MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Ruffin McNeill dispenses his wisdom in run-on sentences, stories and theories gathered over 38 years as a football coach at 11 different schools, from Lumberton High in North Carolina all the way to Oklahoma, where he’s about to coach in his second College Football Playoff in as many seasons. The defensive coordinator’s voice is a deep rasp, ground away by so many seasons on the sideline, and as his stream-of-consciousness musings wind, he catches his breath with every “a-a-a-and.” The word churns around in McNeill’s vocal cords for seconds, like a car engine turning over and straining to start each time the coach moves from thought to thought, name to name, memory to memory.
Erlene a-a-a-and my girls, Caitlin a-a-a-and Sloan a-a-a-and Stella. Texas Tech a-a-a-and East Carolina a-a-a-and Oklahoma. It’s been 16 years since McNeill met Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma’s head coach, and so no wonder there’s so much to pack into each sentence. The two men have coached together at three different programs, but for 60-year-old McNeill, this season has been an a-a-a-and he wasn’t expecting: He came to Oklahoma to be a position coach, to work for the one man he says he’d have considered leaving his post at Virginia for—and then midseason, McNeill was tagged with a new label: interim defensive coordinator.
“[Riley] knew the interim tag didn’t bother me, because I’m here to do what he needs me to do to make the program great,” McNeill says. “It’s what I can do to help him be the best he can be and the program be the best it can be.”
Going into Saturday’s Orange Bowl semifinal against Alabama on Saturday, McNeill’s unit will be the bellwether for Oklahoma. If the Sooners’ defense, which finished No. 108 out of 130 FBS teams in yards allowed in 2018, can hold off the Crimson Tide’s explosive offense even a bit, Oklahoma has a Heisman trophy winner in Kyler Murray at quarterback and the weapons around him to outscore the defending national champs. It’s a big if, but since McNeill took over for Mike Stoops after the midseason loss to Texas, the Sooners’ defense has dug in enough to prevent any further setbacks. Statistically, there have been no huge leaps (the Sooners have been marginally better against the run), but McNeill’s unit has produced several impressive stands and snared some timely, game-altering turnovers. Its performance against Texas in the Big 12 title game—a 39–27 victory in which Oklahoma held the Longhorns to 437 total yards and came up with a huge fourth-quarter safety—was the defense’s best since October and marked the first time Oklahoma had held an opponent under 500 yards since Nov. 3. It was an encouraging tone to set before the playoff, but Texas is no Alabama, and when Riley promoted his mentor in on Oct. 8, it was for this moment, the toughest task in college football.
McNeill says there was no hesitation when Riley asked him to step up. The two men have a trust that’s grown over more than a decade of working together and is rooted in an unlikely friendship. They became close at Texas Tech, when Riley was a 20-year-old student assistant in 2003, McNeill a 45-year-old veteran coach who was known to give Riley change at the movies to buy a soda. “You make zero money,” McNeill says of Riley’s first gig. “You make negative zero. You make a million zeroes. A million zeroes times a million zeroes is zero.”
Still, McNeill says, he never saw Riley let up once the paychecks grew and he moved up the ladder on Mike Leach’s staff. And when McNeill was offered the head coaching job at East Carolina in 2009, he says there was no one he wanted to bring along more than Riley, who became the Pirates’ offensive coordinator before he turned 27. “In this profession, when you find people that you truly have a good working relationship with and a good bond with, and you do good work together, it’s kind of like making music,” Oklahoma outside receivers coach Dennis Simmons, who worked with Riley and McNeill at Texas Tech and East Carolina, explains. “A producer and an artist. There’s a comfort zone. There’s a feeling that sometimes, this guy can finish my sentences.”
For McNeill in Miami in the leadup to the Orange Bowl, it’s been hard to go more than a few minutes without discussing those Texas Tech days, when he was the defensive coordinator of another offensive juggernaut. In Lubbock, McNeill had two years to turn around a unit that had struggled before his midseason promotion in 2007, and in that time, he proved that even the highest-flying Air Raid offense can pair with solid defense. That’s been his message over two and a half months in his new role, which he inherited in even more dire condition than the Red Raiders were in a decade ago. It’s been a slog, but McNeill has tried to keep things in perspective, he says, and make the most out of what he has.
“It’s how many times can you break serve defensively, how many times can you get the ball by turnover or by fourth-down turnover and give it back to your offense,” McNeill says of his philosophy. “A lot of different stats I think need to be emphasized besides the scores.”
“Defensive thought process has to be get the ball back to your offense on defense, break serve. Of course as a defensive guy all his life for 38 years of coaching, yeah, you'd like to have a zero, but at the same time, you've got to evolve and know that the quarterbacks have developed. … You have to be ready to not accept it but deal with it and move on to the next play.”
And over the course of his career, McNeill has been all too familiar with that kind of on-to-the-next mentality. At Texas Tech, he stepped up to coach the team to a 41–31 Alamo Bowl victory when Leach was fired after the 2009 season. He was then let go and landed at East Carolina, where he compiled a 42–34 record before being fired after a 5–7 campaign in 2015, in one of the most inexplicable personnel moves in recent memory. After that, he spent a year as Virginia’s assistant head coach and defensive line coach before Riley proposed a kind of role reversal: This time, the mentee wanted the mentor to join his staff. McNeill was ready to call Riley boss. “I felt like it was backwards, honestly,” Riley says. “Our relationship’s kind of come full-circle. He was such a good mentor and friend, brother and head coach for me throughout all those years. Hopefully I can repay some of that now, honestly. I’m hoping I can do as good a job for him as he did for me.”
Giving him the country’s best offense as a cushion goes a long way toward that repayment—but really, neither man thinks of this relationship as some kind of ledger. It’s more natural than that, two friends who value family and player development over everything, who talk to each other rather than at each other, who listen. Will McNeill run Oklahoma’s defense after the Sooners’ playoff run is over, or move back into his prior role directing the defensive tackles? And will Riley stay at Oklahoma for the long run or be lured to the NFL? After all these years together, both men know there’s nothing less certain than a football future—and nothing more certain than each other.
“We both have verified our trust in different kinds of situations: great times, good times, tough times,” McNeill says. “Whatever times, our trust stayed steadfast. … I know he loves me for me, not Coach Ruff the football coach. And I love him [not] as Coach Riley, [but as] Linc.”