By MARC TRACYOCT. 23, 2014
GREENVILLE, N.C. — On Tuesday nights in the fall, East Carolina Coach Ruffin McNeill, known to some as Ruff, conducts his call-in show at Logan’s Roadhouse, about a mile south of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Regulars reserve tables in advance.
This week, callers were curious about Connecticut, East Carolina’s opponent on Thursday night. The Pirates, who officially joined the American Athletic Conference in July, had never faced the Huskies.
When it was suggested that Connecticut, which entered Thursday with a minus-77 point differential, might not be so tough, McNeill disagreed. He told listeners in his gravelly voice: “They’re tough. They don’t flinch. So what we’ve got to do is make sure we play our ball, Pirate ball.”
Playing imperfectly Thursday night, the Pirates came away with a 31-21 win over the Huskies (1-6, 0-4) in a game filled with mistakes and penalties. The teams entered the fourth quarter tied at 21-21.
“I like the way this team fights to get to where we want, and that’s the conference championship,” the junior linebacker Zeek Bigger said.
“We’re going to keep playing till we fall,” he added. “And I don’t see us falling anytime soon.”
McNeill’s brand of Pirate ball, which encourages players to treat every task with the respect accorded difficult endeavors and which throws in the Texas-type offense expected from a Mike Leach acolyte, has the Pirates (6-1, 3-0) ranked 18th in The Associated Press’s poll.
Despite having annual athletic department revenue lower than that of all the universities in the so-called Big 5 conferences, East Carolina beat two Atlantic Coast Conference teams — winning at Virginia Tech a week after the Hokies had upset Ohio State and routing North Carolina, 70-41 — and was narrowly defeated on the road by South Carolina of the Southeastern Conference.
“East Carolina is a lot tougher game than maybe picking up one of those bottom Big Ten teams,” Gamecocks Coach Steve Spurrier said before that game.
On Tuesday, when the College Football Playoff selection committee releases its first set of rankings, the Pirates are the best bet to be the top-ranked team in what is commonly known as the Group of Five — the Football Bowl Subdivision conferences outside the Big 5 (the A.C.C., the SEC, the Big Ten, the Big 12 and the Pacific-12). This distinction will be more than trivia: The top-ranked conference champion from the Group of Five is guaranteed a spot in one of the six playoff-affiliated bowls.
That place would actually be a consolation prize for the American, which includes some football programs from the old Big East that were previously guaranteed a spot in a Bowl Championship Series bowl game.
“I don’t know if it’s guerrilla warfare, but we know we’re challengers,” said Mike Aresco, the commissioner of the American Athletic Conference. “I think we have to have a bit of a chip on our shoulder.”
Like its new conference, East Carolina, formerly of Conference USA, styles itself both proudly apart from and defiantly as good as any team in the Big 5. But it would gladly remove the chip from its shoulder in exchange for entrance into the elite; both its current athletic director and a former one said the university would not hesitate to join the A.C.C.
East Carolina is turning realignment on its head. Despite being a program left behind, it is poised to make the loudest statement in the 50-year history of its football team, which has featured players like the running backs Earnest Byner and Chris Johnson, quarterback David Garrard and fullback Vonta Leach.
“Building towards the upper echelon schools was always what East Carolina was about,” Byner said, “and Ruffin has taken it that way.”
This region — where Carolina is pronounced Car’lina, as in East Carolina’s alma mater, “To your name so fair, dear old East Car’lina”— is proudly provincial.
“Some people here believe we should be the 51st state,” Athletic Director Jeff Compher said. The Pirates have similarly been off the radar. They won 10 or more games only twice, in 1991 and last season. The Sporting News ranked them the 13th-best non-B.C.S. team of the B.C.S. era. Before this season, NFL.com picked seven non-Big 5 teams to watch, and East Carolina did not make the list. Sports Illustrated predicted Cincinnati (3-3, 1-1) would win the conference.
Do not tell any of that to East Carolina fans. Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium seats 50,000, and the Pirates are on pace to have the highest average attendance outside the Big 5 for the third straight year. On Thursday night, the official attendance was 40,152. In Raleigh and Charlotte, according to Compher, East Carolina’s television viewership eclipses North Carolina State’s and closely trails North Carolina’s.
McNeill, 56, knows a thing or two about Car’lina. He grew up in Lumberton, N.C., near the South Carolina border, and was a defensive back for the Pirates from 1976 to 1980.
But his offense is all Texas. McNeill spent nearly a decade as a defensive assistant at Texas Tech under Leach, a coach as responsible as any for the hegemony of spread, pass-heavy offenses in contemporary college football. Quarterback Shane Carden is one of two Texans on the East Carolina roster. The offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Lincoln Riley, was also an assistant under Leach. The offensive line coach, Brandon Jones, and outside receivers coach, Dave Nichol, played at Texas Tech, a Big 12 program.
Entering Thursday, East Carolina’s version of the so-called air raid offense had the fourth-most passing yards a game (371.3) in the Football Bowl Subdivision (Leach’s new team, Washington State, is first with 490) and the 12th-most points a game.
McNeill said he liked to cultivate a family atmosphere with his teams (he has even published a children’s book called “A Little Pirate’s ABCs”). This includes doling out discipline: Three freshmen were suspended indefinitely after a BB gun incident, and the top receiver Cam Worthy, a senior, was suspended two games for violating the student code of conduct.
During practice, McNeill prefers to spend most of his time interacting with players.
“I have all girls — two daughters, a granddaughter, Samantha my dog, my wife,” he said. “But I’ve got 125 sons.”
In January 2010, McNeill rejected an offer to become Stanford’s defensive coordinator under Jim Harbaugh so he could return to East Carolina. At the time, the former athletic director Terry Holland was trying to build a bigger program. He had long lobbied to join the Big East, but the conference presidents did not cooperate.
Other than an in-conference spoiler like Cincinnati or Central Florida, (which finished last season ranked 10th after a bowl victory against Baylor), the biggest obstacle to the bowl spot for East Carolina is No. 23 Marshall (7-0, 3-0 Conference USA), which defeated East Carolina last season in the Pirates’ final game in the conference.
ESPN’s Football Power Index ranks Marshall higher than East Carolina, but the Thundering Herd have no Big 5 teams on their schedule.
Aresco, the American’s commissioner, was a leader in the push for a bowl-game guarantee.
“I remember arguing in that room that you couldn’t exclude half of college football,” he recalled of one heated meeting with commissioners who were designing the playoff. A conference receives $4 million, plus $2 million for expenses, for each team in a playoff-affiliated bowl.
“The revenue’s real, and it matters,” Aresco said. “We don’t have the kind of revenue the Big 5 schools have.”
And the Big 5’s autonomy could allow the richest universities to offer athletes more than colleges like East Carolina can provide, making it even more difficult for the Pirates to compete at the top. The American and Conference USA said they planned to match the Big 5 when it came to giving students the full cost of attendance, an amount typically a few thousand dollars higher than a scholarship, and to seriously consider scholarship guarantees and improved medical insurance.
Still, the Pirates refuse to believe there is a cap on their potential. Their sights are set on the playoff itself.
“The bigger goal is to figure out, is there a chance for us to be in that top four?” said Compher, the athletic director. “We have to shoot to be the top.”
McNeill agreed, saying: “I’ve coached at that level. We feel like we’re as good as any team in the country.”