Change is coming in a big way to BYU football, as the program suddenly needs to find a new head coach after Bronco Mendenhall agreed to take the head coaching gig at Virginia. At his press conference on Friday, Mendenhall mentioned that he has the option to take some of his current BYU assistants with him to Charlottesville. Even if he doesn't take very many (or any), a change in head coach almost certainly means that the Cougars will see some attrition, and maybe significant attrition, on staff, so BYU will need not just a new headman, but potentially new coordinators and positional coaches as well.
This is obviously putting the cart before the horse a bit, but one very enticing assistant coaching candidate has unexpectedly found himself on the job market. If Bronco doesn't hire him himself for his staff at Virginia, the next BYU head coach should find a way to hire former East Carolina head coach Ruffin McNeill.
McNeill was unexpectedly and controversially let go after a disappointing 5-7 season at ECU, a year where the program lost a talented OC, their starting QB, and numerous other players to injury. The Pirates also traveled to Provo this season and nearly upset BYU. Prior to this year though, McNeill went 8-5, 10-3 and 8-5, while beating UNC, NC State and Virginia Tech all twice in a row, and leading the Pirates to their first ten win season since the early 90s. I made it pretty clear that ECU shouldn't have fired him, and tons of Pirate fans agreed.
I've spent a lot of time in Greenville, NC, and at ECU. This is not a program with a ton of resources. It isn't near a big city or spectacularly valuable recruiting territories. It has spent time in conference realignment purgatory. But despite all the reasons why it shouldn't be a particularly good program, under McNeill, it's been one of the most exciting and successful mid major teams over the last few years.
McNeill isn't LDS, so BYU wouldn't be able to hire him as their head coach. But in every other way, he'd be perfect for the Cougars. He already has experience working with Robert Anae back from their time together at Texas Tech (Bruce Feldman notes that was basically the last time Tech had a competent defense). He's been a good recruiter at ECU, mining JUCOs and overlooked prospects along the East Coast, and found a way to mix competent defenses with high octane offenses.
Culturally, he's exactly the kind of coach that would fit in perfectly with Provo. He's beloved by his players, family-atmosphere orientated, and has worked with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. McNeill is not the kind of guy who is going to scream and cuss at players. His demeanor, plus his ability to help expand BYU's potential recruiting territories to the east coast, could be an excellent fit.
McNeill isn't a perfect coach, but some of his biggest weaknesses, like clock management, would be mitigated as an assistant. Bringing in somebody as experienced as McNeill would also give BYU some cover to go with a younger, less experienced head coaching candidate. If their top targets say no, and BYU is forced to hire a new head coach who lacks any kind of head coaching experience, bringing in a steady hand as a defensive coordinator would make that transition much easier. McNeill isn't somebody whose ego could complicate that transition.
On paper, it's easy to see why it would make perfect sense for Bronco Mendenhall to try and grab McNeill for his staff at Virginia, especially since Bronco himself has virtually no ties to the places where Virginia typically recruits, and trying to convince players from Utah, Southern California and Idaho to move to Virginia might be difficult. But if he isn't able to lock that down for whatever reason, BYU would be well served to step outside the Utah area footprint for a big assistant.
Guys like McNeill don't always hit the open market, and it's possible somebody like Tulane or Louisiana-Monroe decides to make him their head coach before anybody could try to get him as an assistant. BYU's head coaching search has just begun, and if the Cougars hire a more experienced or established coach, perhaps they'd have their own assistants they'd want to bring. But no matter who is manning BYU in a few weeks, they would be smart to place a call to Greenville, just in case.