Pirates' McNeill taking control over of health
Ruffin McNeill felt the pain in his right hip with every step, a constant companion that steadily cut into the East Carolina coach's once-dedicated workout regimen.
Worse, it contributed to significant weight gain that not only increased the burden on the failing joint to make walking even tougher, but had also become a serious health concern.
One that prompted McNeill, 52, to take back control of his life.
In a profession where coaches often overlook their own health while pushing players to peak condition, McNeill has lost 90 pounds after weight-loss surgery in January and will have hip replacement surgery later this month.
''I want to do whatever I can to be the best husband, father and coach I can be - in that order,'' he said. ''I also talk to our young men about doing the little extra things ... about being disciplined and doing the best you can on whatever you dive into.
''I want to make sure I don't ask them to do something I'm not doing.''
The former Pirates defensive back affectionately known as ''Coach Ruff'' weighed 388 pounds - exactly double his playing weight as a senior in 1979 - before having gastric bypass surgery. The procedure reduced his stomach capacity to about a golf ball-sized amount of food or liquid.
Now he's 298 pounds, cutting a slimmer outline through clothes growing baggier by the day.
''Just say I'm looking good,'' he said with a smile.
He looks a little younger, too.
''It's fun to see him looking like the old Ruff like I married,'' said Erlene McNeill, his wife of nearly 24 years. ''Except maybe for a little gray hair.''
That weight loss has cleared the way for the next step in his self-improvement project. McNeill walks with a pronounced limp and relies on a golf cart to quickly navigate the school's practice fields. But after Saturday's spring game, McNeill can focus more on preparing for the April 29 hip surgery that will help provide a fresh start - more energy, better mobility, downsized frame - for training camp in August.
''Everybody has something that's not right that they probably need to fix,'' said Lincoln Riley, an assistant with McNeill at Texas Tech before becoming his offensive coordinator at ECU. ''A lot of people aren't able to put that pride away, especially somebody that's that public of a figure where everybody's going to know and it's going to be front-page news.
''Most people aren't willing to change that.''
The changes follow a season in which Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio suffered a mild heart attack and Urban Meyer resigned a second time at Florida amid health concerns, highlighting hazards in a profession with high stress and long hours.
McNeill said he isn't reacting to fear. Rather, he's returning to a healthier lifestyle.
Still, as team physician Joe Armen put it, ''He knew his back was against the wall.''
''Obviously the high level of stress and busy lifestyle associated with coaching college football can have negative health consequences,'' said Armen, part of the medical team working with McNeill. ''I think that's especially true if the job itself becomes life-consuming. ... Many seem to be driven to outwork their peers regardless of the wear and tear it can have on their bodies.''
McNeill held that off by working out five times a week at Texas Tech as an assistant under Mike Leach, typically an hour or so lifting weights and another 90 minutes of aerobic work. But arthritic pain soon developed in a hip that never suffered a serious injury in college, providing steady interference to his routine.
While he tried to push through it, his weight inched higher amid the fast food, airport dinners and big meals prepared by recruits' families during home visits. By the time he took over in Greenville in January 2010, his routine was often limited to upper-body work as he scrambled to hire a staff and jump into recruiting.
But he eventually started exercising in a pool to ease the burden on his hip. He started a liquid diet after the season to prepare for the weight-loss surgery, then followed the procedure with another four weeks of liquids before slowly advancing to proteins like chicken or fish.
It's quite a change from the days of eating on the run or treating his coaching staff - and himself - to catered meals, biscuits or doughnuts around the office.
''I think if you did a poll for former athletes who play in college, they'll probably say, 'Yeah, I eat the same way as when I was at the training table,''' Erlene McNeill said. ''When you're in college, you're encouraged to beef up and it's kind of hard to change that over the years.''
Now he snacks on yogurt or a few peanuts. He drinks juices and water while avoiding caffeine and soda. He works out in the pool around 5 a.m. several times a week, swimming and doing exercises to build strength that will aid his recovery from the hip surgery.
McNeill said he has more energy and a clearer mind. His players have noticed.
''He did worry us at some points with how much weight he's had,'' defensive lineman Matt Milner said. ''But he looks like it's coming around and he looks so much better than he was. He looks like a total new guy.
''Everything kind of ties in. He's in control of this team and he's in control of his health, and that sets a great example for everybody.''
McNeill is motivated in his recovery by the thought that ''a lot of people are depending on me,'' from the players aiming for a sixth straight bowl trip to the two daughters hoping he'll be in the best shape possible to one day walk them down the aisle. And he's so excited that he even issued a playful challenge to Riley.
''He told me he wants to look like me here pretty quick,'' said Riley, who at 27 is a slender 190 pounds. ''He said he's going to get it off as fast as he can and then we're going to go race, so I'm looking forward to that race.''