NORMAN — If Ruffin McNeill’s personality keys Oklahoma’s defensive progression, if the way he approaches his players and his job means as much as whether OU uses three down linemen or six defensive backs, then we need to get to know him better.
I spent 10 minutes doing that after practice Tuesday evening, when I introduced myself — something I neglected after McNeill won his debut game as Sooners defensive coordinator Oct. 20 at TCU — and asked him a question: Is there anything about your job you find stressful?
“No,” he replied in a low, easy voice that fits his 60 years and his North Carolinian roots.
Was there ever a time that wasn’t the case?
“I’m doing what I love to do. I mean, really, look what I have on. I have sneakers, sweatpants, a top, a whistle, a hat …”
A man can love his job and still find it difficult to manage, especially if he’s trying to stop Big 12 Conference offenses generally considered unstoppable over most of the past decade.
I suggest to McNeill he is doing something uniquely stressful, that he is taking on a task that has taken time off the careers of his peers. I’m curious, since he seems to be going about that task both practically and peacefully, how he manages.
“Right now I’ll leave you, we’ll work hard and watch film from today, make a plan for tomorrow, adjust, critique from today’s practice,” McNeill said. “When I watch the last clip of film from practice, I will not watch football anymore until the next day. Not a second. Not a second of football.”
I’ve heard you are more likely to go home and watch movies …
“My wife and I watch movies or shows together,” he said. “Yeah. Because life is short. La vida es corta. You know what I mean? It’s short.”
We’re arriving at something critical about this man who has been coaching since 1980, when he took his first job as a 22-year-old student assistant at alma mater East Carolina. The job is a passion. It would have to be, since it has taken McNeill and his family to 12 schools in nine states over 38 years.
“Thirty-five years ago, it was the same,” he said, “because I was raised in a coach’s house and a teachers’ home (McNeill’s father coached and both of his parents taught). I only learned how to teach growing up, how to present, how to speak, how to shake a person’s hand. All of those things you see me doing, it was learned from my home, from my mom and my dad.
“Treating kids and coaching kids was normal for me because I went right into teaching.”
Pouring his heart into those kids came naturally, and so that’s what McNeill has done.
“Every young man I’ve had a chance to work with, I feel very comfortable that there’s nothing else I could have done,” he said. “I’m going to exhaust every means to make sure that young man is successful.”
And yet a coach can obsess over his players without doing so over his work. That’s where McNeill appears to draw a careful line.
“I love coaching. Love it. I love the camaraderie with the staff,” he said. “But when I leave here, trust me, the second I leave, I always ask, ‘Guys, y’all good? OK. See ya in the morning.’ And when I go home, my mind is off of it.”
It is on his wife, Erlene, and whatever movie they choose to watch.
This is perspective it typically takes years to gain, and McNeill eventually circled back to that notion.
“Was it like that the whole time? Ah. Maybe not the whole time,” he admitted. “But the longer I stayed in it, the more it got like that.”
The longer he stayed in it, the more he saw how easily it could go the other, costlier way.
When I asked how many peers he has seen the job consume, McNeill said: “A lot of them. In this profession everybody’s built different. There’s nothing wrong doing it the other way. I just chose … My wife and I agree that when we leave the office, that’s our time. That’s family time. We have not neglected that.”
There will likely be more stress for McNeill and his defense Saturday night at Texas Tech than there was against Kansas State last Saturday and at TCU before that. If the Red Raiders don’t threaten the Sooners, Oklahoma State or West Virginia surely will later this month.
These are hazards to McNeill’s job, same as they are to any defensive coordinator’s in this lunatic league. His defense mechanism is to cling to his players and his family, realizing there are other ways to judge a man besides the score of a football game.
There might be something to that attitude. Who knows, it might even help keep that score down.