By Jeff Greenberg
College football fans were treated to an exciting college football playoff this past season, particularly with the semi-final games. The Oklahoma Sooners were one of those teams providing the excitement, and there was a coach on their sidelines who has experienced a lot in his long career. A coach that couldn’t imagine doing anything else or, at this stage in his career, working for anybody else. That coach is Ruffin McNeill, the Defensive Line and Associate Head Coach at the University of Oklahoma.
Coach McNeill came to Oklahoma after receiving a phone call from one of his best friends in the business, Lincoln Riley. When Coach McNeill was the head coach at East Carolina University, he hired Riley to be his offensive coordinator. That was Riley’s first coordinator position. People said he was crazy to hire such a young guy for the job, but McNeill saw something those critics didn’t see. It’s the same thing Riley sees in McNeill, and it’s the reason he picked up the phone that day to offer him a job at Oklahoma soon after being named the head coach in Norman. Loyalty.
Coach McNeill sat down with us for the first edition of The Extra Point to discuss coaching, life and answering Riley’s phone call.
When your time at East Carolina ended, what did the conversation sound like with your wife about what you wanted to do next in your career or whether you even wanted to continue your career? – “There really wasn’t a choice we had to consider at that moment. Coaching is what we do and we knew we weren’t done with this profession yet. I strongly believe to be great at coaching you have to have a great partner at home. Some call their wife their “better half.” Not me. I call mine my “better three-fourths” because she’s that special to me and she’s that important to my success in coaching and in life. She knows coaching isn’t just what I do, it’s what I love doing. She’s been in it with me every step of the way. So there were never thoughts of sitting back and hanging up the whistle. What we talked about was which of the opportunities in front of us at that time made the most sense for us. Not just me, but for the both of us. We had other head coaching offers. But I knew I wanted to go somewhere with great expectations and a commitment to deliver on those expectations. I felt like we found that with going to work with Bronco Mendenhall and his staff at Virginia. It was great working with him there, and honestly, I wouldn’t have left there to work for anybody else other than Lincoln Riley, and I won’t leave Lincoln to work for anybody else. I believe God has a plan for you, and sometimes you have to sit back, be quiet and listen. Bronco called me on the night of December 4th and offered me the job in Charlottesville. We took that journey there with him and it was an outstanding experience for Erlene and myself. We had known Bronco before because we had our staffs work together in their professional development in the offseason. We had never met until we played each other one year when he was at BYU and I was at ECU. We hit it off from the start so when that call came it was an easy answer for us.”
When Coach Mendenhall called you that night in December, why was it an easy answer for you to join him in Charlottesville? – “One, because I knew what his standards were as a head coach and how he ran his program at BYU. We share a lot of the same values as a leader. My best friend, Robert Anae, also happened to be his offensive coordinator. So the chance to work with him as well was something I couldn’t resist. Our wives are best friends too. Our kids call us each uncle. We’re family. How could I turn down the chance to work with family? The other built-in advantage was knowing the other guys on Bronco’s staff because of our work together that I mentioned earlier in helping our staffs with their professional development. So when that call came, I had all the reasons to say yes, and no reasons to say no.”
Was there an adjustment period, personally, for you in transitioning from running your own program to working in somebody else’s program? – “Yes, absolutely. It was a big shift for me personally and professionally in terms what my days looked like. Like with recruiting, I couldn’t go out much as a head coach, but now I could travel more. I no longer had some of the daily obligations that a head coach has in the community and in representing the university in different forums. The positive side of the change though was being able to focus more of my attention on the guys in my room. Instead of focusing on 120 players, I was now focused in on about 10 guys. I was able to give them more time on and off of the field. You’re able to really build strong relationships with them as their position coach and I love that part of it. So, in terms of daily activities and responsibilities, a lot changed for me, some bad, because I loved being a head coach, but mostly good. Now mentally, nothing changed for me. You can’t turn off what kind of leader you are just because your title changes. I still looked at the guys in my position room and that team as my sons. I wanted the best for all of them. When I interacted with Bronco and my colleagues, I still had the competitive fire burning inside of me. I may not have had some of the pressures of being the head coach, but I still felt responsible for our results and wanted to do anything I could, for anybody I could, to help us win at Virginia.”
What was the experience like for you and your wife to be working with people at Virginia that are your best friends outside of coaching as well as in coaching? – “Working would be the wrong word to describe it. When you doing something you love with the people you love, it’s never work. Not at all. It was a pleasure and an honor to come to the football building every day there. I’ll never forget those days and the time with those guys. It was special. That’s another reason I could say yes to Lincoln because if I was going to leave the people I love, it better be to go work with more people that I love. That is what Lincoln was offering at Oklahoma. Working with people you love in a profession you love isn’t work.”
It can be hard for a head coach to find somebody that can be a sounding board for them that has been in their shoes and sat in that head coach’s office. Was Bronco able to look to you for that type of relationship? – “I think that relationship was there with us. I’ve sat in that chair and know what all he was facing in any situation. He trusted me and what I had to offer, and I trusted him. So I think it was beneficial to him to have me on the staff. But, I really think the relationship or the benefits of our relationship were a two-way street. We both got something out of it. I learned a lot from Bronco, both in coaching and in life. I never walked away from a conversation with him where I didn’t learn something, or just make a connection with him, and I think he would say the same thing. So yes, it’s unique when a head coach can have a guy on staff that’s been a head coach because it’s one of the most unique jobs in the world. There are only around 130 FBS head coaching positions, so it’s a small group of people that have been in our shoes.”
It sounds like everything was going well at Virginia for you and Erlene. But then one day you get a phone call from Lincoln Riley. What did that conversation sound like? – “It’s hard to explain the feeling I had at that moment. It wasn’t like previous times where a head coach was calling me to offer me a job. This was Lincoln. So just hearing him put those words together on the phone sent a huge feeling of pride through me. I was just so proud to hear him speaking for the first time as a head coach. I’ve been able to watch Lincoln firsthand go through every stage of his career. Every bit of it. So when he called, he already knew and I knew that he was the only person I would leave Bronco for to coach at another program. I’m not a guy who looks around in this business. I believe in loyalty first. I believe in giving everything you’ve got to the school you’re at and the people you’re serving. I say that because it was great and an honor to come work for Oklahoma, but it was even greater to be able to say yes to come work for Lincoln. The loyalty we have to each other is what this was all about. Imagine this again. I’ve known Lincoln and Caitlin, his wife, since they were both freshmen at Texas Tech. I’ve watched him go from being a student-assistant making no money, to a graduate-assistant making a few pennies. Then I saw him earn his way to being a full-time assistant. Then I was able to give him his first coordinator position at East Carolina. People thought he was too young and I told them he wasn’t too young. So I saw him face those odds and the naysayers, and he made believers of them all. That brings me back to the loyalty. There’s trust and then there’s verification of trust. They go hand-in-hand. Lincoln was loyal, I trusted him and I had verification of that trust. When he was my OC at East Carolina, he had five different opportunities to leave me for jobs that could pay him double and triple what I was paying him at the time. And he turned those down. Most people would have said yes. He said no. That’s loyalty and that’s the verification of trust. Those are the things that stand the test of time, both in good times and in bad times. That’s why I say that the one guy that could pull me away from Virginia was Lincoln.”
What’s it like for you, from the coaching perspective, to go from a program where you’re rebuilding to an annual national championship contender? – “At this stage of my career, it’s hard to say because I really enjoy both situations. I loved building things with Bronco at Virginia. It’s great when you know everything that is happening is because of you. There’s a lot of pride in knowing that. Then I look at Oklahoma, a team I competed against for 10 years at Texas Tech, and there’s immediate respect for the history and legacy of this program. We’re here to compete for titles every year. Not some years, but every year. I love that pressure, if you want to call it that. I love that energy. Both experiences have taught me great lessons and given me new perspectives that help me be a better coach and help me be an asset to Lincoln here. Getting back into being a position coach and recruiting as one at Virginia helped get me set-up to be better at both of those skills when I came here to Oklahoma.”
You’ve been through a ton of experiences in your career. But when you’re walking out of the tunnel and about to coach in a college football playoff game, what’s Ruffin McNeill the person feeling in his gut or thinking in his head at that moment? – “Oh man. Jubilation and excitement. Ready to go out and compete on the biggest stage. I was looking forward to the strategies and counter-strategies that would play out in the game. But I also felt a sense of calmness. I learned this from Bronco. When things get really hyped up and loud, I get calmer. So I was excited, but I was calm and ready for the fight. All of it and the emotions of it are why we work so hard to get to that point. You’re ready to see your guys reach their potential and play for a championship.”
How do you think Lincoln Riley has changed as a head coach now that he has a year under his belt? – “Lincoln was prepared for this position. He didn’t just fall into it. He had a plan for himself. He had a plan for us on the staff. Remember there are a few of us that have been head coaches too. And he had a plan for the players on and off the field in order to develop them fully as players and as men. The other thing he had a plan for is the media. That side of this job can really throw a new head coach off balance, but he’s handled it with confidence and with grace. Lincoln was ready to do this job before he ever stepped to that podium to accept the job. We both had a mentor named Donnie Duncan. He always said that being a head coach is like sitting on a three-legged stool, not a four-legged stool. It’s a balancing act at all times. If you don’t handle that balancing act well, you’ll fall. Lincoln has excelled at that from the word go here at Oklahoma. And he’s just getting started.”
If a 20 year-old Ruffin McNeill walked into your office, knowing what you know now about your career, what advice would you give him on what he was about to experience in this profession? – “You know what, my Dad told me something when I first got into coaching that has stuck with me to this day. He said, “There are two kinds of coaches. Those that have been fired and those that will get fired.” Now that’s tough advice for a kid, but it’s true advice. I would want my younger self to know the truth about what he was getting into in coaching. Then I would tell him that you can’t prepare enough each and every day. You have to approach each day with the same motivation and will. It’s not about the money. I can’t even tell you what my current contract here at Oklahoma says in it. I have no idea. Erlene handles it. This job is about loving what you do and trying every day to be the best at this job. Then you have to understand that it’s not about you, it’s about your players. But never blame the players. You’re the leader. Take responsibility and be accountable as the man that’s coaching those kids. If they make mistakes those are your mistakes. Be accountable. Then I would tell him what I told Lincoln and how I approached my career. No matter what position you’re in, conduct yourself like you’re in the next position. If you’re a graduate assistant, conduct yourself like a full-time coach. If you’re a full-time coach, conduct yourself like a coordinator. Be the job you want to have and act accordingly. What this does is make you ready to be that person when the opportunity comes and you’ll be successful from day 1. When I got the head coaching job at East Carolina, I was ready for that balancing act. I was prepared and I was ready. That’s what I would tell my younger self if he was sitting in front of me today in my office here at Oklahoma.”
Coach McNeill is one of the most respected coaches in all of college football in the eyes of the toughest critics, his peers. After reading his words here it’s not that hard to figure out why his peers think so highly of him. He is one of the most important recruiting wins that head coach Lincoln Riley has had since taking over the Oklahoma program. Young coaches coming up in the coaching business could learn a lot from a conversation with Coach McNeill.