University of Oklahoma head football coach Lincoln Riley filled the vacant position on his staff Wednesday by hiring Ruffin McNeill as assistant head coach and defensive tackles coach. McNeill, a former head coach at East Carolina while Riley was offensive coordinator there, comes to Norman from Virginia, where he served the 2016 season as assistant head coach and defensive line coach.
"I'm very excited that Ruffin McNeill is joining our coaching staff," said Riley, who was named OU's 22nd head coach last Wednesday after Bob Stoops retired. "Personally, I have a great history with him from our time together at Texas Tech and East Carolina. We're getting an extremely high-quality person and coach. Our team and fans will love the personality and energy he'll bring to our program.
"Ruffin possesses a distinguished record defensively, and I'm excited to see him work alongside defensive coordinator Mike Stoops and the rest of our staff on that side of the ball. I view the defensive line as one of the most important — if not the most important — position groups on the field, and he'll be a big benefit to our student-athletes and to our program as a whole."
Riley indicated that Calvin Thibodeaux, who has spent the last two seasons as OU's defensive line coach, will coach defensive ends. Riley also said he expects to finalize other coaching staff titles in the coming days.
A native of Lumberton, N.C., McNeill served as head coach at ECU, his alma mater, for six seasons (2010-15). Riley was his offensive coordinator for the first five of those seasons before he was hired at OU.
"I had a great experience working for (head coach) Bronco Mendenhall at Virginia and really enjoyed that," said McNeill on Wednesday. "Now having a chance to work for Lincoln, it's a proud moment for me because I'm very proud of Lincoln. It's an exciting moment as well. I've been in coaching a long time and I'm very honored to be joining the Oklahoma family. There's obviously outstanding tradition here and I got to know Coach (Barry) Switzer very, very well. I'm extremely excited."
Prior to East Carolina, McNeill spent 10 seasons at Texas Tech, where he first worked with Riley. During his time with the Red Raiders, McNeill coached linebackers (2000-02), special teams (2003-06) and defensive tackles (2007). He was Tech's interim defensive coordinator in 2007 before being promoted full-time to the spot for the 2008 and 2009 seasons.
McNeill concluded the 2009 campaign as the Red Raiders' interim head coach by rallying No. 21 Texas Tech to a 41-31 victory over Michigan State at the Valero Alamo Bowl with Riley making his debut as offensive play caller.
On Jan. 21, 2010, McNeill was named the 20th head coach in East Carolina history. The next day, he announced Riley as his offensive coordinator. McNeill went 42-34 at ECU and his teams played in four bowl games.
McNeill said his experience and ability to relate to players are perhaps his greatest strengths.
"I've been at every level and have done it a lot of different ways," he began. "I've been fortunate to work with great people. I've had the big-picture view of a head coach, I've been a defensive coordinator and I've been a special teams coordinator, so I think I have some things I bring to the table. I absolutely love coaching the players. I love that part. I'm excited to do that here. Can't wait to get on the field, get in the meeting rooms, talk strategy, talk life. That's what I've always been known for; being a hard worker and a team guy. I believe it's team and family first, last and always. Lincoln and his wife, Caitlin, are family to me. I've known him since he was 18 years old when he was a freshman at Texas Tech.
"I believe in working players harder than they've worked before, but also loving them more than they've ever been loved. That's my base. And I always am clear with my expectations. 'Here's what I expect and why, and here's what we're achieving.' It's not just the 'what,' but it's also the 'why' and the 'how.' I treat the players like they're my sons. Not just my particular group, but the entire team. I'm looking forward to building those relationships here at OU."
In 2014, East Carolina began the season with a 6-1 record and resided in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll for six weeks. ECU used an explosive offensive unit that rated among the nation's top five in passing (third), first downs (fourth) and total yards (fifth). Defensively, only 10 FBS teams were better against the run, as the Pirates allowed just 111.8 yards per game.
East Carolina recorded 10 victories in 2013, which ranks as the second-highest single-season win total in school history. That squad also broke or matched 52 individual and team single-game, single-season and all-time standards, while both sides of the ball combined to rank among the top 15 nationally in 12 statistical categories.
McNeill's coaching career began at Lumberton High School (1980-84) and he went on to work at Clemson (1985-86), Austin Peay (1987), North Alabama (1988), Appalachian State (1989-91, 1993-96), East Carolina (1992), UNLV (1997-98) and Fresno State (1999). He also spent time with the Miami Dolphins as a summer intern in 1996.
Mike Stoops said he's known McNeill for many years and is looking forward to collaborating on defensive schemes together.
"Ruffin brings a ton of experience to the defensive side of the ball, he's very familiar with our league because of his time at Texas Tech and his knowledge will help us keep expanding what we're doing. I've seen his work from afar and from coaching against him, and I appreciate his work ethic and the way he goes about his business. He's a great person as well. He'll be a great addition to our staff and I'm excited to work with him."
McNeill echoed Stoops' comments.
"Mike and I have known each other for quite a while, and in this business you kind of keep up with everyone," said McNeill. "We kept up with each other, even during his Arizona days, just seeing how each other were doing and so forth, and Bob as well. And you obviously know coaches through competition. Mike and I had a great visit yesterday and had dinner last night. We talked coaching philosophy, we talked schemes and we talked life. It went very well. I'm really looking forward to working with Mike."
Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said Wednesday that OU is getting a gem of person and coach.
"Ruffin McNeill is one of the best people, not only in the world of coaching, but also in the world, period," said Mendenhall. "I've really enjoyed his friendship, the exchange of ideas and the camaraderie that we've had together. Ruff has amazing relationships with anyone he's met. He's got a great football mind. I am appreciative of all the work he put in helping us to begin to make Virginia an excellent football program."
A four-year letterwinner at East Carolina from 1976-80 under legendary head coach Pat Dye, McNeill was a three-year starter at defensive back and was the team captain for two seasons. He helped lead the Pirates to the Southern Conference Championship in 1976 and to an Independence Bowl berth in 1978.
McNeill and his wife, Erlene, have two daughters and a granddaughter. Renata McNeill Petrekin and son-in-law Lincoln Petrekin reside in Coral Gables, Fla., with their daughter Isabella, while Olivia McNeill is a high school teacher and lives in Winston-Salem, N.C.