College Sports in the Carolinas
from the East
Friday, December 26, 2003
By Al Myatt
ECU Beat Writer for The News &
Tough-guy Kerr covets chance
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
“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
“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
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
“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
“You’ve got to be adaptive because different programs have
different needs at different times,” Kerr said. “Adaptation is the key to
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
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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