The school announced the move Thursday after members of the board of trustees approved McNeill's hiring and an outline of a contract. The contract won't be finalized until a regular meeting of the board next month.
East Carolina will hold a news conference in Greenville on Friday morning with McNeill, who spent 10 seasons at Texas Tech as an assistant, then served as interim coach when Mike Leach was suspended and later fired. He coached Texas Tech to a win against Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl, but left the program after Tommy Tuberville was hired as coach.
McNeill, who was a candidate to become Leach's permanent successor, played defensive back for the Pirates from 1976-79. He inherits a program coming off four straight bowl appearances and consecutive Conference USA championships under Holtz, who left last week to take over at South Florida.
Athletic director Terry Holland had said he preferred to hire someone with head-coaching experience instead of an assistant coach. One of his top targets was Middle Tennessee's Rick Stockstill, who announced earlier this week he was withdrawing his name from consideration due to the short time before national signing day next month.
"Coach McNeill's interview revealed his strong commitment to doing things the right way and his love of coaching young men to grow in every part of their lives," Holland said in a statement from the school.
McNeill, 51, spent the past two full seasons as Leach's defensive coordinator and also coached linebackers, defensive tackles and special teams during his time with the Red Raiders.
A native of Lumberton, N.C., McNeill also spent three seasons at Appalachian State, then returned to his alma mater to coach the defensive line in 1992 before going back to the Mountaineers and serving as defensive coordinator from 1993-96.