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CHRONICLING ECU & C-USA SPORTS
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View from the 'ville
Thursday, March 25, 2010

By Al Myatt

Bucs should profit from Tar Heel ties

By Al Myatt
©2010 Bonesville.net
All rights reserved.

The basketball culture at East Carolina must change if new coach Jeff Lebo is going to accomplish his assigned mission of ending the Pirates' losing tradition.

ECU athletic director Terry Holland knows that. Step one was moving former coach Mack McCarthy into a fund-raising capacity for a badly-needed basketball practice facility. Step two was snatching Jeff Lebo out of the discard bin at Auburn.

The astute Holland forged an alliance with one of the most powerful and successful programs in the nation in the process of the coaching transition.

"This is an outstanding hire by East Carolina," said North Carolina coach Roy Williams. "Jeff is a tremendous coach who was in an unfortunate situation at Auburn. I strongly believe this is a new day for East Carolina basketball. The program will improve dramatically under Jeff's leadership."

The 43-year old Lebo has generated an impressive resume.

He was a McDonald's All-American in high school when he played for his dad, Dave, in Carlisle, PA. He averaged 28 points per game as a senior, leading Carlisle to the first of four straight 4-A state championships.

Holland tried to recruit Lebo to Virginia but he chose instead to play for Coach Dean Smith in Chapel Hill.

A four-year letterman for the Tar Heels, Lebo helped Carolina to a 116-25 record as a player. That included two ACC regular season titles as well as the 1989 league tournament title. North Carolina advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament in each of his four years and got as far as the Elite Eight twice.

He was a three-time All-ACC Tournament selection and a second-team all-conference pick in 1988. Lebo received the Patterson Award as the school's top student-athlete in 1989. He is eighth in career assists and 24th in career scoring at North Carolina.

Any Pirate who has reservations about Lebo's Tar Heel background should remember that Jim Mallory, the baseball coach who guided the Pirates to the NAIA championship in 1961, was a UNC alumnus. Mallory was inducted into the ECU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1978.

Lebo played briefly in the NBA for the San Antonio Spurs before beginning his college coaching career with two successful seasons at East Tennessee State. He then served on the staff of another former Tar Heel point guard, Eddie Fogler, at Vanderbilt and South Carolina.

'Program turner'

Holland was especially interested in Lebo's accomplishments as head coach at Tennessee Tech and Chattanooga. Both programs made significant improvement under Lebo's leadership.

"Jeff Lebo has established a well-deserved reputation as a 'program turner,' " Holland said. "He has a proven track record as a player, as an assistant coach and as a head coach.

"When you combine those attributes with his desire for his family to be located in Eastern North Carolina, it gives me great comfort that we have the opportunity to establish something very special for our basketball program over the next few decades under Jeff's leadership."

Holland's degree of commitment is indicated in the contract terms. The New Bern Sun-Journal reported that Lebo will receive a six-year, $3.375 million contract from ECU. His base salary will be $175,000 in his first year and increase by $25,000 each year. With marketing and broadcast bonuses, Lebo will make $500,000 in his first year.

The contract also includes a $50,000 incentive for finishing at least .500 in Conference USA and a $100,000 bonus for making the NCAA tournament, something no ECU team has done since the 1992-93 season when Eddie Payne was the Pirates coach.

The Birmingham News reported that Lebo was to receive a $1.5 million buyout for the three years remaining on his contract at Auburn.

Marketing Minges

Payne was the last ECU hoops coach to leave the program on his own terms, accepting an offer from Oregon State in 1996 after three straight winning seasons. His 1992-93 team captured ECU's second and last NCAA Tournament berth by winning the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament.

The Pirates had a winning record the season after Payne departed. Joe Dooley took over in 1996-97 but that was the last time an ECU hoops team has been above .500.

Payne, who now guides a fledgling Division I program at South Carolina Upstate, has some perspective on what is involved in generating basketball success at ECU.

"They've changed conferences and it's a different footprint in recruiting," Payne said. "There are some issues and I'm not sure any one in particular is easily identifiable in terms of what has happened.

"There isn't a lot of traction with tradition, but Jeff is a solid guy and he'll do a good job. We got good players in Eastern North Carolina and up and down the I-95 corridor. I think that's what you have to do. It's an advantage having Terry Holland as athletic director because he's a basketball guy, like Dave Hart when I was there but even more so.

"I think you've got to get the community involved, get people in the gym and market that atmosphere. The tradition doesn't have validity but if you generate atmosphere that can help you get players. Minges (Coliseum) is an enjoyable basketball experience, It can be done."

Lebo expects effort

ECU fans have to like Lebo's take on effort at his introductory new conference.

"One, you're going to see a team out there that's going to play hard," said the new Pirates coach. "The one thing that I don't coach is effort. I expect that.

"We want to play smart. Some nights are better than others for that, but playing smart is something I believe in. We want to play together. We want guys who understand our core values: being accountable, dependable, reliable and trusting. Those things aren't just important on the basketball floor. They're important in other areas of their lives as well, like academics and social settings."

That relates to something Lebo's former Tar Heel teammate Hubert Davis, now an ESPN analyst, said about the total building job Lebo will do with his players.

The Heels aren't the only ones endorsing Holland's newest hire. The Pirate Nation is showing rare anticipation and enthusiasm for hoops at the moment. Former ECU baseball player and coach Hal Baird put his stamp of approval on Lebo. Baird coached baseball at Auburn after leaving ECU before moving into Auburn's athletic administration.

"He always represented Auburn in a first-class manner with dignity and character, and I'm thrilled that Jeff Lebo will be the next head men's basketball coach at East Carolina," Baird said.

Melissa, Dink and Dave

Lebo's wife, Melissa, is understandably excited about being back in Eastern North Carolina. She grew up in Williamston where her father, Dink Mills, was the long time football coach and athletic director at Williamston High School.

An Ayden native, Dink Mills was a wing back in the Pirate football program from 1962 to 1964.

Lebo's dad, Dave, established a legendary reputation as a prep coach in the Keystone State. More recently, he has served as an assistant on his son's college coaching staffs, including at Auburn.

E-mail Al Myatt

Al Myatt Archives

03/25/2010 01:26 AM
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