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View from the East
Friday, December 26, 2003

By Al Myatt
ECU Beat Writer for The News & Observer

Tough-guy Kerr covets chance for homecoming


Jeff Kerr was on the North Carolina sideline when the Tar Heels played at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Oct. 11. It was the same sideline that Kerr retreated to when the Pirates offense was on the field during his playing career as a linebacker from 1996 to 1999 at ECU — that factor resulting from Coach John Thompson’s decision to switch ECU’s sideline to the south side before the 2003 season.

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Some of the UNC-CH players sought out Kerr as the final seconds ticked off on a 28-17 Heels win that day. Some of them shoved Kerr playfully, knowing that ECU was his alma mater. Kerr grinned good-naturedly but he shoved back.

Jeff Kerr always shoves back, comes back, pays back or fights back — whatever the case may be. His playing career became an embodiment of all-out effort after he injured his knee on kickoff coverage against East Tennessee State in the 1996 season opener. That injury knocked the Salisbury product out for the remainder of his redshirt freshman season but it helped provide him with the determination that characterized the rest of his career.

“I don’t know when my career might be over so I play every play like it’s my last,” Kerr once explained.

When Kerr played again in 1997, he led the team in tackles as a sophomore with 167. Former ECU coach Steve Logan valued Kerr’s unique style of leadership. It wasn’t leadership by example. It was leadership by confrontation. If a teammate wasn’t giving full effort, he had to answer to Kerr, whose style was sometimes low on diplomacy but often high on results. Logan said players with that style could never afford to give less than 100 percent themselves. Kerr was never in danger of falling below that plateau. He was all-out, all of the time.

The analytical Logan said durability and toughness were two different factors. Kerr wasn’t always durable. He got sidelined once going head up with Danny Moore, a 300-pound All-Conference USA center for the Pirates, in a blocking drill in practice.

Kerr weighed 190 when he got to ECU but his work in the weight room under former Pirates strength and conditioning coach Jeff Connors boosted him up to 235 during his playing days. Duke recruited Kerr but backed off and he cast his lot with the Pirates. When the Blue Devils came to Greenville for the first time in 1999, Kerr had a fumble-causing sack on a Duke quarterback in the second half that the ECU offense turned into a clinching touchdown in a 27-9 win. The quarterback sustained a separated shoulder. Kerr acknowledged there was a degree of payback involved for Duke abandoning him in the recruiting process.

Fast forward to the present and Kerr is in his third year as an assistant strength and conditioning coach under Connors at UNC-CH. The guy who always fights back would like to come back to ECU. At least, he’s interested in the position that is being developed specifically for football conditioning at his alma mater.

Kerr’s wife Misty, who played basketball for the Lady Pirates, is a nurse at the North Carolina children’s hospital in Chapel Hill.

“I’d love to get back to that area,” Kerr said via cell phone during a shopping trip on Christmas Eve. “My wife and I would both love to get back. It would be more responsibility to take over football conditioning. It would be a great position, I think.”

Thompson will have a high degree of input on the hire but is waiting to find the specifics, including salary, of what he can offer. The plan is for Jim Whitten, who has trained ECU football players in the offseason the last three years, to continue working with other sports. ECU resumes classes on Jan. 9 and offseason conditioning needs to be ready then.

“We’re just waiting on the details of what the position is going to be,” Thompson said. “We’re creating a new position. That will definitely benefit the whole program and directly benefit football, but we’ve got to get the particulars of the position.”

Connors said last week he saw potential for conflict in the set-up if positions and responsibilities aren’t clearly defined. Would Whitten retain the main office in the Murphy Center adjacent to the weight room? Would Whitten assist in football conditioning under the direction of the new hire since that requires significant manpower? Would there be scheduling conflicts with other sports for the conditioning space and equipment?

Connors said the previous weight room in the Ward Sports Medicine Building was being taken over by the human performance group at ECU and wouldn’t be available to Pirate athletes. It may have been in the light of that uncertainty that Connors said last week that he didn’t feel Kerr was ready for the job. Maybe he doesn’t want Kerr to leave his own staff.

Connors is an assistant athletics director for strength and conditioning at UNC-CH with responsibilities specific to football. Tar Heels basketball has its own strength director and so do Olympic sports at the school.

“We all get along and have a good relationship but we all have separate facilities, too,” Connors said.

Connors questioned whether Whitten’s departure from football conditioning represented a de-emphasis from what has traditionally been ECU’s flagship sport.

“Are they going to pay a guy $40,000 or $50,000 to condition for football and expect the same results,” said Connors, whose salary in Chapel Hill is roughly triple those numbers.

Those were concerns Connors had about the future of football conditioning at ECU, in which he continues to take an interest. He said those concerns would be shared by many potential applicants.

Those are good questions and the answers need to be thoughtfully worked out by interim ECU athletics director Nick Floyd in the process of reorganizing the overall strength and conditioning program.

The ability to take a high school kid and transform him physically into a college player the likes of Jeff Kerr is testimony in itself to the importance of conditioning programs.

Kerr, whose degree at ECU was in health and fitness, will certainly be interested in the job description when it is completed. He said he was close to shedding tears when he returned to Dowdy-Ficklen this fall.

“I thought I’d be fine,” he said. “But I still love that place. I can’t get it out of me. I’ve got a passion for it. I spilled a lot of blood, sweat and tears on that field.”

The last time I saw Kerr as a Pirate player was below the stands of Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala. following a 28-14 bowl loss to TCU in 1999, a sour final note on a fine 9-3 season. Kerr came out for postgame interviews when many ECU players stayed in the locker room. He was hurting emotionally but he was man enough to face up to the situation and share some thoughts for the media.

Kerr has been studying under an acknowledged master, in effect doing an internship under a fitness guru, who is still evolving in his own right.

Connors’ technique for developing players was credited for much of the success in the Logan and Bill Lewis era. At the same time, Logan can be credited with raising the consciousness of the media and the public about the strategic value of Connors' regimen of sweat and motivation.

In Chapel Hill, Connors divided the football players into three groups and assigned a coach to each group. Connors himself worked with an advanced group, applying techniques he has refined that include conditioning with chains and rubber bands. Another coach worked with “hard gainers” — a group challenged to gain weight and muscle. Kerr worked with a “general population” group consisting primarily of running backs and receivers.

“You’ve got to be adaptive because different programs have different needs at different times,” Kerr said. “Adaptation is the key to success.”

Kerr said he would welcome the opportunity to talk to Thompson about what he wants to do with the position. Obviously, the direction of football conditioning is still being defined. There are probably other qualified applicants in a wait-and-see mode.

One advantage that Kerr can offer to the Pirates staff is a past connection to ECU football as a player. That’s something ECU lost when former coach Terry Tilghman was not retained by Thompson. Other than graduate assistant Larry Shannon, there isn’t a former Pirates player on staff.

In a way, you can understand Thompson’s desire to do things his way and not operate under the shadow of a predecessor, but as Thompson has said himself, “East Carolina football is bigger than any one person.”

When the football conditioning position is defined, Kerr deserves a phone call. He left too much of himself on that playing field outside the windows of the spacious Murphy Center weight room not to get that opportunity. And regardless of how one feels about Connors, who has generated his share of controversy over the years, Kerr has no doubt benefited from the insight he has gleaned working for the former ECU strength coach.

“It takes a special person to condition football at East Carolina,” Connors said. “I’d wake players up at 4 o’clock in the morning, get in their face and half-murder them in the weight room. But that’s what it took. ... I’ll never forget flying back into the airport at Kinston after the Peach Bowl in 1991 (a 37-34 win over N.C. State to cap an 11-1 season) and seeing fans lining the road all the way to the airport. That showed me how much football means at East Carolina and I never forgot it.”

The Peach Bowl season was Connors’ first at ECU and the Pirates made four more bowl trips with bodies he shaped for gridiron performance. The Pirates need to fill the pending position with someone with the ability and personality to make a similar impact.

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02/23/2007 12:39:55 AM

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