One of the hottest stories in college and pro football is speculation on where Jim Harbaugh will land next with his coaching whistle.
The narrative is he’s again worn out his welcome, and the San Francisco 49ers are about to fire him after three years of success – including one Super Bowl, two NFC championship games and one Coach of the Year award -- followed by one dysfunctional season.
But don’t try and tell East Carolina head coach Ruffin McNeill that Harbaugh is hard to get along with. Turns out the contentious Harbaugh has a “good guy” side to him.
“I have no idea what they’re talking about in San Francisco,” McNeill said. “I love Coach Harbaugh. I would work for Jim Harbaugh in a heartbeat.”
McNeill, who has East Carolina facing Florida on Jan. 3 in the Birmingham Bowl, isn’t in the job market. But in January 2010, McNeill had accepted a job offer from Harbaugh to join his Stanford staff.
This was shortly after Texas Tech had informed McNeill his interim head coach role status would not be extended despite having led the 2009 Red Raiders to a win over Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl played on Jan. 2, 2010. He had been at the school 10 seasons and impressively handled the emergency role in the wake of Mike Leach’s sudden and controversial dismissal as head coach just days before the bowl game.
McNeil wasn't to be unemployed long; he soon had defensive coordinator offers, including Mississippi State. He was at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport awaiting a connection flight to Lubbock while returning home from Stanford. That's when he received a phone call from then-East Carolina athletic director Terry Holland. He asked McNeill if he was interested in the East Carolina job as head coach following Skip Holtz’s departure for South Florida.
East Carolina is McNeill’s alma mater, having been a four-year letterman, three-year starter and team captain in his playing days from 1976 to 1980. He also grew up in nearby Lumberton. But he was hesitant to say yes and with good reason.
“I told Terry I had accepted the Stanford job,” McNeill said. “I said, ‘Coach, no disrespect, because I appreciate the phone call. But if you’re not serious let me know. If you are serious, I’m interested. ’ ”
McNeill, now 58, is African-American and understood college and NFL teams sometimes interview a black candidate just so they can say they did so without seriously considering them.
“I was at the age that I didn’t know if I’d get the opportunity to be a head coach, but I had been through so much and my family had been through it with me,” he said. “We went from the high of winning the bowl game and hoping I’d get the job to the low of not getting the job. When these things happen, it’s not just the head coach. It’s your family, your assistant coaches and their families. We were just starting to build back up when I got the Stanford job.”
Holland assured him he was serious; McNeill called Harbaugh not knowing how he would react. McNeill last left Harbaugh at Stanford with plans scheduled to meet in Atlanta on recruiting business. After all, McNeill was a major hire for Harbaugh as his new defensive coordinator.
“Jim said, ‘Ruff, that is great. Look, you go for it. If you get it, let me know. If you don’t get it, I’ll meet you in Atlanta.’ He wished me well instead of being mad like a lot of coaches would have been. He encouraged me to get the job.”
Five seasons later McNeill’s homecoming has proven to be the right hire for East Carolina.
The Pirates joined the American Athletic Conference this year and finished with 8-4 record to earn a bowl bid, the school’s third straight bowl trip and fourth in McNeill’s five seasons in Greenville. It should be noted Tommy Tuberville only last three years at Texas Tech and Holtz, McNeill's predecessor at East Carolina, was fired by South Florida after only three seasons.
McNeill has developed players, including third-team All-American senior wide receiver Justin Hardy. This season he set the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision career record for catches and won the Burlsworth Trophy awarded to the nation’s outstanding player who began his career as a walk-on athlete. Lightly recruited quarterback Shane Carden was named the AAC Offensive Player of the Year.
Ironically, McNeill’s counterpart in the Birmingham Bowl will be an interim head coach promoted from defensive coordinator. The Gators chose D.J. Durkin to coach the bowl game following the dismissal of Will Muschamp.
“It’s tough,” McNeill said of the interim status for the entire staff. “But those coaches are professionals. They understand the game, they understand the world we have chosen to live in. They'll have a lot of pride. They'll know who their next director of the program is. I'm sure Mac (Jim McElwain) will be at the game and I look forward to seeing Mac as well.”
By kickoff of the Birmingham Bowl we likely will know where Jim Harbaugh plans next season to blow his whistle and enthusiastically ask his players, using a line from his childhood and father Jack, “Who’s got it better than us?”
McNeill, of course, is entrenched in his job, but anything else Harbaugh needs, all he has to do is call.
“I’ll do whatever he needs from me,” McNeill said.