Thank you, Ruff

Published 12:39 pm Friday, December 4, 2015

It was the 10th week of the 2013 football season. Shane Carden was lighting it up, helping to lead East Carolina to a 5-2 record as it prepared to face Florida International. Kurt Benkert, a redshirt freshman at the time, had been activated to back up Carden after Cody Keith was ruled out due to injury.

This was my first season covering ECU football. I was a rookie when it came to identifying story angles and interviewing coaches and players. I had a neat idea in mind. Benkert is a Florida native and his family would be in attendance for the game in Miami. FIU was a subpar team at best. I asked head coach Ruffin McNeill something to the effect of, “If the game gets out of hand, does Benkert get a chance to relieve Carden?”

“That’s not a very good question,” McNeill answered.

It was the first time I had ever asked McNeill a question. I was thrown off guard and just awkwardly thanked him for his time and let him carry on with his evening.

That is a moment that will always stick out to me. McNeill — known to most as “Ruff” — taught me something right there.

ECU announced Friday morning that Ruff had been relieved of his head coaching duties. The Pirates finished their 2015 campaign 5-7, which is about how most pegged them to do. After all, they lost offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley to Oklahoma, where he finished the season as a candidate for assistant coach of the year. The historic quarterback-receiver tandem of Carden and Justin Hardy moved on. Benkert, who had been groomed to take over the prolific “Air Raid” offense, suffered a season-ending knee injury in August. Injuries also plagued the offensive line throughout the season.

The logic is understandable. Athletic director Jeff Compher sees ECU as a top-three team in the American Athletic Conference. “Our expectations are to compete for championships,” he said in a news release on Friday.

Ruff simply wasn’t getting those results.

I’m not here to speculate or analyze the move. That will come at a later date when more information is available.

Rather, I’d like to openly thank Ruff for being a pleasure to work with in these last few years. There’s still a lot for me to learn in this profession, but Ruff made every practice and postgame conference a joy. Even when he told me my question was bad, I appreciated his honesty.

The thing I’ll miss the most about Ruff is his relationship with the players. He was a genuine father to them. That isn’t “coach speak.” Some of these young men came from backgrounds where they didn’t have a fatherly figure. Ruff was all that and more to each and every player that came through the ECU football program.

This past weekend marked the third Senior Day I’ve covered. I’ve seen Ruff shed a few tears — sorry, watched his eyeballs sweat — each time. The players were oftentimes even more emotional than he was.

No matter what moves ECU makes in its search for a new coach, the university — not just the football team — lost one of the most genuine people to ever walk through its doors.

Thanks for everything, Ruff.