Ruffin McNeill, Mark Richt and Clay Helton at The Intersection of Coaching


Without much (any?) prior indication, East Carolina fired head coach Ruffin McNeill Friday. Barring violation of NCAA rules or some other off-field incident — unlikely, given the matter-of-fact manner in which the decision was announced — this is a confounding move for myriad reasons.

FBS football evaluates coaches on wins and losses above all else, and McNeill won consistently in his six seasons at East Carolina. The accomplishments are impressive: a 10-win season, regular bowl appearances, victories over ACC opponents. Ultimately, however, McNeill is seemingly a victim of the what have you done for me lately attitude prevalent among fans and decision-makers.

Such mindset forced perennial winner Mark Richt out at Georgia and nearly cost Les Miles his job at LSU. It’s pervasive, but to be expected in the hyper-competitive SEC. But for this mentality to claim Ruffin McNeill at East Carolina suggests an unsettling trend outside of the most rabid conference.

The biggest losers in these decisions are the players. Ruffin McNeill is largely renowned as one of football’s most personable coaches, and that reputation reportedly reflected in his coaching style.

Firing a beloved coach doesn’t suggest putting the players first — and the reported manner in which the team learned of McNeill’s firing reflects that.

Like McNeill, newly minted Miami head coach Mark Richt built close bonds with his Georgia Bulldogs players — so much that so, that when he told the team of his plan to take the Miami job, Dawgs threw up The U.

The dismissals of Richt and McNeill contrast starkly with one of the other unexpected coaching moves made this week. USC removing the interim label from head coach Clay Helton’s title drew mixed reaction.

With no head coaching experience beyond his two stints as USC’s interim, Helton lacks the name recognition of an NFL retread or prominent college coach. For the cynic, the Helton hire deserves time before judgment. That he doesn’t have much head coaching experience could be a positive, as he’ll likely be more receptive to changes as needed.

A less skeptical perspective to consider, however, is that USC made that increasingly rare decision to weigh the players’ opinions. As I detailed for Sports on Earth, player support for Helton was overwhelming.

If you need further evidence, just watch the video from his announced hiring.

College football becomes more of a business with each new multimillion-dollar TV contract, facility upgrade and, yes, with astronomically rising coaching salaries. It’s too easy to lose sight of the reality that college players aren’t professionals, and neither season-ticket holders nor boosters play for the men charged with bringing victories.

That’s not to dismiss the importance of winning, but punishing winning coaches for not doing so enough at the expense of the players is wildly lacking perspective into what college football should be.