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INSIDE GAME DAY

N.C. State 52, East Carolina 14
Saturday, Nov. 27, 2004
By Al Myatt
Story posted Sunday, Nov. 28, 2004

Nice guy finished last

 

 

 

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©2004 Bonesville.net

John Thompson boarded the Pirate ship in December of 2002 with an eagerness to cure the ills that had produced a 4-8 record the preceding season.

He had a winning way off the field, making himself supremely accessible to one and all and predicting championships.

He stoked the East Carolina fan base at Pirate Club meetings in the offseason. He extolled the abilities and chemistry of the staff he assembled. He introduced a hastily-signed recruiting class with contemporary music and video clips.

He opened spring practice to spectators and brought back the spring game. About 9,000 fans showed up to watch the purple and gold do battle at Dowdy-Ficklen.

Thompson, the longtime defensive coordinator who had finally landed a head job, also had some new notions on preseason practice in August. He lodged the players in the City Hotel and bused them to practice. He adopted a motto, "Love camp, love people."

The Pirates went swimming together before the 2003 season. They had an ice cream social. They went to see the movie "Seabiscuit."

After a quarter of a century as an assistant, Thompson had his ideas of how a program should be run. He didn't feel comfortable bringing his sons around the football office before he became the boss. But that became one of the perks of calling the shots. So was taking off for an afternoon run.

Many fans loved Thompson's personable approach, especially compared to the close-to-the-vest manner with which his predecessor, Steve Logan, desired to run things.

Thompson's Camelot lasted about nine months — until ECU played its first game under his command at Cincinnati — on ESPN — on Labor Day. The Pirates didn't just get beat, they were hammered, 40-3.

The Thompson era ended on Saturday in much the same way it started, with ECU dominated in a 52-14 loss to N.C. State in Charlotte.

In fairness to Thompson, he had a 5-year plan to get the program turned around, but those who hired him, former chancellor Bill Muse and ex-athletic director Mike Hamrick, weren't around for most of his 2-year tenure.

Thompson spent most of his time working for interim administrators, Bill Shelton as chancellor and Nick Floyd as AD. After Steve Ballard became chancellor and Terry Holland took the AD job, they evaluated the state of the program.

"We're getting better," Thompson contended.

Ballard and Holland didn't see it that way.

The axe fell on Nov. 16. The announcement came the following day.

Thompson's record was 3-20 in two seasons, a winning percentage of .130, the lowest for a Pirates coach since someone named O.A. Hanker went 0-8 in 1939.

Thompson's Pirates seemingly could not get a break. Misfortunes ranged from a phantom South Florida touchdown in a 38-37 double overtime loss at Homecoming last season to a sprained right knee that sidelined quarterback James Pinkney in Saturday's loss to rival NCSU.

Questionable coaching was another element of the dissatisfaction that mounted against Thompson. Returning starting quarterback Paul Troth was benched at the outset of 2003 and his replacement, Desmond Robinson, was plagued by turnovers. The Pirates responded by getting conservative on offense. Too conservative and too predictable.

North Carolina played its first game in Greenville last season. That greatly-anticipated event went down as another "L" on Thompson's record, the first win for the Tar Heels after an 0-5 start.

The offense showed signs of revival with a new coordinator, Noah Brindise, and Pinkney at quarterback in 2004.

The defense, Thompson's area of expertise, gave up too many big plays the first season. Thompson decided before this season that he would work closer with the defensive unit. Thompson's extra attention wasn't the answer. The Pirates, who allowed 428 points in 12 games last season, gave up 439 in 11 games this season.

A blown coverage led to NCSU's first score on Saturday and started a long day for the Pirates. It must have looked like a rerun of an old movie to the Pirate fans among a crowd of 41,244.

Thompson took responsibility for a failed fake punt at Southern Miss this season and the acceptance of a penalty at South Florida that also backfired. He was criticized for signing too many players from Florida and not enough from Eastern North Carolina.

The program's struggles were reflected in diminished attendance and Pirate Club support. National television ignored ECU in 2004. The demise of ECU's flagship sport contributed to a projected $1.3 million shortfall in the athletic budget this year.

Thompson knew the bottom line of wins and losses had not been met in his final postgame comments.

"We did not make enough plays today or in two years," he said. " ... We did not get it done. We did not have enough time, but we did not get it done."

With no one in the administration committed to support him and an annual base salary of $150,000, the going rate for coordinators at some programs, Thompson was easy enough to jettison.

Reviving the program may be much more difficult, although Thompson believes he is leaving ECU football in better shape than he found it. His successor will lose only six players from Saturday's two-deep depth chart and there are some highly-regarded non-qualifiers waiting in the wings.

Thompson presented a plea for unity among those who support and cover the program as he made his exit.

"Everybody needs to be pulling together and a lot of it starts in here," he told the media in the Carolina Panthers interview room.

He said those speculating about who will get the ECU job had been a distraction the last two weeks.

His immediate priorities will become spending time with his family and helping his assistant coaches find jobs. His "battling and fighting" mantra will continue.

"I told our team, you know, I'm not their coach anymore but they'll always be my players," he said. "I'm not our staff's head coach, but they'll always be my guys. ... I've got nothing to hold my head down.

"We competed until the very last whistle."

Thompson met with his players for the final time in the bowels of Bank of America Stadium as rain began to fall in the Queen City.

"It was emotional," he said. "But it's not time to break, it's not time to give in, still. We told these guys all along, 'You got to stick together and keep fighting.' We're not sticking together, but we're going to keep fighting."

There have been reports and speculation that Thompson will resurface on Steve Spurrier's staff at South Carolina. The son of a coach, Thompson has loved his job. When the business side of athletics disrupts families is the aspect he particularly dislikes.

"Coaching is the greatest profession in the world," he said. "Teaching is the greatest profession in the world. The business of coaching can be the sorriest business in the world. There are people that are abused in this business and they've got nothing to do with it. ... The business is nasty. That part of it is really, really nasty."

The nastiness manifested itself when ECU's record resulted in Thompson's forced resignation, effective after Saturday's game. To his credit, he has taken the high road on the way out.

The sad aspect of Thompson's departure is that you'd probably like him if he moved into your neighborhood. He has a nice family. They go to church. You'd see him jogging occasionally or loading up his golf clubs in the summer. You might not see him much at other times of the year because of the time demands of coaching college football.

Thompson gave loads of his time and energy to ECU and for the most part, it went unrewarded.

Although Thompson and ECU will go their separate ways, the program will bear his influence for the next few years in terms of the players he has signed and the mindset he has instilled in them.

"We've got to adjust to a new coaching staff," said ECU standout linebacker Chris Moore, who forced and recovered a fumble for ECU's first touchdown on Saturday. "It hurts to see Coach Thompson and his staff leave. I guess it was time for a change. We can't do nothing about it but just move on."

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02/23/2007 12:47:16 AM
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