Ruffin McNeill's long road back to his father and the homecoming he didn't plan for

ByAndrea Adelson ESPN logo
Wednesday, August 31, 2022

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Ruffin McNeill steels himself before walking through the door to see his father. He has no idea whether it's a good day or a bad day for "Pops," but he will know soon enough.

McNeill enters the nursing care facility in Lumberton, North Carolina, about an hour and a half south of NC State, where he works as a special assistant to football coach Dave Doeren. He takes a left, passing a plaque that reads:

In dedication to Ruffin Sr. and Bonnie McNeill by Ruffin Jr. and Erlene McNeill.

When McNeill and his wife, Erlene, made the donation to build this specific wing nearly a decade ago, they had no idea one day Ruffin Sr. would live there.

McNeill continues toward his dad's room. He knows just about everybody he sees along the way. It is hard not to know the McNeill's because they are a large part of the fabric of this town, and Ruffin McNeill Jr. is one of its biggest success stories.

He was the first Black athlete from Lumberton High School to get a Division I scholarship to play football, starring at East Carolina in the late 1970s. He then returned to coach at his high school before embarking on his 37-year collegiate coaching career -- including a return to his alma mater as the first Black head football coach in East Carolina history.

Finally, he gets to his dad's room and walks in. "Hi, Pops!"

Ruffin Sr. looks up. His eyes brighten with recognition.

"Tuffie!" Ruffin Sr. says, using the nickname for his son.

Today is a good day.

They are not always good days. Ruffin McNeill Sr., 88, has dementia and has lived in this nursing care facility since 2016. His health has slowly deteriorated since then. In January 2020, his son made the decision to leave his job as Oklahoma assistant head coach under Lincoln Riley to return home to North Carolina and help his younger brother, Reginald, care for their father.

"I knew for him to be thinking about stepping away, that it was the right thing, and that he was going to be at peace," Riley, now entering his first season at USC, said.

That is why McNeill is here in North Carolina with his Pops, and will be here again next week and the week after that. But life is funny sometimes, too. Because in making the decision to return home and subsequently take a job at NC State, he must prepare for a homecoming that was never in his plans.

The No. 13 Wolfpack open their season at East Carolina (Noon ET Saturday, ESPN/ESPN App) -- the school that made his dreams come true, and crushed them, too.

THERE IS A special way about Ruffin McNeill Jr., one that has earned him fans and admirers everywhere he has coached. Riley, who has been connected with McNeill since walking on at Texas Tech at age 19, describes the gift his mentor has in this way.

"When he talks to you, you feel like you're the most important person in the world," Riley said. "He's present and he's energetic, and he's intentional. The impression he makes on people and the effects that he has on people are real because of that."

His mother, Bonnie, instilled those qualities in him. His father instilled the toughness and competitiveness -- the nickname, Tuffie, comes from the rough and tough edge Ruffin Jr. held growing up.

Ruffin Sr. played running back at Johnson C. Smith in Charlotte -- where he is in the school Hall of Fame -- and served as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division of the United States Army. In addition to teaching, he coached both football and basketball and helped push McNeill athletically -- always having his son play against older kids as a way to improve his skill-set.

When McNeill arrived at East Carolina under coach Pat Dye, he found himself buried on the depth chart as a defensive back. During grueling three-a-day practices, McNeill stood on the sideline, never earning a single rep despite the offense completely gashing his teammates on defense. After five days, he had enough, and called to tell his parents he was coming home.

"Where are you going to live?'" McNeill Sr. asked his son.

"I'm coming home," McNeill Jr. said.

His father scoffed. "If you quit," he said, "you're not coming home. You need to find somewhere else. You don't quit."

He had no choice but to stay. The following week, practice in pads began. At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, McNeill became a more imposing presence. Plus, he never shied away from contact. That first day, he laid a hit on one of their top running backs. McNeill shot up the depth chart, to third team.

The following year, he earned his first start in the season opener at NC State in 1977. From his office in the NC State football facility, in the south end zone of Carter-Finley Stadium, McNeill points toward the football field.

"I made the game-saving tackle to win the game, on the 2-yard line. Here, in this stadium," McNeill said. "It's wild, isn't it?"

McNeill went on to start three years and served as team captain his junior and senior seasons. He goes back to the conversation with his dad, freshman year. "That still helps me today," McNeill said. "You're talking about 1976, and it's 2022. I still fall back on those values."

NO MATTER HIS coaching stops -- from Lumberton to Clemson, the West Coast and back East -- McNeill always remained close with his family. He usually called home Wednesday nights to talk to his mom. It was a Thursday in 2007 in the middle of two-a-day practices, when he was defensive line coach at Texas Tech, that he walked into the locker room after a practice and in his usual cheerful way and asked, "What's up, guys!"

A staff member stepped forward.

"Your mom is gone."

Bonnie McNeill had died unexpectedly of heart failure. She was 79.

McNeill thought back to their phone call the previous night. Their conversations always ended the same way.

"Alright, mama," Ruffin would say.

"Alright, Tuffie. Love you."

"Love you too, mama."

"That was hard," McNeill said. "I was devastated."

Ruffin McNeill Sr. remained in their family home after Bonnie died, keeping the same vow Bonnie made to her parents, who owned it dating back to 1920: They would never part with the house. Slowly, McNeill Sr. adjusted to life on his own.

Over the ensuing years, McNeill Sr. grew a little more forgetful, but nothing that drew serious concern. Reginald McNeill and neighbors would check on him to make sure all was well. McNeill Jr. would come when he could. Then in 2016, McNeill Sr. had what doctors called his "first episode." McNeill Jr. was an assistant at the time at Virginia. His brother got a call from the police. The alarm had gone off at their dad's home, and when police arrived, the door was open, and the car was gone.

There was no sign of Ruffin McNeill Sr.

Adding to the mystery, McNeill Sr. never left home at night. Finally, he pulled into the driveway, completely disoriented. He had no idea where he had gone or why he had left. When McNeill Jr. found out what happened, he left Virginia and immediately drove 4 hours to Lumberton.

He and his brother knew their dad could no longer live on his own. They decided it would be best to have him stay in Lumberton, where he had friends and familiarity. Reginald would make the 2-hour drive from his home in Winston-Salem to visit as often as he could.

It is with this as the backdrop that Riley called McNeill in early 2017, shortly after becoming Oklahoma coach. The two had grown close over the years. He and McNeill worked together on the same staff at Texas Tech under coach Mike Leach. McNeill hired a 26-year-old Riley as his offensive coordinator at East Carolina. Now it was Riley who wanted McNeill to work for him.

McNeill was torn. He wanted to stay closer to the East Coast and his father. But he also knew Riley needed him, and Oklahoma presented a huge opportunity. Eventually, McNeill said yes, serving as assistant head coach/defensive tackles coach initially. In 2018, he stepped in as interim defensive coordinator during Oklahoma's College Football Playoff run. Oklahoma made the playoff all three years McNeill was there with Riley.

"I don't think we would have had the successful run that we had if he had made a different decision," Riley said. "I just don't. He made that much of a difference."

But Riley also saw the mental toll on McNeill from being away from his family. "It's like he wanted to be in two places at once," Riley said.

After the 2019 season ended, McNeill and Erlene had a long conversation. McNeill could no longer bear having his brother carry the full weight of caring for their father.

"I think I have to go home," McNeill told Riley. "I have to be a son again."

The two grew emotional. Riley responded with gratitude, empathy and understanding. It hit the two of them they would never coach together again.

"I didn't want it to be true, but I knew deep down in my mind that we were probably on borrowed time a little bit, and I knew at some point that conversation was coming," Riley said.

"It was a bittersweet decision to make because, often people feel that if you're at Oklahoma, you're at the pinnacle of success," Erlene said. "It was a hard decision, but I feel that it was the right decision for us in our lives."

THE FIRST PERSON to call McNeill after he announced his departure from Oklahoma was Dave Doeren. Like Riley, Doeren viewed McNeill as a mentor. The two got to know each other when Doeren was a graduate assistant in 1999 at USC and McNeill was the defensive line coach at Fresno State. McNeill and his staff took a visit to USC to study game film and the two hit it off and stayed in touch over the next two decades.

Doeren was already thinking about creating a position for a former head coach to serve as a special assistant with him at NC State. When he saw McNeill was available, he called immediately.

"There's some people you feel kindred spirits with, and he was one of those people for me," Doeren said. "When you're a young coach, you're trying to find people that can mentor you in the profession, and he was one of those guys. I never knew I'd get the chance to hire him. It's a dream having him here."

McNeill decided to take the job because it was close to home -- he and Erlene had a house in a Raleigh suburb -- and he would still have the time he needed to see his father because he was not a position coach. The move became official in July 2020. By this time, McNeill and his wife had already been back in North Carolina for several months dealing with something else -- the coronavirus pandemic.

Nursing care facilities had strict guidelines -- in-person visits were prohibited. McNeill was not allowed to give his dad a big hug the first time he went to see him. Instead, the McNeills stood outside a window, and his dad stayed inside. They waved at each other. McNeill screamed, "Love you, Pops!"

But because his dad is also hard of hearing, they had to write messages back and forth to communicate. McNeill Sr. could not understand why his son was no longer in Oklahoma.

McNeill and Reginald decided to alternate visits. When pandemic restrictions lifted, they could go in person again, but they were not any easier. Because there are always good days and bad days, and you never know when or why they happen.

Sometimes on visits, McNeill Sr. asks his son if he had spoken to Bonnie or seen his brother, who has also passed away. Other times, he may not say much at all. Some days, he may not recognize anyone and ask for them to come back later. This past Saturday, McNeill Jr. went to visit and the two watched the start of the college football season together. "He was very happy to see me, and it was great for me to see him," McNeill Jr. said.

Each visit is more heartrending than the last, a raw combination of tenderness, worry and sadness that has no end. Seeing his father's deterioration in person is painful. Yet there is deeper meaning in every smile and hug, every laugh and brief conversation. He knows his father does not remember every visit. Yet he keeps coming back because this is what a son does for his father.

After every visit, Erlene asks McNeill as they walk to their car: "You good?"

"I'm good," he says.

"You may not think it's helping because they may be quiet sometimes," McNeill said. "That's hard. You don't know if they're engaged. But you have to realize you're doing something special. That's how I feel every time I go see my dad. I call it mission work. I know my mom would be very happy we're taking care of him."

He thinks about who his dad was, the intelligent, quick-witted, feisty man who coached him up all his life. He wonders whether that is still inside somewhere, trapped, or whether the disease has stripped it all away -- making his dad recognizable and unrecognizable.

Those who have gone through it understand this agony. Doeren does. Their offices at NC State are linked by a hallway. Any time Doeren needs something, he pops in and they chat. Sometimes, they chat about their dads.

Doeren's father, Bill, has Alzheimer's disease. Like McNeill Sr., Bill Doeren is a military veteran, having served in the Navy. Bill still lives at home, under the care of his wife, in California -- making it difficult for Dave Doeren to spend much time with him. At some point, moving his dad to a memory care facility will be necessary.

"That was part of the deal when I hired Ruff," Doeren said. "I'm like whatever you need for your dad, just tell me you're going, don't ask me. I have a lot of empathy and understanding for what he's dealing with. My dad's in California. I don't get to visit like that. I wish I could do that. Before he even said yes to this job, I wanted to make sure that was clear."

THE DOOR TO MCNEILL'S office is always open. He has a bowl of mints handy, and his television screens are on -- one tuned to ESPN, another to watch NC State game tape or practice. Though he does not have an on-field role at NC State, he feels fulfilled because he knows he is helping those around him -- whether it be Doeren, the coaching staff or players.

Linebacker Drake Thomas said his hire "was probably one of the best decisions that Coach Doeren made. Just having someone like that, as good a person as he is, it can do nothing but help and uplift others."

"Do I miss being a head coach? Heck yeah," McNeill said. "Do I miss being in the meeting rooms? Yeah. But do I still have a taste of it now? You're darn right I do. I go on the field with them, and I practice every day with them. Dave sits here and asks, 'What do you think?' or he comes up to me at halftime and asks, 'What do you see?' It keeps me going."

When Riley left Oklahoma for USC after the 2021 season, he thought about how great it would be if he could have McNeill on his staff. "I tried to figure out 1,000 ways to ask him, but I knew it wouldn't be the right thing," Riley said. "He's where he needs to be and wants to be right now, and I couldn't be happier for him."

McNeill is now seven seasons removed from his final year as a head coach, at East Carolina in 2015. He spent six seasons at his alma mater, going 42-34, with four bowl appearances and one 10-win season. Twice as head coach, East Carolina beat NC State -- including Doeren's first year in 2013. He ranks No. 3 on the all-time career wins list at the school.

But after going 5-7 in 2015 with a third-string quarterback, McNeill was blindsided when the school fired him. McNeill didn't even have a chance to tell his players before news hit social media. As an alum, married to an alum, he felt he deserved better.

"All of us that had been a part of East Carolina those years, we were all devastated," Riley said. "It was something that did not need to happen. They let the wrong people get control there, and they ruined what could have been a long-term, really fabulous thing, because Ruffin loves East Carolina. That was his dream job. He did a phenomenal job there, and just put his heart and soul into it."

His successor, Scottie Montgomery, never won more than three games in a season. East Carolina now has a new athletic director, and coach. Both have reached out to McNeill to repair his relationship with East Carolina. Last year, Mike Houston became the first coach to lead East Carolina to a winning season since McNeill in 2014.

Last year the McNeills returned to Greenville for the first time since McNeill was let go. East Carolina was inducting him into their Hall of Fame.

"All you want is a little respect," McNeill said. "I'm from there, I went to school there, I played there and I coached there and so last year, getting inducted into the Hall of Fame, to be appreciated -- not just me, but the coaches and their families, and the players and their families, that was good."

On the drive into Greenville, McNeill and Erlene felt nervous because they did not know how they would be received. But the two were warmly welcomed and embraced.

"When your husband has been hurt, you feel the same way," Erlene said. "You can't help it. The scars are there. But they are healing."

Now McNeill is making another trip back, only this time he will walk into the stadium where he spent so many days as a player and coach. Asked whether he will have friends and family there, he said, "I don't know if I will have any friends this game."

But Erlene will be there to cheer him on.

"I'm looking forward to it, but I have no idea how I will feel," McNeill said. "I've never been there on the other end."

As awkward as it might be in the visiting locker room and opposite sideline, McNeill has made it back to the place where a part of him will always belong. Erlene shares a memory from her own father, some 30 years ago, when she and McNeill embarked on their coaching journey.

She remembers her dad pointing his finger to the ground, as if he were drawing, and saying:

"You will move all the way around. You'll go many places. But you will always come back home."

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