Mac Engel

Ruffin McNeill makes Texas Tech wonder: “What if?”

The following is not an indictment on Texas Tech’s decision to hire the best-looking coach on the planet, who ultimately might work out, but rather its decision to not seriously consider “the other guy” many years ago.

The “other guy” was Ruffin McNeill, who today is the head coach of the adorable little team that does not have an invite to the country club.

McNeill, the former defensive coordinator at Tech under Mike Leach, has the East Carolina Pirates at 6-1, ranked 18th in the country and in the mix for an invite to a New Year’s Day or New Year’s Eve bowl game. Think Peach, Fiesta or, perhaps, Cotton.

He was named Leach’s interim replacement in December 2009, and led the Red Raiders to a bowl win in his one game.

McNeill was unable to answer this interview request as he said he is spending time with his aging father.

McNeill was one of the two coaches Tech interviewed to replace Leach. The other candidate, Tommy Tuberville, desperately wanted the job, even though he never wanted any part of Lubbock. Tech had its coach right in front of them, but opted for the guy who could look the part instead.

Again, this is not an indictment on current head coach Kliff Kingsbury, aka Coach Bro, as he is affectionately called because of his youthful, frat-boy good looks. He is 11-9 at Tech, in his second season, and it is too early to determine whether his tenure will be a success.

As much as the Red Raiders want to see one of their own succeed in this job, it only takes a couple of losing seasons to get dumped, regardless of your background.

What is not too early to determine is that Tech, and many other places, often deny the best candidates because they are not the hot names, won’t win the press conference or the stupid Immediate Reaction Polls.

We don’t have to look that far in Fort Worth. The decision to hire Gary Patterson by TCU as the replacement for Dennis Franchione was not exactly a landslide decision in terms of popularity. Hiring Fran was. GP not so much.

In today’s climate, the Gary Patterson that existed then would not have been given that job.

McNeill wasn’t hired by Tech, despite a résumé that said he had earned his shot. He had been at Texas Tech for 10 years and he had been in the college game for 25 years. That should be enough.

But these days, administrations, which often farm out their decision to hire a coach to head-hunting firms, are more preoccupied with the short term rather than the long. The Bob Stoops Curve has ruined it for a generation of new coaches.

In Tech’s defense, the decision to not hire McNeill may have been more about wanting to clean house after Leach than not believing he was the best candidate for the job.

But its decision to hire Tuberville over McNeill reeked of a school that wanted the anti-Leach, a guy who would play nice with the higher-ups. Tuberville did that, right up until he got any other offer and left for Cincinnati in only his second season.

East Carolina gave McNeill his shot, and in his last two-plus seasons the Pirates are 24-9 with two bowl appearances. A pair of reported weight-reduction surgeries also has aided in his ability to do the job.

ECU is not a graveyard job, and it is the latest school to pose a potential problem to the college football Mafia that does not want anybody but its own to play in its biggest money games.

Even if ECU finishes with one loss, or 23rd-ranked Marshall remains undefeated, no team outside of the power conferences is getting into college football’s new “final four” playoff bracket.

Maybe when the playoff format is expanded to eight teams, a school such as East Carolina will have a shot. Until that day comes, the best these teams can hope for is to be a nuisance, and to create enough of a stink so the cartel that runs college football will create a playoff spot for the “other five” conferences.

McNeill has put ECU into the national discussion. Who knows what he would have done at Texas Tech? Tech obviously didn’t think he had the right credentials.

Follow Mac Engel on The Big Mac Blog at star-telegram/com/sports/.

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