INSIDE GAME DAY
24, Duke 21
Saturday, Sept. 3, 2005
|By Al Myatt
Sunday, Sept. 4, 2005
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GREENVILLE In the aftermath of a 24-21 win
over Duke on Saturday, East Carolina fans had some blessed relief from
soaring gas prices, the war in Iraq, the post-Katrina debacle on the Gulf
coast and an 8-game losing streak to ACC opposition.
It was a momentous opening for the Skip Holtz
coaching era at ECU and an overdue reminder of just how much fun it is to
beat a regional rival in college football.
The man who ultimately should be given credit
for the vast improvement the Pirates showed on Saturday from a 3-20 U-turn
of the last two seasons, athletic director Terry Holland, emerged from the
Murphy Center with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye.
It was Holland's decision last November to
halt John Thompson's tenure as head coach at two seasons and search for
someone who could polish away ECU's gridiron rust. Holland moved quickly in
finding Holtz and was perceptive enough to realize that the personable son
of a coaching legend was the right man for the Pirates.
The football coaching change was the first
substantive action in Holland's administration, which is just days away from
its first anniversary, and it was validated in front of 35,000-plus
victory-starved ECU faithful on Saturday. Holland deferred when asked about
the significance of the win over the Blue Devils.
"Having watched these guys, the players and
the coaching staff, they were putting together a foundation for the future,"
Holland said. "The good thing about the win is that they got rewarded for
all the hard work they put in.
"While it does provide some validation and a
lot of excitement for Pirate fans, I think we were going to get there
eventually anyway. This just says, 'Hey guys, this is what it could be
like.' We need everybody on board, all hands on deck and something special
could happen here."
Holtz was not a hot commodity on the coaching
market when the ECU position became vacant. He had been demoted by Papa Lou
from offensive coordinator to quarterbacks coach during his stay at South
Carolina and Steve Spurrier got the head job that Skip was once thought to
be in line for when the elder Holtz retired.
To ECU's good fortune, the astute Holland saw
past the downturn in Skip's career with the Gamecocks.
"His enthusiasm and his ability to
communicate," Holland said as he recalled impact factors in his initial
evaluation of Holtz. "We brought him in and had him meet with the players.
He obviously communicated very well with the adults, but he also made a real
connection with the players."
The coaching position at ECU has some heavy
demands in terms of public relations and Holland projected a good fit in
that regard as well.
"The special thing about East Carolina
University that I've seen here has been the real connection that East
Carolina as a university makes with its alumni and the same thing with the
Pirate nation, the fans in purple and gold, in coming to games and stuff,"
Holland said. "That's an important piece of what we do here and I think Skip
is perfect for that because he does make a real connection with our folks at
a lot of different levels."
Holtz's connections also helped him assemble a
capable and cohesive coaching staff. Holtz works primarily with the offense
and was appropriately conservative as the Pirates protected their lead
against Duke. Defensive coordinator Greg Hudson adjusted on the fly against
a Blue Devils offense that defied some of the schematic tendencies that new
Duke coordinator Bill O'Brien was expected to draw on from his background at
Holtz prepared his playsheet with only 60
percent of his offense and said the Pirates only used half of that. He said
he learned a lesson at Connecticut that less was often more in terms of
effective execution. That leaves a lot of the playbook untapped as ECU gets
ready for Wake Forest on Sept. 17 after an open date.
There should be great optimism about what
James Pinkney (17 for 21, 236 yards, 1 passing TD, 2 rushing TDs, 0 Int) can
do as he spends more time in Holtz's offense. Pinkney was masterful despite
only 29 days of preseason practice because of his academic situation in the
spring. Now the junior from Delray Beach, FL, has two more weeks to expand
his familiarity with the Holtz system.
Holland is responsible for ECU's extra time to
prepare for the Demon Deacons, a case perhaps of the old coach's ability to
still think like a coach.
"We knew that Labor Day would hurt us a little
bit (in terms of attendance) when we moved this game back a week," Holland
said. "We thought it was important for this coaching staff to have a chance
to see what they had under game conditions and have two weeks to prepare for
that next game. We asked Skip about it and he said, 'Oh yeah, that's great
if Duke will move.'
"Duke agreed to move, so we moved it back. We
knew that Labor Day is hard for our fans. They have family activities and
other things, but what a fantastic turnout and enthusiasm."
The Pirates compensated well from a marketing
standpoint with ticket promotions practically up until the 1:06 p.m.
Holtz talked about players committing to the
program "jumping into the boat with both feet" and said ECU would
approach the first week of the upcoming layoff as a spring practice session.
The players have bought in, Holtz said, and those who may have had doubts
certainly will be influenced by the wave of confidence which washed over the
Pirates on Saturday.
True, Duke isn't Southern Cal. But the Blue
Devils and Pirates were battling to make that first step on the rebuilding
road. It was a giant step for ECU in that sense and when compared to a 40-0
loss at Cincinnati that began the previous coaching era, Holtz is light
years ahead of his predecessor.
"I'm very, very pleased," Holland said
Saturday after ECU's first non-conference win over a Division I-A program
since the Pirates beat Texas Tech in the 2000 Galleryfurniture.com Bowl. "I
think it's all paying off."
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