For student-athletes, their coaches, whether it be in high school or collegiately, can often impact their lives as much as their mother or father. Pat Dye, a member of the East Carolina University and College Football Hall of Fame who passed away on Monday, had that level of impact on Ruffin McNeill during his time at ECU in the late-1970s.

“Coach Dye was, next to my dad, the man that most influenced what my life and my coaching profession pursuit became,” McNeill said. “He was not just a great coach and mentor, but a great man.”

McNeill played four years under Dye as a defensive back and saw first-hand the type of success the former Alabama linebacker coach brought to Greenville, North Carolina. During McNeill’s freshman year, the Pirates won the Southern Conference Championship with a nine-win campaign. Just two years later, ECU won the Independence Bowl.

All told, the Pirates won 48 games under Dye, making him the fourth-most winningest ECU football coach in program history. To accomplish that, McNeill said Dye was second to none in motivating his players and giving them a reason to step foot on the field.

“Coach Dye did a great job motivating us on playing for one another,” McNeill said. “Playing for your family, playing for your mother and father and your entire family and representing East Carolina, but also representing your teammates. That’s what his biggest motivation, in my memories of coach Dye, was. It worked for my entire four years.”

On the practice field, McNeill remembers Dye taking no shortcuts and pushing every single one of his players to be the best they could be and then some. Through tough love, Dye forged physical, hard-nosed football teams that won at least seven games in each of the six seasons under his direction.

“He would push you to the point where you had to find out about yourself and take it to a place you couldn’t go to by yourself,” McNeill said. “Besides that, he did it with love because you knew he cared about you. He cared about not just you but your mom and dad and your entire family and that was throughout the whole team.

“You can tell how well a group of players respect their coach by how hard they play. I think if you ask anyone from that era, when they played any team that was associated with coach Dye, it was one of the hardest teams that they had to face and one of the most physical teams.”

Twelve years after graduating from ECU, McNeill returned to coach the defensive line under Steve Logan and eventually was tabbed as the Pirates’ head coach in 2010. In between that, and after McNeill left the Pirates in 2015, he held various positions with programs around the country.

No matter where he went, however, he always took with him pieces of what Dye instilled in him as a player.

“I took what coach Dye taught me personally to each of my coaching stops…When I was able to go back and be the head coach at East Carolina, it wasn’t hard for me motivating our team or understanding what the motivation was,” McNeill said.

That job of motivating young men to fulfill their potential was made easy for McNeill because after listening to Dye for four years, he knew his ‘why’ and he knew the ‘why’ of every person who stepped on the football field as a player under him.

For McNeill, much like it did for Dye all those years ago, that translated into success. In six years under McNeill, the Pirates went 42-34 and made four bowl games, winning one of them in 2013. ECU’s 10-win season that same year stands as the second-most in school history while McNeill ranks right behind Dye for most wins in program history.

Dye’s formula for success landed him in the College Football Hall of Fame in 2005 and the ECU Hall of Fame in 2006. For those that played under him though, including McNeill, his impact went much deeper than just wins and losses.

“He’s (Dye) one of the greatest football coaches, one of the greatest men that I can attest for,” McNeill said. “One of the greatest coaches, one of the greatest men that have held the helm of head coach at East Carolina. He did it year in and year out, day in and day out, and players that played for coach Dye from ‘75-’79 still feel the same way about him. That’s the legacy. The wins were there, that speaks for itself, but he impacted a lot of young men that played for him. I happen to be one of them.”

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