East Carolina wide receiver Trevon Brown was devastated when Ruffin McNeill was fired last week. He wasn't the only one who felt that way.
Pirate faithful didn't understand how their beloved coach was suddenly gone. For Brown, this was the man that was there when no one else was. Last year, the sophomore receiver was arrested on drug charges and his future looked bleak. But McNeill stood by is side and Brown bounced back, finishing the season with 496 yards and four touchdowns.
"He's like a father to me," Brown said of McNeill. "He is the reason I came to ECU. Without Ruff, I wouldn't be here."
Brown's story is just one of many.
The ECU community formed a bond with McNeill that is almost impossible to put in words. He was the coach that would smile and give you a hug if you asked him for a picture in a local Greenville eatery. He had an uncanny ability to ignite Dowdy Ficklen Stadium as he led his beloved team out of the pirate ship and on to the field on Saturdays.
In the midst of a NCAA landscape that is constantly swirling with scandal and controversy, McNeill galvanized a community.
This is why it was so hard for current and former players, fans and many members of the media to grasp McNeill's firing. It seems impossible to envision an East Carolina team without "Ruff" leading the pack.
Many took to Twitter after the unexpected news.
If it wasn't for Ruff I wouldn't of went to ECU— Justin Hardy (@FreakMagic2) December 4, 2015
McNeill's production on the field leaves little room for argument. He finished at ECU with a 42–34 record and the Pirates went (8–8) the last two years in the American Athletic Conference. ECU reached four bowl games during McNeill's tenure.
But many outsiders aren't looking into the details surrounding this year's mediocre season. McNeill's prized offensive coordinator, Lincoln Riley, left before the season to take over at Oklahoma and ECU starting QB Kurt Benkert suffered a season-ending injury before the team's 2015 opener. Sure, every college football team faces adversity but McNeill hardly underachieved.
While wins and losses ultimately define success in college football, some Pirate fans feel like ECU made a terrible mistake.
"Nobody will be able to recruit players to ECU like he did," alumni and season ticket holder Alex Townsend said. "He was a father figure to so many players."
While ECU fans and players will eventually move on, the next coach has big shoes to fill. McNeill was an icon at East Carolina and his legacy won't soon be forgotten.
Sean Labar spent three years at East Carolina before transferring. He covered the ECU football team from 2006-2009 at the ECU student newspaper, The East Carolinian. He now serves as SI's campus correspondent for the University of Virginia. Follow him on Twitter.