’s roots as a teacher — he began as a high school teacher/coach and is the son of two teachers — were tapped on ECU’s trip to the Birmingham Bowl. In America today, kids, black and white alike, don’t recognize how recent was segregation, so McNeill made the trip about more than playing Florida. He included history lessons on Birmingham as a focal point of the Civil Rights movement. The end of segregation in North Carolina allowed McNeill to attend a desegregated high school.
With ECU’s explosive offense, Riley was a rising a hot name that jumped onto Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops’ radar. He called McNeill to ask if he could interview Riley as his OC.
“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.”
The coaching carousel not only wasn’t finished, it soon accelerated in opposite directions for both McNeill and Riley.
First, Riley accepted Stoops’ OC offer for the 2015 season. After two seasons, Stoops shocked the college football world with a sudden retirement less than three months before the 2017 season opener. He has said since then his decision was in part to assure Riley took over the Sooners before another school came shopping for a head coach.
Meanwhile, the Pirates slipped to 5-7 in 2015. A week after losing a game to Cincinnati in the season finale that otherwise would have earned a 6-6 record and fourth straight bowl trip, new AD Jeff Compher (Holland had retired) fired McNeill.
McNeill wasn’t considered on the hot seat, so the move caught ECU fans by surprise – not to mention the coaching profession. New Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall, who had left BYU for the Cavaliers, quickly hired McNeill as his defensive line coach for the 2016 season.
“Ruffin McNeill is a larger-than-life figure, and I loved having him on our staff,” Mendenhall said. “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?”
“So I called him immediately. He made an impact on me and on our program. I was sad that he left but excited that he was able to go to a place that he would be with people he wanted to be with. We remain friends to this day. I admire him and love him.”
And how has East Carolina done without him?
The Pirates stumbled to three straight 3-9 seasons; attendance dwindled. Compher was fired before the 2018 season. McNeill’s successor, Scottie Montgomery, placed in a difficult situation that has been termed as “hired to be fired,” was dismissed at the end of the year.
Now, ECU has started over again with Mike Houston as the new head coach. Over the off-season, Houston, recognizing McNeill’s respect within the profession and around the ECU community, wanted his new school to mend fences.
Houston had offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick, a McNeill assistant at ECU before he joined Houston at James Madison University, travel to Oklahoma to pick Riley’s brain. His other task was to invite McNeill back to a campus on a future date for an honor. McNeill said he was humbled and honored by the invite.
McNeill said he was content to remain a position coach under Mendenhall, but his future changed course with Riley’s 2017 promotion at Oklahoma.
“Lincoln is the only coach I would have left Virginia to work for,” McNeill said. “I loved working for Bronco Mendenhall.”
It’s easier to understand when you consider McNeill’s life’s journey. He grew up under segregation; it wasn’t until his middle school years that North Carolina high schools were finally fully desegregated.
“I cropped tobacco for $10 a day when I was 12 years old,” he said. “I wanted to be (at ECU) a long time, but there was another plan for me. I’m fortunate I have a great family and great wife to support me.
“And now I’m working with Lincoln. That was part of plan. I’ve been at a lot of schools and to be at a school that is in the top one percent of a sport that I coach is pretty awesome.”
Hiring McNeill as his defensive line coach was one of Riley’s first moves as head coach, announcing the move one week after he was promoted.
“I’m very excited that Ruffin McNeill is joining our coaching staff,” Riley told the media of the move. “Personally, I have a great history with him from our time together at Texas Tech and East Carolina. We’re getting an extremely high-quality person and coach. Our team and fans will love the personality and energy he’ll bring to our program.”
Oklahoma advanced to the 2017 College Football Playoff, but the 2018 season began with stumbles that again prompted Riley to turn to McNeill. The Sooners needed overtime to beat Army 28-21 in the season’s fourth game. Two weeks later they lost to Texas, 48-45. A Big 12 regular-season title and College Football Playoff berth was in jeopardy.
Riley fired defensive coordinator Mike Stoops (Bob’s younger brother) and asked McNeill to handle the DC duties the remainder of the season. Oklahoma won the Big 12 title game over Texas before its season ended with a CFB semifinals loss to Alabama.
To rebuild Oklahoma’s defense in 2019, Riley hired Ohio State defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. McNeill was moved from coaching the defensive line to outside linebackers this season.
“I just want to coach football and coach a position,” McNeill said. “I’ve done the coordinator thing and have been fortunate to be a head coach. When Lincoln named me the coordinator, I knew it was a temporary thing. Alex reminds me a lot of Lincoln but on the defensive side of the ball. He’s a great match for our team.”
McNeill arguably should have been a head coach sooner than 2010 at ECU. And he arguably didn’t deserve to lose his job after a 5-7 record that came down to bowl eligibility in the season finale. But asking McNeill if he’s happy with his place in life prompts more than a cliché answer.
“I’m not just happy – I’m ecstatic,” McNeill said. “I’m ecstatic to coaching with Lincoln and blessed to be at a place like Oklahoma.”
His reported $575,000 annual salary is a long way from cropping tobacco under a hot North Carolina sun for $10 a day.
The ongoing question in the NFL and college football — the one the Fritz Pollard Alliance pushes — is fostering more executives. administrators and owners with the open mind of Terry Holland. He was a decision-maker comfortable to sit in an interview room across from a minority candidate and evaluate him no matter skin color.
When that day arrives, the McNeill/Riley Rapport will fully qualify as a typical old-boy network story.
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