(Photo: ECU SID)
A Lifetime Pirate Looks Back
50 Years of East Carolina Football
Dr. Henry VanSant
you just call him "Coach"
©2003, 2008 Bonesville.net
EDITOR'S NOTE (Feb. 1, 2008): During halftime of a recent home
basketball game, the initial class of East Carolina University's
VanSant Society was recognized. The late Henry VanSant, a
contemporary of East Carolina icons Leo Jenkins and Clarence
Stasavich, devoted much of his life to the school.
When VanSant passed away at age 70 on March
16, 2006, Bonesville.net published
this obituary by Al
reflections from some whose paths
VanSant crossed by Bethany Bradsher.
The christening of the VanSant Society
makes this an appropriate time for Bonesville.net to release
from its vaults for general consumption this special Pirate Time
Machine published exclusively in the 2003 edition of Bonesville
As each day and year becomes history, moments in time
become more important. Certain moments are so important in retrospect
that it is obvious they were pivotal in the shaping of the future.
To be connected to those time-altering events is to some
extent a gateway to immortality - an opportunity to become by
association a part of the fabric of history, a fiber so tightly woven
into the achievement of milestones that the history cannot be accurately
recounted without acknowledgment of the contribution.
To meet those directly involved in momentous,
future-defining moments in time can be nearly overwhelming. It's like
when you meet and talk to someone who had been, really been, on the
beaches of Normandy. Or to see in person Neil Armstrong or Edwin "Buzz"
Aldrin, knowing that they were the first to behold Earth from the
surface of the moon. To hear a first-hand account of Martin Luther King
Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech from a person who was there, at the
Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
To hear, "Yes… I was there… and it really happened. The
magic was real."
That moment of undeniable authenticity in the recounting
of significant history is tingling… it is inspiring… and in terms of
East Carolina, it rekindles the burning desire to "Believe" in such a
manner that obstacles are overcome and those who would prefer to ignore,
It was in the early 1960s when then-chancellor Leo
Jenkins expressed his own 'I have a dream' for the future of East
Carolina. The dream included a future that saw East Carolina College
becoming East Carolina University, the establishment against
overwhelming opposing forces of a Medical School, and the achievement of
Doctoral Status for the university.
There was also another major element in Leo's vision,
one that was dear to his heart and that would inspire a remarkable
passion within the campus community and throughout the region the school
serves. Leo saw football as a cause around which the faithful would
rally - hard-nosed, undeniable, exciting, big-time college football in
the heart of Atlantic Coast Conference country.
There was Coach Clarence Stasavich, whom Jenkins knew
would build a solid foundation upon which to build a real football
program. There were men like Dr. Ray Minges, Ed Rawls, Howard Hodges,
and Booger Scales, who shared the dream and passion to will East
Carolina into the future through unrelenting commitment to get things
done by whatever means necessary.
And, at that watershed moment in time, there was a young
coach named Henry VanSant, who had been a player at ECC, a good player.
As circumstance would have it, he found himself watching these men and
witnessing the school's most pivotal moments unfold.
Dr. VanSant, when asked, will tell you, "…Yes, I was
there. And it all happened just like it is told today. The magic was
Few Pirates have had the opportunity to give to East
Carolina football in quite the way that VanSant has made his
contributions. A player, a coach, an educator, and an administrator in
the decades since he first stepped on the campus in 1957, Dr. VanSant
would just as soon you call him 'Coach.' It is that title that he is
most proud of and it is the coaches and players with whom he has had the
privilege to share the cause that have meant the most to him.
In 2001, when VanSant retired as Associate Athletic
Director at East Carolina University, an era ended. VanSant truly was
the last linkage between the dreams of Dr. Jenkins and the realities of
the ECU football program as it exists today.
Between his first days as a player that fall in '57 to
his retirement ceremony, VanSant experienced three different
chancellors, four different athletic directors, a host of coaches and
countless players come into Greenville. But it was VanSant that was the
constant during those years and he has had a view of ECU and its growth
that few have experienced.
"(East Carolina) was a great time for me," VanSant said.
"It was a great time for me as a player, a coach, and an administrator.
Those were happy times in my life that made my life worthwhile. East
Carolina was my livelihood, but it was also my life. I am very proud of
East Carolina and I want to see it keep growing. And, it will… as long
as people don't forget our history."
VanSant has never forgotten his own modest origins and
those people who helped shape him as a man.
A Player of Humble Beginnings
Life was not easy at home for VanSant when he was
growing up in the blue-collar town of Hampton, Virginia. Living with his
father, who struggled to make ends meet with a small grocery shop,
VanSant sought identity and happiness through football. And football
"To tell you the honest truth, I think football saved my
life," he said. "I really feel that way."
In the 1950s, Hampton High School was one of the most
successful prep football programs in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The
coach at the time, J.M. "Suey" Eason, was a high school legend in the
state and he was a man who would have a true impact on VanSant.
"I was fortunate to be associated with some great
coaches," VanSant said. "Hampton has great tradition of football that
goes back to the 1940s and they were even named mythical national
champions a few years back. Coach Eason was probably the winningest
coach in the state of Virginia back then and he was coach that I'm not
sure if I loved or hate him. Truly, I was blessed to have had him in my
Eason - who is in the Virginia High School Hall of Fame
- was an old school coach, hard-edged and crotchety. But he was also
fair while demanding a young man's very best on and off the field.
"He told me when to go to bed, what to eat, what to
drink and I just did it because he told me to," he said. "You just did
what he said even though you knew he could never really check on you. He
was a great, great man of high character and high morals."
Eason was the first in what would turn out to be a string of
powerful, morally rich coaches who would have a huge impact on VanSant.
"I had a father and I had a great deal of respect for
him," VanSant said. "I was from a broken home and lived with my father.
We didn't have money or anything. Football gave me everything I didn't
have. It gave me recognition… it gave me all I needed."
The void that he went home to every day was filled with
the whirlwind excitement of Friday nights under the lights.
"Hampton was a crazy, crazy town for football," he
recalled. "We played in front of a packed stadium at every game. Maybe
8,000 at every game. It was real, real high speed."
The town was immersed in Hampton football and the
program, which at the time was one of about 20 group 1 schools in the
state, was big-time.
"My senior year we must have had 10 or 12 banquets from
different organizations around town," VanSant said. "We'd leave on
Thursday nights on chartered busses and go to Hampton-Sydney College and
practice. We'd stay in the dorms and then drive off to the game the next
morning. It really was a high-speed environment and Coach Eason, who is
now deceased, he just molded my life. I was not a great player, but I
did play. I was only 6-feet and 165 pounds, but I did start."
Chancellor Leo Jenkins had a dream
for East Carolina (ECU SID)
To play in front of everyone in town was big to VanSant
the young man as well as to VanSant the player.
"All the local people came to the games," he said. "You
know, the local doctors would come out to help. Football was important
(to the people in town). We were called the Crabbers and (opponents)
would (insultingly) call you a 'crabber.' But we would say, 'Fight and
fight and rip and roar and try and try and try some more, but you can't
crush a crab!'"
The local cheer for Hampton was more than words, it was
illustrative of the type of players that VanSant's coach molded.
"I played in 1950 and we were 10-0 and in 1951 we were
9-1," VanSant recalled. "I also played on one of the worst teams at
Hampton in 1952, when we were 5-3-1. But I also was part of the '53 team
that went 9-0 and was considered by a lot of people as the best team in
the state of Virginia. That may be a stretch, but it was a great team.
And with no playoffs at that time in Virginia, state champions were
named on a point system. That '53 team finished second in the state and
the '50 team was state champions."
Fortunately for VanSant's ego, Hampton only lost four
games in his four years in high school, which meant that, for the most
part, he was a football hero among the local population.
"That town took losing very hard," he said. "But if you
were a football player, you were something special in Hampton. You were
a big man. And everybody knew Coach Eason, which was evidenced by the
fact that his son kept getting reelected. (Eason's son Jimmy - who
played football at the University of North Carolina - was a long-time
Mayor of Hampton.)"
As a player, VanSant made his name as a hard worker. He
played center and linebacker.
"I was one of those guy who loved the game and played
hard all of the time," VanSant said. "Back then, we didn't do things all
year around, but we started in early summer with the recreation program.
Anybody could come, but all the players went. We ran the old double-Wing
and I had not been a center until my senior year and that summer I
learned to snap the ball. I learned from an All-America who used to play
(at Hampton) named Sooky Hill, who was playing at VMI. Sooky showed me
the ropes and I played center. It didn't matter which position I played.
I played whatever position I was told. If I was going to be on the field
I had to do what they asked."
While he excelled on the football field, VanSant was not
quite the student that would later go on to earn a PhD.
"In high school, I was a pretty bad student," he said.
"I joke about it, I say, 'I graduated 360 in a class of 363.' I joke,
but it is probably not far from the truth. I only played football, but I
always found a way to get out of class to go shoot baskets or something
VanSant did work hard outside of school, working to earn
some money to help subsidize the household income.
"I worked as soon as I got 16 years old," VanSant said.
"I worked for a building contractor. My dad had a little old
neighborhood grocery store which I worked at until I was old enough to
get a real job and get paid finally."
And, when football ended, VanSant did what he felt was
the most honorable thing to do for a young man.
"I had finished in February and I had enlisted in the
Army before I even graduated from high school," he said. "I left on
February fourth for the 82nd Airborne where I was a paratrooper for
three years. You know, I really loved the Army. I was an active platoon
sergeant when I was 19 years old. I made rank real fast and I did love
it. I was in charge of 37 guys, you know. I really thought I'd stay in."
Anyone who knows VanSant knows that he is a deeply
spiritual man and even as a young man, he always believed that there was
a greater power steering his life.
"I got a job when I got out of the Army and was waiting
to go to college," VanSant said. "After you got out of the Army, you had
90 days to re-enlist. I was working as an engraver at a shipyard and I
remember thinking to myself, 'I'm going back into the Army.'
I went back to Raleigh to re-enlist - right back to Fort
Bragg in Fayetteville. It was the 89th day and I was going to re-enlist
the next day. Well, I have a strong belief that the Lord runs my life.
Something just told me on that 90th day that I needed to do something
else. Instead of going to Raleigh that morning, I just went to
Greenville. I didn't know anything about East Carolina, but I knew I
wanted to play college football."
VanSant had contacted then-East Carolina Coach Jack
Boone and after checking up on VanSant's football history, Boone told
him to come in and walk on.
"I really loved the Army," VanSant said. "I felt like I
got a great education those three years, especially from a leadership
standpoint. I served as a battalion drill sergeant and a physical
training director. I had a lot of experiences there and they made
college… well, college was not hard for me. It was the Army that gave me
that education. The service was a good influence on my life. I still
love the Army and I am very proud of my youngest son, who is a West
and Coach/Athletic Director Clarence Stasavich (ECU SID)
of a Pirate
In his stint in the Army, VanSant was fortunate enough
to meet his future wife. While stationed at Fort Bragg, the 19-year-old
soldier met and was smitten by a beautiful high school senior named
Ronny. The two dated for the entirety of his enlistment and, during that
time time, VanSant became very close to her family.
It was staying with her that helped fate work in his
favor, lest he would have missed his moment to become a Pirate.
"I knew I wanted to play football and I knew that I
would have to walk on after I spoke to Coach Boone," VanSant recalled.
Boone was the second
coach to have blessed my life. He was one great, great man and a great
football coach. Boone was younger than and not crusty like Coach Eason.
"After I talked to him and he told me to come over and
walk on, I never heard from him again. I had literally not heard
anything about when practice would start or when I was to report. I was
at my wife's family's house in Fayetteville and I picked up the paper
and looked down at it and there was an article saying that East Carolina
was starting practice the next morning. I saw that and I took off."
A fortuitous moment to be sure and aside from leaving
tread marks in his future in-laws' drive way, VanSant arrived at East
Carolina intact and ready to play ball.
"I got there and reported to the equipment manager, John
Stauffer, who had been a player but had gotten hurt and was helping out
as a manager. I look and all of the gear is lying all over the floor and
John tells me to go in and grab some gear. I grabbed a helmet and it
didn't have a facemask - just like our high school helmets, so I put it
on and went on out there."
Though in school on a G.I. Bill, VanSant earned a
partial scholarship after his first year and he was "grateful for it."
Boone, who had been a standout player at Elon College,
coached the Pirates when they were in the old North State League, which
was the precursor for the Carolinas Conference. At the time, the North
State League was dominated by the likes of Appalachian State, Western
Carolina, Newberry College, Catawba, and Lenoir-Rhyne, and the Pirates
were looking up at those teams.
"We weren't really that good, though we were 7-3 my
senior year," VanSant said. "We did beat the University of Richmond - I
think it was 22-7 - and that was a big deal then. Beating them was one
of the bigger things we did. We lost to Lenoir-Rhyne and that was one of
my biggest disappointments as a player because they beat us 22-21,
getting two points at end and Coach Clarence Stasavich was their coach
at the time."
Though East Carolina was still evolving as a competitive
football team, the never-say-die attitude was already firmly entrenched
and VanSant knew it.
"Do you know in the years that I played, I never, ever,
not one time entertained the idea of quitting football," he said. "Not
even when I was throwing up. It was a blessing to me as was that great
bunch of guys."
VanSant was well-liked as a player and he, too, took
note of many of his contemporaries.
"You know the guys that really stand out to me…,"
VanSant thought. "…We had a guard named Dempsey Williams, from
Fayetteville. He was killed in Vietnam. And, of course, ahead of me was
Alge Faircloth. He was a ruffian. He played tackle and was a nasty,
nasty player. I dearly loved him. He died a few years ago. That guy was
an absolute renegade and he graduate and coached football and I'll tell
you, he did more to help kids in the state of North Carolina than anyone
in this world. There was Ed Emory, who was my roommate.
"There also was Henry Kwiatowski. I think the world of
Henry. He was a tackle and a kicker. I remember with Henry, it was the
last game of the season and he had not missed an extra point all year
and I snapped the ball to the 50-yard line. Bill Whichard, who was the
Director of House Keeping, came up to me and said, 'You did that on
purpose because he got all the credit (for the streak of kicks)'."
For VanSant, it is the content of a man's character that
tends to stick in the memory.
"At my age, I think more about what a player has done
with his life rather than whether he was an all-America," he said. "I
played with Dave Thomas, who is retiring as the Athletic Director in
Wayne County. And there was Clayton Palind, who was one of the greatest
defensive tackles ever at East Carolina. He was killed in a logging
two years ago. He was one of the finest players and he was only 200
pounds. He even made it to a pro camp at that size.
"There were a lot of good players at East Carolina. Of
course, James Speight was the running back when I played. He ended up
never playing, but the Baltimore Colts signed him out of college so that
he could never play with anybody else when he got out of the Air Force.
He did play service ball and he was named the world player of the year
for the military. He truly was one of the greatest I ever saw."
Above all, there was Jack Boone.
"After my senior year, he upped my scholarship even
though I was
no longer of any use to him," VanSant said. "I will never forget that.
was a great, great man and I thought the world of him. You know, when
I get together with guys in athletic circles and we talk about
most guys name a coach. Not their father, but a coach and that is how it
has been with me. Jack Boone was one of those men."
Meanwhile, Another Bond was Forming
"I met my wife, Ronny, while I was in the military,"
"I was 19 years old and she was a just a senior in high
school when we met. We dated for four or five years before we got
Ronny is from Fayetteville, home of Fort Bragg and
VanSant's duty station. She sensed from her initial meeting that VanSant
was whom she wanted to be with, and to be with him meant a life without
a much of a master plan.
"We were meant to be," VanSant said. "In June, it will
be 44 years. When we got married, I was a sophomore at East Carolina."
Ronny, who very much values education, knew that if her
future husband was going to pursue his dreams, she would have to be very
flexible. But one thing she would not budge on was a promise she
insisted VanSant give and keep.
"(Life) was always a football first situation for me,"
VanSant admitted. "I got my doctorate degree because of Ronny. I made a
promise to her and she to me. She said I wish you would get your
doctor's degree and you can coach all you want. It was her insistence.
And she worked and supported me for that, though I did have some income.
She helped put me through school and helped support the family just like
in my undergraduate years when she worked two years and put me through
college. Of course, after that she raised the children until they were
in junior high. Then she went back to school and got her undergraduate,
master's, and doctor's degree."
With a promise in hand, Ronny strapped in for the wild
ride of a life that coaches often live, bouncing from school to school,
state to state.
"Life has been a whole lot more fun for me than Ronny,"
he said. "I shortchanged my family quite a bit and never gave them the
attention they deserved. But, I guess I've done something right for 44
years. I'd lose a game and she'd be in tears. She would be like, 'You
lost. Are you going to get fired?' I was arrogant and I would say, 'I'll
get a better job.'
"She stuck by me all the way. Ronny's a pretty good
football fan, but she wouldn't go to the games for years because (the
pressure and emotions) bothered her so much."
While Ronny was stressing, VanSant was loving every
minute of his great adventure in coaching.
"I haven't done much planning for my entire life," he
said. "And I wouldn't change much about it, honestly. One thing I know
for sure, when I go to my grave, I'm going with a smile on my face. I
couldn't have done anything more enjoyable than what I've done. It has
been one big party for me."
The Coaching Carousel
When he finished his eligibility, VanSant know one thing
for sure: He wanted to be a football coach. VanSant would find his way
back to Greenville fairly quickly to be a coach, but he had to leave
first to come home.
"From day one, I loved it in Greenville," he said. "But
I wanted to coach and I could have parachuted into West Hell to coach
and that would have been alright."
It didn't require a term in hell of any kind for VanSant
as he started on his coaching journey directly. He would only be away
from Greenville for one year.
"It all happened so quick," VanSant recalled. "I
graduated and took a job coaching at Hopewell High School in Hopewell,
VA. Ironically, Hopewell was the other (powerhouse) team (and Hampton's
rival). Bill Merner - I worked for him - had won 35 straight games in
Hopewell, which was a record. Later, that record was broken in the '60s
by a good friend who (won) 50 in a row and ironically, I was at Hopewell
that streak ended. Bill Merner was an East Carolina football player who
played on the 1938 team and weighed about 139 pounds.
"Those are all ironies and ironically, I came to East
Carolina to be a lawyer. I wasn't highly recruited, not really at all
out of high school. I did have a chance to go to the Naval Academy,
before they looked at my records. It's ironic because I came here and
didn't know anything. The pre-Law lasted about one semester and after
that, I wanted to be a football coach."
Hopewell provided that first opportunity for VanSant. As
a firstyear assistant, Hopewell went 9-1, including a nine-game streak
following an opening game 6-0 loss. As a coach, VanSant was a
self-described "wild coach."
"Yeah, I coached the way I played," he said. "With
enthusiasm. But you know, it was never for any reason except I loved
what I was doing. Loved every day of it. There is nothing more fun that
coaching even if I wanted to slit my wrists a few times after some
"Hopewell was football crazy. They filled the stadium on
Friday nights and they would take a nickel off the price at the
drugstore downtown for each touchdown we would score. It was the kind of
place where you would go to town and get blue and gold (team colors) ice
It was a great year for VanSant, but it was his only
year at Hopewell.
"I was working there and teaching two classes of senior
Civics, two ninth-grade history classes and a PE class. I was an
assistant football and track coach. And in the summer, I worked at
Allied Chemicals doing shift work."
The year flew by and VanSant truly had no plan to leave,
but his alma mater came calling. It was a June telephone call from
Clarence Stasavich that changed everything.
"This is how it happened," VanSant explained. "Coach
Stasavich was looking for somebody who was an East Carolina graduate
with a Master's Degree, which I did, and he was looking for someone who
would work for nothing.
"I took a nice pay cut to come back to East Carolina. We
had to teach back then (as a collegiate coach). I was the only one on
his staff at the time. There was a great guy who recommended me. His
name was Odell Welbourne and he was an assistant coach at East Carolina
and Stas kept him on staff. Stas hired me, which was again ironic. I
hated Clarence Stasavich. We never beat Lenoir-Rhyne (whom Stasavich
coached before coming to ECC) and I remember (as a player) when he would
walk in and was a cocky, arrogant guy with his hair parted down the
But that would change when their roles changed.
"I talked with him for eight straight hours and I left absolutely loving
him. He was that kind of man… very charismatic. A great, great man. So,
I came back as freshman coach in 1962."
It wasn't just Stasavich that brought VanSant home that first time.
"This was East Carolina, it was my school," VanSant said. "There was no
question about it. I would have come for half of what he paid me - which
was already almost nothing."
VanSant, knowing his wife would very much want to move back home (to
North Carolina), had contrived an arrangement with her to let her know
how things went by code.
"There was no question about us coming here," VanSant said. "I made a
deal with my wife that if I got the job, I would drive back to our home
on Ibor Street with a cigar. When she saw that, she was happy."
As thrilled as he was to be heading back to East Carolina, VanSant
admits that at the time it probably was not a very smart decision.
"From a career standpoint, I don't know whether it was good or not," he
said. "We ran a Single Wing and nobody was hiring coaches in a bastard
offense and a bastard defense. There was nothing like it in the football
world even though we were winning. I was going back to my school. That's
what I did and of course it ended up a great decision."
VanSant coached for Stasavich until 1970, when the old coach stepped off
the field and into the AD's role. At the time, VanSant admits he would
have loved to have been named the head coach at his beloved school, but
acknowledges he probably wasn't ready for the job when the real
"I spent those eight years at East Carolina as an assistant coach," he
said. "Nobody on the staff was going to be named the coach at East
Carolina. I would have loved to have been the head coach at the time. At
that point, they hired Mike McGee (current athletic director at South
Carolina) and he kept me on as an assistant and I stayed there for 90
days and quit. I quit on March 11, 1970. It just wasn't a situation I
was going to be able to function in. I still had loyalty to Clarence
Stasavich, who was the AD at that time, but I was the only one who still
had loyalty. It was an ego thing, no question at all - the new group and
I were not on the same page."
So, VanSant moved on… away from his beloved East Carolina. What ensued
was the job-jumping carousel that usually goes hand-in-hand with
coaching. VanSant spent 1970 at Scotland County High School, taking over
a struggling program.
"They hadn't won a game the year before and I was down there one year
and we tied for the conference championship and we played in the
playoffs," VanSant recalled. "I found the people of Scotland County to
be wonderful people and I had a good year there. It was a period of real
racial integration and there were problems and disharmony… but not on
the football field. I felt like I made a bigger contribution to those
young men then I ever have in my whole life. That team stuck together
through it all. It was a real, real blessed year.
"It was one of the greatest years of my life and there were real
problems. I was taken out of the classroom for five weeks to patrol the
halls breaking up fights. There were guns and knives, but it was one of
the greatest years of my life. I loved those kids, black and white
alike. It was a fight every day, but I look back and I feel like I made
a difference. If anything in my life I should have done… maybe it was to
stay in that situation for awhile, but I didn't. I stayed for just one
year and then went off to Alabama."
As in University of Alabama… as in Bear Bryant's home.
"When I left ECU, I had no animosity toward the university whatsoever,"
VanSant said. "I did it on the spur of the moment. And that is how it
was with Alabama."
It was apropos of VanSant's life pattern.
"I had no real reason for Alabama," he said. "At that point, I thought I
would get out of coaching and teach at a college. Providence has taken
care of me all my life. I had a great interest in alcohol and drug
treatment and rehabilitation and Alabama tailored a curriculum for me in
that area. I met Dr. Willis Baughman, who was another great man
who took me under his wing while I was there."
VanSant likes to talk about his mistakes - though what he didn't do at
times led him to endeavors of equal significance - and at Alabama, his
big mistake was not talking to Bear Bryant, mano-a-mano.
"I did go and talk to (folks) in the football office, but I didn't talk
to Coach Bryant," he said. "I should have. I talked to the associate
Athletic Director about being a volunteer coach and he wasn't very nice
to me so I walked out and said, 'The heck with this!'
"It would probably have shaped my life if I could have talked to Bryant.
I could have talked to him through Coach Stasavich who was a good friend
of Bear's. But I always wanted to shape my life my own way on my own
The conversation never occurred with the legendary coach and VanSant
went on to finish his doctorate in 1973. With doctorate in hand, VanSant
didn't find the job search an easy go as it was a time when Affirmative
Action was in full swing and jobs were not aplenty in Academia, where
the emphasis was on hiring minority and female faculty.
"There wasn't much opportunity out," he said. "It was kind of ironic and
I think the Lord stepped in for me. I was at a conference in Jackson,
Mississippi, and I talked to a lot of people. On the third night, I get
a call from Dr. Herb Appenzeller, who I have great respect for. He was
the Athletic Director at Guilford College. He literally offered me
the job at Guilford College. I had been (at the conference) looking for
a teaching job and I got a coaching job. It didn't take much convincing
and I said sure, it sounds fine to me."
A Year at Guilford College
VanSant, who was considering leaving the game, embarked on another
coaching expedition. This time, the team was in the midst of a 25-game
"At Guilford, I stayed one year," he said. "It was another one of those
reactions that probably did me no good. I went in there and they had 17
bodies involved in their football program AFTER spring ball. I recruited
and brought in 63 players from April until the beginning of school. They
were mostly freshman and a couple of transfers. I worked 24 hours a day
and slept in the office."
And the facilities for those players were just as bad. "I went into the
dressing room and feared snakes would come out of the lockers," he said.
"We went out, raised the funds and built a new locker room with our own
It was not easy on VanSant, who demanded success and saw it in the form
of a 1-8 record.
"I managed to add five more losses to that losing streak," he laughed.
"It was really rugged that fall. We had kids quit. But, we worked real
hard and even though they only won one game, we all thought that we
would be pretty good (the next year)."
VanSant, who generally led life with his chin out front and his
principles on his sleeve, would last only one season. He explains: "I
got mad," he said. "I had three ballplayers I was recruiting and I
brought them to the president's office and he said that these players
would be admitted to the school. The second in command at the school
turned these boys down. I left on principle."
He had given his word based on his superior's promise of support and
when the school denied entrance to these players - to young men whom
VanSant had made a promise - it reflected on him.
"(The Athletic Director) begged me not to leave, but I had to. It was my
honor," he said. "It was really hard to tell those players. They were
good the next year after I left and they had a pretty good run
thereafter. You develop a loyalty to those kids and that was a very hard
thing for me to do. But, I felt it was my personal integrity, so I had
to. Plus, my ego - which gets in the way sometimes - wouldn't let me
Again, VanSant was a coach without a team.
"I remember Ronny and I were walking across the (Guilford) campus one
day," he said. "I had just lost my third game in a row and she asked me,
'How do you take it… this losing?'
"I said, 'Well, we'll win next week.' And Ronny said, 'No way!' At about
that time, a 737 flew over and I turned to her and said, 'I'm going to
quit coaching, then, and become a pilot.' She called me crazy and I
said, 'Just remember, when you're a pilot, you get just one loss. I'm a
coach. I'll get another chance to coach after a loss.'"
VanSant was right. Almost immediately, he became the head coach at 71st
High School in Fayetteville, NC.
"I called the principal, Bob Lewis," VanSant said. "He was an ECU
graduate and was the greatest principal I ever worked for. If every
administrator was like Bob Lewis, it would be a great world. I called
him and asked him if he had hired a football coach and he said no. I
said, 'I'll take that damn job!'"
He took over a middle-of-the-road 71st program.
"They had not been too bad," VanSant recalled of 71st. "They had moved
from 3-A to 4-A and I went on to do the absolutely worst coaching job I
have ever done in my life that first year. We were 4-6 and I had more
talent than probably any team I ever had. There was no discipline
whatsoever and we fought the whole year to establish who the
coach was and who the players were.
"We established that the next year with a third of the talent. We lost
the first game to Jacksonville High - who by the way had this little
quarterback named Leander Greene (a future Wishbone legend under center
at ECU) who was simply the most dominating high school quarterback I
have ever seen. Then we won nine games in a row. We were
9-1 and we lost, ironically, to Greenville Rose in the first round of
the state playoffs."
VanSant saw a lot of talent on his team and he took pride in their
"I had a junior quarterback named Harry Sydney," he said. "He went on to
play fullback for the San Francisco 49ers and got two Super Bowl rings.
I had a linebacker that I wanted Pat Dye to take… I begged him to take
that kid but he didn't want him. Said he was too small at 200 pounds.
His name was James Butler and he went on to play at North Carolina State
and, ironically, he stopped Leander Greene on the goal line to beat East
to his Family
His stay at 71st would be short. When he had taken the reigns at 71st
after leaving Guilford, his family had remained in Greensboro and he
wanted to get home. The Grimsley High School position came available and
VanSant saw an opportunity to get home.
"My family had stayed in Greensboro after the Guilford job," he said. "I
literally packed three pair of underwear, a couple pair of pants and
went to Fayetteville when Bob Lewis offered me the job. And I should
say, Bob was so supportive of me. There were never hard feelings and we
are still good friends today. Grimsley offered and I went home to my
The Grimsley program had produced just two wins the year before and had
won just 12 games in the previous six seasons. It would be another
triage job for VanSant.
"We had absolutely no players, but I had one of the greatest groups of
assistants," he said. "I have been blessed to have assistants everywhere
I've been, but at Grimsley, it was special.
(East Carolina Hall of Fame member) Butch Colson was one of my
assistants and said to me, 'Coach, if you make a football team out of
this bunch you are not a coach,
you're a magician!'
"Well, we won four games, which was not too bad considering we lost our
in the fourth game. The next two years, we won the conference
championship and we
played in the state playoffs. I was happy as I could be."
With three good years at Grimsley, VanSant wanted to get back into the
coaching game and he found a spot in Virginia.
"I went to James Madison University for a year as an assistant," he
said. "What happened was that… was a job I pursued. They had been
Division III and they were
going up (in Division) and giving scholarships. With that they added a
coach. I really
stayed there only seven months. I recruited hard, worked hard, coached
hard. A man
name Calus McMillan was the head coach and I've told you how blessed
I've been in
my life… Calus was as honorable a man as has ever worked in athletics.
He was really the salt of the earth. James Madison was a good place and
I liked that place but I got a call from Lenoir Rhyne and they were
offering a head coaching job."
Lenoir Rhyne had not been very good of late when VanSant strolled into
"They were in an absolute state of chaos," he said. "Behavior, class
attendance, drug use and drug dealing. I fought a nice battle there for
a while. They had four or five players flunk out and no one graduate. In
my last year, my fourth year, we had 17 of 17 seniors graduate."
While the systemic discipline problems disappeared and the graduation
rates went up, the wins didn't come for VanSant.
"My win-loss record was just under .500," he said. "That was very
difficult and I actually quit there. Ironically, I have never been fired
as a coach. I did resign at Lenoir Rhyne. We had an interim president
who I didn't really like too good. It was probably a mistake I made. We
were 4-6 and had won our last three games. I got into a situation there
where I had six kids get in trouble with drugs and four were starters
who I dismissed from the team, which made it pretty tough on us. We were
pretty good the year before with a 7-3 team. I just resigned.
"To be honest, I got out of athletics for a year after that and I was
going into the insurance business. Guys had told me that I could make a
million dollars. They were wrong and I was wrong. I got the chance to
come back to East Carolina during that time and I came back this time
for the rest of my life."
A Pirate Again, Once and For All
To be back at his beloved alma mater was just what VanSant needed to
lift him from a year he refers to as "the only time in my entire life
that I was miserable."
Being back in Greenville was where he had always wanted to be anyway.
"East Carolina is quite a place, it really is," he said. "From day one,
I loved it and it has been great for me ever since. I have never been
miserable in all of my years in athletics."
Then-Athletic Director Ken Karr hired VanSant into the administration as
the liaison between the AD and the football program.
"I worked in football," VanSant said. "I worked in football… helped on
recruiting weekends and took care of football travel and so forth. Then,
I guess it was '87 maybe, and Dr. Karr promoted me to Associate Athletic
Director. And then, of course, Dr. Karr
resigned or whatever in December of 1987."
Following Karr's departure, Dave Hart became the AD and VanSant assumed
of the number two person in the department, responsible for everything
in the department except for football and basketball.
"I stayed with Dave until his departure in 1995 when he left for Florida
said. "Then I served as the acting AD from March to the first of June in
The seat was very comfortable for VanSant and many believed it should be
permanently. But that would never happen as the administration had other
"When I was named acting AD, I was told by Dr. (Richard) Eakin that he
name me, with one caveat, for the (temporary) job. He did not want me to
apply for the
position. I confronted him and said, 'You are telling me I am not a
"I would have liked to have been the Athletic Director, I really would
have. I did
not have any support from the administration. They said they were
looking for someone who could get us into a conference and negotiate
television contracts. Honestly, it was probably the biggest
disappointment in my career. I would have liked to have been the AD at
that time, but I stayed on without animosity. I had a good tenure and I did what I could. I had been a coach and had a good idea of what coaches
needed to be successful and the coaches that were there, were."
VanSant, in his tenure, was especially pivotal in the upgrade of many of
the women's programs and he managed the process for capital projects for
"I was the AD liaison for all of the capital projects; I was in on
bidding and design. It was some of the most fun when we redid Minges
Coliseum and we worked on a very short timeframe. There were maybe two
or three days that I was not in the arena back then. J.H. Hudson
finished that job in nine months on an 18-month project. I was in on the
upper deck and the resurfacing (of) the track and lighting of the
baseball field. It was those types of things that I really enjoyed. Deep
down inside, I should have been in construction I think."
Another role VanSant carried out was in the hiring of some coaches, in
particular Keith LeClair.
"I didn't miss too many events and became fond of baseball," he recalled
"I got to know Keith LeClair and the baseball program and baseball
became a real joy for me."
The capital projects and people, like LeClair, were the real loves of
VanSant's tenure within the athletic administration.
Handwriting on the Wall
When Dr. Eakin had dissuaded VanSant to apply for the AD job after
Hart's departure, VanSant began to think in terms of retirement. It was
clear he would never be the AD and he had much catching up to do with
his now-grown family.
"When (Mike) Hamrick came in," VanSant said, "I was removed from those
capital projects and that was one of the biggest disappointments in my
(ECU) career. The head coaching job? I know this sounds like an absolute
provocation, but I have never, ever really given much thought to (not
ever being considered). But, I really would have loved to have had a
shot at the Athletic Director's job, just to see what would
"I have absolutely no animosity toward East Carolina for anything. They
gave me my livelihood and it will always be a place I'm proud of and
feel indebted to."
Coach Henry VanSant, PhD
Reflections on a Dream
For VanSant, East Carolina University will forever be framed in its
humble beginnings. And though he always looks ahead with an eye toward
the program's growth, he knows deep inside that the growth of the
university is being driven not only by today's fans, alums and friends,
but also by a congregation of spirits from the past whose persistence to
make ECU a big-time university echo well beyond their years traversing
the streets and sidewalks of Greenville. To VanSant, being a Pirate is a
special privilege and only those who have made the complete commitment…
who know from whence we came as a university… can truly take ECU to the
"I don't want to say anything negative here," he pondered. "But you
know, I don't think you should ever forget your past, where you came
from, who helped get you there, those players who have moved the program
along. I don't believe you can ever be great if you are not aware of
your history. If you look around the country in most places, you will
find a significant number of the big programs - the outstanding programs
- you will find that their own people have a big hand in running their
programs. Yes, I'd like to see more East Carolina people coaching and in
the administration than we have."
And VanSant does not equate time at ECU as the measure of a true Pirate.
True Pirates can be born in a day, as long as they are willing to make
good on the promissory note that those men under the guidance of Dr.
Jenkins wrote so deftly nearly five decades ago.
"East Carolina is at the point it is today not because of tremendous
amounts of money or outstanding facilities," VanSant said. "No, it's
because they had people who ran hard. We did that with our football team
in the early days. We didn't have the scholarships and pedigree
thoroughbred players, but we had some great football teams in the early
years built with guys who would absolutely lay their intestines on the
line. A lot of those guys were players that nobody else wanted, but they
were better players than the ones that were sought after.
"Leo Jenkins… Everything that is Greenville and ECU today can be traced
back to the leadership and energy of Leo Jenkins. He didn't accept
anything short of winning. He is one of the most dynamic leaders I've
ever met in my entire life. He served in the Marine Corps and was a
Major and I can't figure out why he wasn't a general. He gave the
leadership, got out and raised the money and he was the one responsible
for building the original Ficklen Stadium. He brought Clarence Stasavich
in to build a program. Those seeds were planted by Leo Jenkins. He was
an absolute visionary who didn't think there was a ceiling on anything.
"He had a dream for ECU and made it my dream. He made it everyone's
dream. As long as there are determined, East Carolina people working
toward that dream, it'll happen."
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