CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Ruffin McNeill was loved by his players. He loved his alma mater of East Carolina University and that affection was returned by, not only the members of the football team, but alumni everywhere.
But after a pair of disappointing seasons following a 10-win campaign in 2013, McNeill was fired by athletic director Jeff Compher last December.
The beloved 57-year-old players coach was gone. ECU announced his replacement nine days later — former Duke offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery.
“They’re just two different types of people,” senior wide receiver Isaiah Jones told me Saturday at Rocky River High School. “Both are great men. Coach Mo has an unbelievable energy level. He’s crazy, exciting. He pushes us to be the best that we can. That hands-on NFL experience is something he brings to the table.”
Evident at Rocky River, where ECU held a practice and scrimmage, Montgomery has brought a more regimented style to the program as opposed to McNeill’s more laid-back approach.
Jones, who is on several national watch lists, admitted the adjustment period has not been easy.
“It’s been tough adjusting to a new system, new coaches, new faces,” said Jones, who caught 98 passes for 1,099 yards and five scores last year. “But that’s part of football, part of the game, part of the business aspect, so you’ve got to get used to it.”
As for Montgomery, who spent four years as an NFL receiver with the Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos and Oakland after going undrafted in 1999 out of Duke, the response from players has “been lovely.”
“I’m honest with them. I’m hard, but I’m fair,” Montgomery said. “I do what’s right by them and try to treat them with love because we love them all.”
Montgomery got into coaching in 2006 as a receivers coach at Duke under then-coach Ted Roof. When David Cutcliffe took over the program in 2008, he retained Montgomery as the receivers coach. Following the 2009 season, Montgomery was hired by the Pittsburgh Steelers as their receivers coach under head coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.
When I spoke with Arians at the NFL Combine in February, he spoke glowingly of Montgomery, telling me, “(ECU) got a good one.”
Montgomery said he tried to soak up as much information as he could in his two years under Arians’ tutelage, taking notes on napkins when paper wasn’t available.
“Every day is a learning experience,” Montgomery said of his first head-coaching job. “It’s great to have mentors that prepare you for the situations you get to and you’re able to call when you get to a situation you did not previously think of because every day is a new day.”
At ECU, Montgomery is tasked with turning around a program that followed up a 10-win season by going 8-5 the following year and 5-7 last season. At Saturday’s scrimmage, the defense definitely had the better day — a change from the team’s first scrimmage in April.
“The defense came out with a whole lot of energy,” Montgomery said. “That was something we’ve been waiting on. They had to hear some things all week.
“They played their butts off.”
Montgomery said he’d like to see more consistency and was “pissed off” at how many penalties were committed. Numerous false starts frustrated Montgomery and offensive coordinator Tony Peterson, considering they were practicing in a high school stadium with only about 100 or so fans in attendance.
The Pirates aren’t just trying to adjust to a new coaching staff, they’ll have a new quarterback under center in former Minnesota and Rutgers QB Philip Nelson. Minnesota’s Mr. Football in 2011 was dismissed from the Rutgers program following assault charges in 2014.
At ECU, he’ll be one-and-done as a fifth-year senior. He’s hoping to capitalize on having a plethora of weapons as his disposal as ECU boasts perhaps the best wide receiver group in the American Athletic Conference.
While quarterback is settled, Montgomery said Saturday’s scrimmage helped “quite a bit” to settle other position battles. One thing that was certain Saturday, complacency will not stand under Montgomery.
“Every part of our game can be detailed. Our technique and just the way we play overall has to get better,” Jones said. “We have to limit the penalties and protect the football. We’ve got to get better as a whole if we plan to win games like we want to this year.
“There’s always work that can be done. You’ve always got to keep turning the screws… keep working. Always have to keep studying film, breaking it down, going over what did I do wrong, what can I capitalize off of, what can I get better at?”
Practicing in Charlotte is one way Montgomery believes the Pirates can build long-term success. Not only is Charlotte a “fertile recruiting ground,” traveling across the state for a practice gives his players a dress rehearsal for packing everything up for a road game.
So far so good because Nelson could just be a place-filler until Kingsley Ifedi, a dual-threat quarterback from Charlotte’s Vance High School, arrives on campus next year. Another highly touted prospect is running back Jerry Howard from Northwestern High School in Rock Hill, S.C., just south of Charlotte.
But there’s another reason Montgomery wanted to bring his team to Charlotte.
“So many people from this area head to Greenville every weekend or every other weekend,” Montgomery said. “Then they turn around and drive all the way back home. We just wanted to say thank you for doing that.
“We’re trying to build our fan base, but we have a tremendous amount of fans, alumni and the Pirate Club right here in the Queen City.”
So there was Montgomery before and after Saturday’s practice, glad-handing and hugging alumni, parents of players and Pirate Club members who were at Rocky River. He may not be the lovable Ruffin McNeill, but Montgomery is doing everything he can do endear himself to Pirate Nation. The next step is winning and he’s clearly undaunted in his commitment to doing so.