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McNeill's Role: Steady Doeren's 'Three-Legged Stool'

NC State's Dave Doeren is hoping that the hiring of former ECU coach and long-time friend Ruffin McNeill as his new special assistant will be a positive influence that helps the Wolfpack rebound from last year's 4-8 disappointment

Officially, Ruffin McNeill's title as the newest member of NC State football staff is "special assistant to the head coach."

It's an ambiguous position with no prescribed job description.

As Doeren explains it, McNeill's role will be to provide counsel, friendship and the perspective of someone who has previously sat in the chair of the man in charge.

McNeill, as is his style, has a more homespun description. 

"That chair, like Dave mentioned I’ve sat in before, it’s a three-legged stool," the former East Carolina coach said Tuesday on a Zoom conference with local media. "It’s not four-legged. It rocks back and forth sort of awkwardly. I hope to be a balancing leg for that stool for him."

Doeren is trying to prevent that proverbial stool from toppling over after a disappointing 4-8 finish in 2019.

In December, he restructured his staff by bringing in a new offensive coordinator and four other new assistants. Tuesday's hiring of McNeill, a highly respected football lifer and a friend of more than 20 years, is the latest move designed to help the Wolfpack see things through a different set of eyes.

The newly created position is similar to one that worked so well for Virginia Tech's Justin Fuente a year ago. when he brought in another of Doeren's confidants -- Jerry Kill -- to provide feedback and guidance in all apects of the program.

"The timing was kind of perfect," Doeren said. "I talked to Jerry Kill, who had done this last season at Virginia Tech and is now doing it at TCU for coach (Gary) Patterson. I asked him about it, talked to Justin about what it did for him. To me, it was just a no-brainer and it was just about finding the right person."

As it turned out, the right person literally fell into Doeren's lap.

McNeill became available after leaving his previous job as an assistant to Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma so that he could be closer to his ailing 86-year-old father. The Lumberton native indicated that he wasn't ready to give up coaching when he stepped down.

The offer from Doeren allowed McNeill to get back into the game while still being close enough to home to, as he put it, "be around my brother, take care of my dad and be able to be a son again that way.

He called the arrangement "a double bonus."

“It was more the right opportunity with the right people,” he said. “This worked out in perfect concert with me being back home in the state, able to see my dad and then have a chance to work for Dave.”

The relationship between Doeren and McNeill dates back to the late 1990s when Doeren was just starting out as a graduate assistant at Southern Cal and McNeill was the defensive coordinator at Fresno State.

"When I was a GA at Southern Cal, you’re kind of the lowest man in the building," Doeren said. "Visiting staffs come and go. Some of them treat you like you are the lowest and some of them treat you like you are an up-and-coming coach. 

"The whole staff at Fresno that Ruffin was on, their defense came in and just treated me like gold. I’ve always tried to stay in touch with people that showed me that kind of respect when I really didn’t deserve it. It really showed who he was."

The two men have remained close friends over the years as their paths crossing paths at several other stops in their nomadic careers.

When the news of McNeill's departure from Oklahoma became public, Doeren was one of the first to call to see if he was okay.

"Dave has always checked on me when things were difficult times as friends and then we got a chance to coach and see other in competitive situations," said McNeill, whose 42-34 records in six seasons at ECU between 2010-15 included a 2-0 mark against State. "But the friendship was way above the competitive situation in every instance.

"When I had the chance to come back and be home, the moment I mentioned that from Oklahoma, Dave didn’t call about a job, he just called to make sure I was alright and my Dad was alright. That’s just how it’s been. But now, for it to work out where I have a chance to come in and be any kind of assistant to Dave, the coaches, the kids, the people in the program, alumni, and assist Dave through whatever means necessary, I’m honored and looking forward to it."

Doeren is just as excited about the partnership, not only because of the breadth of knowledge McNeill brings to the Wolfpack from his 39 years in coaching, but also because of the vibe that surrounds him as one of the most universally liked and respected men in the coaching profession.

"Every time I talk to him, I smile," Doeren said. "I think that was the one thing for me is the power of positivity and surrounding myself with people that generate that in people. I know Ruffin does that. There’s nothing that’s not genuine about him. I think that’s exactly what our staff needs, it’s what our players need, I’m sure every team could say the same. He’s in my opinion, one of the most positive, and he’s also one of the most honest. 

"Whether you want to hear it or not, he’s going to tell you the truth. I think those things are great for staff members; they’re great for young people. For me to have someone else that I know is going to help young people be the best versions of themselves that they can be and give himself to them, I know Ruff will do that. That’s what I want. There wasn't any agenda that came along with this, it’s just me trying to get a great human being to be a part of our program and help us be better at what we do. It’s a win-win."