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View from the 'ville
Thursday, February 15, 2007

By Al Myatt

Pirates groping for that beacon in the night

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

Not too long ago, East Carolina would occasionally knock off a Conference USA giant in Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum. It happened against Louisville and twice against Marquette when that program featured current NBA star Dwyane Wade.

Most of the power programs of C-USA have left in realignment but that hasn't helped the plight of the present youthful Pirates. Second-year coach Ricky Stokes virtually restarted the program after going 8-20 in 2005-06 with sweeping personnel changes and ECU is obviously taking its lumps.

At one point in Wednesday night's 80-42 home loss to Southern Miss, the Pirates trailed 70-27. The final margin was researched by the media relations department and determined to be the worst for ECU since the building opened in 1965.

The Pirates have seldom had significant success on the hardwood. Stokes inherited a program that did not have a winning record during the six-season tenure of his predecessor, Bill Herrion.

Reasons for ECU's lack of competitiveness in hoops traditionally have ranged from the proximity of the ACC, to lack of program resources to greater emphasis and expectations for Pirate football.

When Terry Holland became athletic director, there was a basis for believing that basketball might climb to higher ground. A successful hoops coach at Davidson and Virginia, Holland selected one of his former Cavaliers players, Stokes, to direct those hopes for improvement.

So far, no good, but Holland isn't groping for the panic button.

"We just have to believe that we can first," said Holland who directed two Final Four teams at Virginia. "And then we have to find a way to turn that proverbial corner. We were almost this far down in football -- but at least in football, we had a history that we could fall back on once we decided we were willing to believe and take matters into our own hands rather than blaming the BCS, etc., for our lack of success.

"Minges has shown it can be a great home court! We're a lot closer than anyone can believe."

Holland knows the best thing he can do right now in regard to Stokes is to leave him alone.

"When you are losing, the best thing an AD can do is nothing," Holland said. "Nothing can console a coach after a loss so trying to say something to make the coach feel better is a waste of time.

"And there is really no need to tell him what the team did wrong since he already knows that ... and his wife is going to tell him anyway when he gets home."

Holland knows how fragile and volatile a team psyche can be and how unpredictable runs and lulls can be during a season of play.

"Almost every team and program goes through some extended tough times when things seem about ready to spiral out of control," Holland said. "Changing such negative momentum is tougher than it was when I was coaching for lots of reasons, including the Internet, talk shows, etc."

Holland recalls an incredible momentum shift during the 1984 season when his Cavaliers eventually lost to Houston in overtime in the national semifinals.

"We started the season at something like 12-0 but were 5-12 in our next 17 games," he said. "You may say that is not the same as not winning a single conference game (ECU's current situation) but I can assure you that going from 12-0 to 5-12 at UVa is very similar to ECU going from winning only a few conference games to winning zero.

"In fact, truly catastrophic is what it was to those of us experiencing it."

The Cavs' downward spiral continued with a loss to Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament.

"We were literally begging for an NIT bid," Holland recalled. "But it happened to be the first year the NCAA gave a lot of credence to strength of schedule so we got into the NCAA Tournament against all odds."

Virginia's fortunes changed during March Madness but not by design.

"Did we do anything differently?," Holland said. "No! Quite honestly, we had tried everything we knew to try to get us out of the slump and create a positive environment -- but nothing worked. Even with the unexpected opportunity, we were like cattle headed to the slaughterhouse up in the Meadowlands."

Even a night out for the struggling Cavs turned into a point of contention.

"We figured the players might as well get a little culture, so we got tickets to a Broadway play, Brighton Beach Memoirs," Holland said. "Since it was Thursday night, the other first round NCAA games were on TV and our players literally rioted. They had no desire to see a Broadway play over NCAA basketball games.

"It finally came down to, 'If you don't get on the bus to go to this play, you aren't playing tomorrow! They finally got on in silence with all of us thinking, 'Thank God I only have to put up with this (these) idiot(s) for one more day."

At that time, the A-Team was a popular television show with a formidable African-American character named Mr. T, who wore his hair in a Mohawk style.

"As it turned out, our female bus driver was the spitting image of Mr. T, except for the hair," Holland said. "She was immediately dubbed, 'Mrs. T.' She more than lived up to her nickname by wildly weaving that bus through traffic all the way into town."

The Cavaliers got some unexpected and much-needed comic relief as the bus rolled into Manhattan.

"A cab cut in front of us and immediately had to stop at the next light," Holland said. "Mrs. T was out the door before we knew what had happened and jumped up and down on the trunk of the cab so hard it looked like she was jumping rope.

"That broke the dam that had been holding us back and it was finished at the play where everyone laughed so hard their stomachs hurt.

"When we got back on the bus that night, a miracle had occurred, a bunch of individuals who were on the verge of hating one another, without any good reason other than that we were frustrated by losing, had somehow become a team again."

The revived Cavs, including Stokes, went on a tear.

"We really should have beaten Houston and played Georgetown for the NCAA championship and who knows what would have happened if we had been able to have that opportunity," Holland said.

Stokes credited the resilience of his young team on his way to Houston last week and said he's encouraged by the personnel joining the program next season. He's understandably thankful to be working for an AD who understands his current struggles and basketball in general.

"While the ECU situation seems extremely bleak right now, once the corner is turned, there is no limit to what this program can do," Holland said. "However, turning that corner is the key and sometimes you have to have a little luck."

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Dig into Al Myatt's Bonesville archives.

02/23/2007 12:29:08 AM


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