One of the more realistic “what if” scenarios we’ll explore is the possibility that Ruffin McNeill could have been hired as Mike Leach’s replacement after The Pirate’s dismissal in late 2009. The way I remember it, there was a sizeable segment of the fan base that wanted McNeill to be promoted to the full-time head coach position following the Alamo Bowl win vs. Michigan State.
Another segment wanted Art Briles. Of course knowing what we know now, I’d say Tech dodged a bullet by never having Briles at the helm. Ultimately the position was filled by Tommy Tuberville, who is universally agreed upon by the fans to be an unremarkable hire.
Here are some interesting aspects to consider if McNeill had been hired instead.
The Lincoln Riley Factor
Let’s get it out of the way early. Many look back on this scenario and think that Ruffin’s defensive mindset would have paired well with Lincoln Riley’s offensive chops. In hindsight, I think that is true. But at the time we’d be talking about a 27-year old with no experience as an offensive coordinator taking over the reigns of a nationally renowned offense. Would that have actually worked?
In reality, Riley followed McNeill to East Carolina and served as OC there. Being offered your first OC job at a Group of 5 school under a new head coach is a little bit different than taking over the reigns of Texas Tech’s offense in 2009. I think Riley would have been fine as OC despite his youth, but I don’t think it’s plausible that he’d be hired for that position immediately.
Instead, I think it’s more likely he waited another year or two as the WR or QB coach before taking over as OC. Though in fairness to Riley, he was Associate Head Coach by age 30 at ECU along with his role as QB coach and OC. So again, I’m not underestimating his ability but just casting doubt on the plausibility of it all.
All that being said, if he stays on staff with McNeill and becomes OC at any point in time, it’s certainly fair to speculate that he might become head coach at Texas Tech whenever McNeill’s time was done. McNeill was let go at ECU after a couple good seasons and a few subpar seasons. If he were mediocre as head coach for Texas Tech for about four or five years while Riley’s offense was humming along, would Texas Tech hire a 30 or 31-year old as its new head coach?
It would be nearly unprecedented in some respects but would make a ton of sense in others. Hometown kid, coaching at his alma mater with credibility as an offensive coordinator and play caller? It wouldn’t be the craziest hire ever. Still, consider me a little bit skeptical on the whole idea that McNeill and Riley would have tag teamed the defense and offense, respectively, and that McNeill would ultimately serve as a bridge to Texas Tech head coach Lincoln Riley. I just think there are too many places along the way where it could fall apart.
Texas Tech’s brand under Mike Leach was obviously the Air Raid offense and the gaudy passing numbers that went along with it. But McNeill was a defensive coach. While he may have kept an Air Raid OC, would Texas Tech’s perception have shifted a little bit from a national standpoint? Would fans today be so committed to seeing some version of the Air Raid if Texas Tech had distanced itself from that identity a decade ago?
From a 30,000-foot perspective, would Texas Tech’s defense ever have sunk into the pits of 2014-2016 if a better defensive foundation had been laid by McNeill starting in 2010? Assuming that it would have been marginally better, maybe Texas Tech doesn’t fall so far from the rest of the pack in the Big 12 over the past decade. I definitely think it’s a shallower hole to dig out of if Tech hadn’t been ranked nearly dead last in the nation in many defensive categories for a few years.
Who comes after McNeill?
Since we could theorize a million different way this could have gone, I’m going to assume McNeill would have done exactly as well at Texas Tech as he did at ECU as head coach. He lasted six full seasons, starting off slow before delivering an 8-5, 10-3, and 8-5 stretch from 2012-2014. In 2015, ECU dipped back down to 5-7 and McNeill was fired.
So who would have been available on the coaching carousel in the offseason between 2015 and 2016? I think the Lincoln Riley angle was adequately discussed above.
Dino Babers was hired at Syracuse that offseason coming off a 10-3 season at Bowling Green. He had four years as a head coach prior to being hired by Syracuse; two years at Bowling Green (both seasons were Mac East Division champions) and two seasons with Eastern Illinois at the FCS level (both seasons they won their conference championship). With a 26-5 combined record against conference opponents at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green, I think this would have been welcomed as a good hire. I also think it’s fair to point out his record at Eastern Illinois is probably a tad inflated given the fact his quarterback was Jimmy Garoppolo.
Babers has ties to the state of Texas with previous assistant coaching positions at both Baylor and Texas A&M. Syracuse struggled in its first two seasons under Babers but won 10 games in 2018 before falling back to 5-7 last year. 2020 is probably a make or break year for him at Syracuse.
Justin Fuente was hired away from Memphis by Virginia Tech after rattling off a 10-win season in 2014 and a 9-win campaign in 2015. He’s gotten mixed results at Virginia Tech, but is 33-20 overall. He was rumored to be in the running for the Baylor job this offseason before the Bears ultimately hired Dave Aranda. Fuente also has some Big 12 and state of Texas credibility. He played at Oklahoma for a couple seasons and was an assistant coach at TCU for a few years.
Another name that I think is less likely would be Seth Littrell. I only say it’s unlikely today because he could have been hired at the end of 2018 if Kirby Hocutt wanted him, and obviously he wasn’t hired here. So why would Kirby hire him three years sooner before Littrell won nine games twice at North Texas?
But we wouldn’t have that benefit of hindsight in late 2015, so Littrell may have appeared to be a fine option. He was an assistant at Texas Tech under Leach for a few years as well as a graduate assistant at Kansas and former player at Oklahoma. Texas and Big 12 connections would have been no problem. Littrell also had some serious credibility as an offensive coordinator at the time. In addition to serving as OC, he was associate head coach and TE coach at North Carolina in 2014 and 2015, when the Tar Heels graduated from 6-6 to an 11-1 regular season and the right to lose to Clemson in the ACC championship game.
Should Texas Tech have hired Ruffin McNeill in 2009?
With the advantage of hindsight, the obvious answer is “yes” if the other two candidates were Art Briles and Tommy Tuberville. Fans often talk about how Kliff Kingsbury’s hire helped heal a fractured fan base. I think McNeill could have helped achieve that as well. He was well-liked by the fans and would have offered a bit of continuity from the Leach era as opposed to the pretty dramatic shift the Tuberville years brought.
What do you think would have happened if McNeill was kept on full-time after the Alamo Bowl victory?