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College Sports in the Carolinas

View from the East
Monday, July 28, 2003

By Al Myatt
ECU Beat Writer for The News & Observer

Thompson's head-coaching mettle about to be tested

©2003 Bonesville.net

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East Carolina is not generally picked in the upper division in Conference USA in the various preseason polls, including the one conducted by the league's coaches who tabbed the Pirates for sixth place. That’s the lowest preseason prediction for the program since it joined C-USA in 1997.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

It could serve as motivation, providing the proverbial “chip” for the 2003 Pirates.

ECU was 4-4 in league play last season and finished tied for fifth in the 10-team conference with Tulane and UAB.

New coach John Thompson feels one reason the Pirates are picked in the second division is because this will be his first season as a head coach on the collegiate level.

That factor didn’t hurt Chuck Amato in the rapid ascension of the football program at N.C. State over the last three seasons. Amato and Thompson each have backgrounds on defense — Amato at Florida State and Thompson at stops such as Florida, Arkansas, LSU, Southern Miss and Memphis.

Amato came to State as head coach after Mike O’Cain finished the 1999 season with a 23-6 loss at ECU for a 6-6 record. In its first season under Amato, the Wolfpack made a two-game improvement, finishing 8-4 with a 38-30 win over Minnesota in the Micronpc.com Bowl.

Like Amato, Thompson realizes the importance of recruiting effectively in Florida, and because of his defensive background, the new ECU coach went through a lengthy process to find an offensive coordinator to balance his background on the other side of the ball.

Amato selected West coast wizard Norm Chow as his offensive guru in his first season as head coach at NCSU. Thompson eventually settled on former FSU quarterback and longtime Clemson assistant Rick Stockstill, who was mindful of filling Thompson’s directives for a vertical passing game and a power running attack in tailoring his scheme to Pirate personnel.

Amato’s offensive coordinator this season is former Auburn and Oregon State assistant Noel Mazzone, who Thompson also considered in the hiring process at ECU. Seems like the two area coaches tend to think along the same lines.

There has been a trend in-state towards hiring first year head coaches without experience in that capacity. North Carolina’s John Bunting had not been a head coach on the Division I-A level when he returned to his alma mater before the 2001 season.

Hiring several coaches with ECU backgrounds on their resumes, Bunting used a talented defensive unit to upgrade the 2001 team to an 8-5 mark with a memorable 41-9 pounding of Florida State in Chapel Hill and a Peach Bowl victory over Auburn. An injury to quarterback Darian Durant and defensive departures prompted the Heels’ slip to 3-9 last season.

Neither of Bunting’s two diverse seasons could be viewed as accurate indications of his coaching ability. He was playing with Carl Torbush’s players upon his arrival and had not had time to fill the voids that were created when the stars of the 2001 defense left the program.

Duke’s Carl Franks is the other case study of current Carolinas Division I-A coaches without previous experience as head coaches. Franks has had farther to go and less material to get there than any of his regional counterparts, but the Blue Devils showed progress last season and with virtually everyone returning could be on the verge of a breakthrough season.

With the Pirates preparing to embark on preseason practice next week, Thompson has done everything right thus far. His staff looks strong, diverse, capable and personable. Enthusiasm has been rekindled among players and fans. Personnel has been evaluated, refined and further developed in the offseason. Schemes have been installed.

We’re only a few days and the month of August away from finding out how well everything will come together for the Pirates. Keep in mind that Thompson’s maiden voyage as a head coach will come against one of ECU’s best schedules ever.

FSU still sets bar

Although his Wolfpack has been picked as high as No. 6 nationally in preseason football polls, don’t count Amato among those who think Florida State has slipped from its position of dominance in the ACC.

“Florida State is the team we’re chasing,” the N.C. State coach said at the ACC football kickoff last week in Greensboro, Ga. “ ... They played in a bowl game last year, the Sugar Bowl, against the University of Georgia, who was the Southeastern Conference champion, with a third-string quarterback and third-string tailback, a second-string center, a walk-on at defensive tackle, a defensive end moved to defensive tackle and they came within two dropped passes of beating Georgia in the Sugar Bowl and having another double-digit win season.

“If you call that slipping, then we are a long, long way. It’s the quality depth that they have. Our top 22 are getting closer and closer to Florida State’s, but from 23 to 85, that’s the difference.”

The Seminoles were picked first in the ACC preseason media poll with the Wolfpack second.

“We just need to come together as a team and do all the things right,” said Florida State linebacker Michael Boulware. “We have the talent, but we really haven’t played as one yet. Once we get that back, things will fall into place.”

FSU senior running back Greg Jones said a 9-5 record that included a 26-13 loss to Georgia in the Sugar Bowl is not acceptable.

“Last year was a major disappointment,” he said. “ ... For a lot of teams, nine wins is spectacular, but for us it’s disappointing.”

Junior quarterback Chris Rix will be charged with leading the Noles out of their funk.

“Athletically, he’s gifted and I’m behind him 100 percent,” Jones said of Rix.

Team harmony and togetherness may have been missing ingredients for the Seminoles in 2002. FSU coach Bobby Bowden said his program flunked that part of the test for success.

“It’s no secret that we did not have the best chemistry in the world,” he said. “ ... That’s not the first year I had a team that couldn’t get along with each other. I’ve been through it before, and I know that’s a part of life. You hope your kids learn from that and next year can do something about that, and that’s exactly what I expect to happen.”

ECU’s games with ACC teams in 2003 include a trip to Wake Forest on Sept. 20 and a home game with North Carolina, the Tar Heels’ first ever visit to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, on Oct. 11. UNC is picked sixth in the ACC preseason poll and Wake is tabbed seventh.

ECU speed factors

Thompson is a little elusive when it comes to identifying the fastest player on the Pirates team.

“It depends on the day and who’s got the stopwatch on ’em,” Thompson said. “It depends on whether you’re talking about track time or competition time — with pads or without pads. Some guys are faster when they’re chasing somebody. Some guys are faster when they’re being chased. Some guys are faster on certain surfaces.

“The receivers and defensive backs are the fastest groups on the team. Damarcus Fox and Terrance Copper are among the fastest receivers.”

ECU cornerback Travis Cox was on an 800-meter relay team in high school at Greenville Rose that placed third in the state 4-A meet.

Thompson is reluctant to say who had the fastest offseason time for 40 yards.

“I’d rather the people at Cincinnati didn’t know who our fastest player was,” he said.

As for his own speed in his playing days, Thompson said, “I ran too long in one place.”

ECU opens the 2003 season with a noon Conference USA contest at Cincinnati (ESPN) on Labor Day, Sept. 1.

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02/23/2007 12:40:34 AM
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