With so many open head coaching positions, somebody was bound to make a truly baffling move. While there is still time for somebody to grab the title back (looking at you, South Carolina and Will Muschamp), right now, the undisputed leader of the "what the hell" contest is East Carolina, which unceremoniously dumped Ruffin McNeill after a 5-7 season.
That firing was announced with a truly weird press release, which singled out schools that finished ahead of ECU and didn't indicate he might've been fired for anything beyond on-field performance. The firing centered around McNeill's refusal to make changes on his coaching staff, reports SB Nation's Steven Godfrey.
Since the Pirates accepted membership in the American Athletic Conference in 2014, ECU has posted an 8-8 league mark, which includes a recent 3-5 ledger and fifth-place East Division finish this fall. During its inaugural year in the AAC, East Carolina was 5-3 and stood fourth behind Cincinnati, Memphis and UCF.
McNeill recently completed his sixth year heading the Pirate program following East Carolina's 19-16 loss to Cincinnati last Saturday that wrapped up a 5-7 regular season finish. He compiled an overall record of 42-34 (.553) and captured one bowl victory at ECU
ECU struggled a bit this season. The Pirates finished 5-7, thanks to a challenging non-conference schedule that included close losses at Florida and a 9-3 BYU and a victory over proto-rivals Virginia Tech. Before the season started, they lost their star offensive coordinator (Lincoln Riley) to Oklahoma, new projected starting QB Kurt Benkert to a season-ending knee injury, and all-everything WR Justin Hardy to the NFL Draft.
Given that the Pirates can't have a roster stacked with blue-chippers, that kind of attrition plus this schedule would lead to a regression year for a lot of coaches.
It's also worth pointing out that McNeill isn't a lot of coaches. For one, he's an ECU graduate and letterman, a member of the team that made the school's first modern bowl game (1978) under Pat Dye. He's beloved by his players, his community and other coaches.
And he's been uncommonly successful at East Carolina. Just two years ago, he led the Pirates to their first 10-win season since 1991, and that successful year was bookended by 8-5 campaigns and bowl trips. Since ECU doesn't have a true conference rival, the fanbase measures itself against local schools, like North Carolina and NC State. ECU has beaten all three of the ACC schools twice in a row each, despite having the lesser resources that come with being in the American.
So, ECU let go of a coach who dunked on local power-conference rivals, had ties to the university, was loved by nearly everybody and won a lot of football games. All because he had one bad season and didn't win the conference yet. What the hell are the Pirates thinking?
According to one national football writer, ECU AD Jeff Compher is just trying to advance the program.
People like Ruffin a lot so they'll bash ECU but bottom line, Compher thinks he's got a top-3 AAC job and he wasn't getting those results.— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) December 4, 2015
East Carolina does not have an agreement w/anyone to replace Ruffin McNeill. "Just trying to upgrade the program," source told @ESPN— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) December 4, 2015
ECU has some of the best fan support among non-power programs, but there is little else to make one think this is a top-three AAC job, especially now that Houston and Memphis have been prepared to spend nearly $3 million on head coaches (McNeill made $1.4 million last year). It isn't in an especially fertile recruiting territory, the facilities aren't that fancy, and it's in a small city away from TV cameras.
It's a quality program in a fun town with an excellent gameday atmosphere, but there is nothing about ECU that screams it's been underachieving.
Riley is unlikely to leave Oklahoma to take the job, especially given his relationship with McNeill, which puts ECU in a tough spot. Do they hope they can somehow lure former UNC coach Butch Davis to Greenville? Do they have their eyes on an assistant they are completely confident can take the program to the next level? Is there a lot more booster money in the program than what was previously being spent?
The Pirates better hope they have a foolproof plan, because they just fired a great coach in a crowded market. And as dissatisfying as 5-7 might be in an unlucky year, with the wrong hire, things could get much worse in a hurry.