INSIDE GAME DAY
|N.C. State 52,
East Carolina 14
Saturday, Nov. 27, 2004
|By Al Myatt
Sunday, Nov. 28, 2004
Nice guy finished last
WHERE TO BUY...
PAT DYE: Short on Tenure, Long on Impact
INSIDE PIRATE FOOTBALL
Tracking the Classes
NCHSAA & ECU: Smooth Sailing Again
HIGH HOPES FOR HOOPS
New Leader Takes Charge
SCOTT COWEN: Busting Down the Door
KEITH LECLAIR on ECU's Field of Dreams
BETH GRANT: Actress Still a Pirate
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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