Two Years Ago, East Carolina Changed the Trajectory of Three Programs


Oklahoma is at a crossroads with a talented but inexperienced head coach. Virginia is on the rise, thanks in large part to its best quarterback in a decade. And East Carolina is in the tank.

Three programs spread across three of the top six conferences in college football saw their fates shift in various ways all on the same day.

Back in December 2015, when East Carolina athletic director Jeff Compher fired football coach Ruffin McNeill, it was tough to understand the reasoning — and nearly impossible to predict that in less than two years the fallout would spread across the country.

McNeill has long been one of the most respected coaches in the sport. As defensive coordinator at Texas Tech, he was the yin to Mike Leach’s yang, bringing a calming influence and capable defense to match the eccentric Leach’s Air Raid offense.

When Leach was pushed out amid abuse allegations, McNeill guided the Red Raiders through the situation as interim head coach then took the job at his alma mater, East Carolina.

There he led the Pirates four bowl games in five years and posted a 10-win season in 2013 while regularly beating up on ACC programs such as North Carolina, N.C. State and Virginia Tech. McNeill also brought in a fresh-faced offensive coordinator, who with Shane Carden at quarterback and Justin Hardy at wide receiver, rewrote the East Carolina record books.

But 2015 was a rebuilding year, particularly when Carden’s heir apparent, Kurt Benkert, went down with an injury in the preseason. The Pirates finished 5-7 with seven-point losses at Florida and BYU and a home win against Virginia Tech. That was apparently enough to get McNeill, still beloved by fans and players, the boot.

The rest is history still in the making. The Pirates are 4-14 and 2-9 in the American Athletic Conference under McNeill’s replacement, Scottie Montgomery. McNeill was quickly snapped up as an assistant at Virginia and Benkert followed his former head coach to Charlottesville.

Riley, of course, suddenly became the youngest head coach in the country, when Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops announced a surprising retirement in the summer. Just 34, Riley turned to his old mentor McNeill as an assistant to help manage one of the highest profile coaching jobs in the nation.

Benkert has completed 64 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns against three interceptions for Virginia, which sits at 4-1 with a prime opportunity to be 7-1 and undefeated in the ACC heading into November.

Riley and the Sooners picked up a signature win at Ohio State early this season, but are heading into a rivalry game with Texas coming off an upset loss to Iowa State. You can bet the rookie head coach is glad to have the experience and calming effect of McNeill around at this time.

And ECU is looking at another likely beatdown on the road at UCF, with lots of Pirates fans likely watching other teams and wondering what if.