ECU’s McNeill embraces challenge of 1st game week

The smoke will billow near East Carolina’s locker room, the
pyrotechnics will sparkle and they’ll blast Jimi Hendrix’s ”Purple
Haze” over the speakers.

Then, for the first time, Ruffin McNeill will lead the Pirates
onto the field.

”Right now, I’m getting little goose bumps,” McNeill said
Monday, a full six days before gameday. ”You can’t fake
that.”

While there’s no hiding McNeill’s passion for his alma mater,
there are more pressing things to worry about than making a grand
entrance.

Playing a Conference USA rival – not to mention, one that might
be carrying a grudge – has a way of creating an added sense of
urgency.

McNeill’s first game in charge of the two-time defending league
champion Pirates, and his first game as a full-time head coach
anywhere, comes Sunday when Tulsa visits in the first C-USA game of
the season.

”It’s a conference game, but it’s our first game, and it’s the
only game we’ve got this week, so all the focus will be on Tulsa,”
McNeill said. ”The motivation will be there. It’s the next guy up.
It’s the first guy up. That’s enough motivation for us.”

It helps that McNeill has some familiarity with Tulsa coach Todd
Graham. McNeill spent the past decade on Texas Tech’s staff, while
Graham was a high school coach in a Dallas suburb before he made
the jump to college ball, joining West Virginia’s staff in 2001 and
later getting his Division I head coaching job at Rice in 2006. He
moved to Tulsa a year later.

”I’ve crossed paths with coach McNeill quite a bit,” Graham
said. ”It’s genuinely the real deal. I’m very impressed with him.
… As a former high school coach, just the type of person that he
is, he really cares about people.”

The Pirates are 2-0 in the past two seasons against Tulsa,
including a victory in the 2008 C-USA title game, and that prompted
Graham to call East Carolina ”the team to beat in this
conference.”

But those teams were settled at quarterback. That is not the
case, at least not yet.

McNeill said he has yet to decide whether former Boston College
QB Dominique Davis or sophomore walk-on Brad Wornick will take the
first snap Sunday against the Golden Hurricane.

The longtime Mike Leach assistant said Wornick at times reminds
him of former Tech signal-callers Cody Hodges and Kliff Kingsbury.
Davis, Ruffin said, has big-game experience after helping BC reach
the 2008 ACC title game, plus the talent and intelligence to run
McNeill’s version of the ”Air Raid” offense.

”In this offense, and what we do, a strong arm is great, but
it’s … when and how you deliver that thing that’s important in
this offense,” McNeill said. ”Both guys are doing a great job.
… Those guys are battling night and day. … You’ll see one guy
in seven-on-seven just complete great throws. Then, the next guy in
team (drills will) do the same thing.”

For the man known around campus as ”Coach Ruff,” it’s been a
long wait to not only return home, but to get that elusive first
head coaching opportunity.

The Lumberton native and former East Carolina defensive back in
the late 1970s spent the past 30 years as a career assistant. He
bounced from Austin Peay to Appalachian State to UNLV, before
landing at Texas Tech in 2000.

Following a messy divorce between Leach and the school, McNeill
was put in charge on an interim basis for the Red Raiders’ Alamo
Bowl victory over Michigan State. Tommy Tuberville got the
full-time job and didn’t retain McNeill, who was hired by his alma
mater in January after Skip Holtz left for South Florida.

”I’m looking forward to seeing our fans and getting around
Pirate Nation and getting our football team, more importantly than
me, around them,” McNeill said. ”They’re not coming to see me.
They’re coming to see our football team.

”I’m sure it’ll be emotional, and I’m looking forward to the
execution of the game operation. That’s the exciting part of it to
me. Let’s see who can beat who. I love that part of the game. But
I’ll be excited, I’m sure.”