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Friday, December 11, 2015

By Al Myatt

Al Myatt

Has Pirates' ship sailed?

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

It's been a week since Ruffin McNeill was fired as football coach at East Carolina. Athletic director Jeff Compher said he made the decision days before the announcement was publicized so he actually had some lead time to do preparation for finding a replacement.

No press conference has been scheduled and a dead period for recruiting is approaching. The longer Compher searches, the less likely he is going to be successful on ECU's behalf.

When you don't get your top choice and you keep going down the list, the process is obviously not going to conclude as fast.

Perhaps Compher has conducted a round of initial interviews and is zeroing in on his guy.

But maybe he's whiffed on former Auburn coach Gene Chizik and he's trying to sort out the best available move.

It's kind of like when N.C. State made a pitch for John Calipari and wound up with Sidney Lowe. Or when North Carolina appeared to have enticed Frank Beamer away from Virginia Tech but ended up turning to John Bunting.

When you don't reel in the big fish, coaching changes can have dubious value.

Compher is dealing with a situation of his own creation. The reluctance of any coach to be next up in a program where many revered McNeill and can't fathom his termination is understandable. It's a far cry from an ideal career move.

McNeill was held accountable for an injury-plagued 5-7 season in 2015. Will the next ECU coach be able to keep players from getting hurt?

Any coach smart enough to size it up may pass on the opportunity to take over at ECU.

And how desirable is the guy who wants to go into that situation?

The coaching fraternity is tight and McNeill paid his dues to be a respected member. The job at ECU may be regarded as tainted by the upper levels of the coaching brotherhood and its branches.

McNeill, 42-34 in six seasons at ECU with four bowl trips and wins over the Pirates' last five ACC opponents, was at the Waldorf Astoria in New York on Monday night to support his friend and mentor, Donnie Duncan, a former athletic director at Oklahoma and former football coach at Iowa State. Duncan, who has been fighting cancer, received a Legacy Award from the National Football Foundation.

Some of the biggest names in the game were there.

"You realize we're the laughing stock of college football, right?" McNeill asked Thursday. "I went to the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame with Donnie. ... From Bob Stoops (Oklahoma), Dabo Swinney (Clemson) all of 'em, all of 'em were like 'What the ... ?' ... Gene Chizik and all them. And Compher was not at that deal. He was not there. ...

"We're the laughing stock," McNeill said again. "We're the laughing stock of college football. East Carolina is. The laughing stock."

I was wondering what Ruff was thinking about his future. Would he continue in coaching or perhaps look at something in broadcasting as many coaches do when their careers on the sideline are sidetracked?

"I'll be coaching sometime," McNeill said. "Somewhere. I'm going to be coaching somewhere. I don't know where yet. I've got like a bunch of offers right now. I haven't decided yet."

There are rumblings of players leaving ECU if they don't like McNeill's successor.

Chizik would appear to be the exceptional possibility to make everything work. He has the experience of winning a national championship as head coach at Auburn and a national title at Texas as defensive coordinator before that. He obviously impacted the defense at UNC favorably as coordinator in 2015. He has the know-how to resolve the turmoil at ECU.

He has the contacts to put together a more-than-capable staff for the Pirates.

Everyone else who has been mentioned as a candidate looks like the second coming of John Thompson.

The litmus test will come early with N.C. State traveling to East Carolina for the second game (Sept.10) of the 2016 season.

McNeill was 2-0 against the Wolfpack.

As I read Compher's bio, it says he was assistant athletic director at N.C. State until 1992. That appears to put him on the Wolfpack side in the Peach Bowl that completed ECU's 11-1 season in 1991, the greatest moment in Pirates football history. That's an incredibly strange background for the person making decisions of the magnitude that Compher has made and is in position to make for the current ECU program with that legendary team approaching its silver anniversary. and the Detroit Free Press have reported that Virginia Tech assistant Shane Beamer, former Michigan coach Brady Hoke and former North Carolina interim coach Everett Withers have been interviewed.

Beamer has promise but I'm not sure he's ready for the immediate challenges at ECU or what kind of staff he could bring.

Hoke has been doing satellite radio with Mark "Packman" Packer after falling out of favor with the Wolverines. He had some success at San Diego State but was 5-7 at Michigan in 2014 before he was fired. Culturally, I don't think Hoke fits ECU.

Hopefully, Withers isn't seen as an improvement on McNeill. He has had success at James Madison, Compher's alma mater, but lost three of the last five after quarterback Vad Lee, a talented transfer from Georgia Tech, was hurt. The Dukes lost in the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs to Colgate, 44-38. JMU was playing at home after a first-round bye.

5-7? Hurt quarterback? It seems we're dealing with some lateral circumstances here.

If Compher realizes he's in fourth-and-eight without Chizik, he would be very wise to punt back to what he had with McNeill.

The situation isn't without precedent in the current administration. Dr. Steve Ballard, ECU's retiring chancellor, almost hired Rick Hart as athletic director before he re-evaluated and put Terry Holland in charge.

Southern Methodist is excavating again from NCAA sanctions with Hart in command.

It would take a big man to take Ruff back but it also might be the best move remaining for everyone and everything involved.

The $1 million or so in savings from a buyout for McNeill could be applied to some raises for ECU staff.

There hasn't been too much water under the bridge for that to work, especially if Chizik isn't interested.

As one member of the Pirate Club board put it, "Chizik is a home run. The rest are sacrifice flies."

E-mail Al Myatt

PAGE UPDATED 12/11/15 01:33 AM.

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