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Monday, July 25, 2005

By Al Myatt

Pirate hoops maneuvering for breakthroughs


Since the news broke that Terry Holland was coming aboard the Pirate ship last Labor Day weekend, he has hired Skip Holtz, Ricky Stokes and put together a future non-conference football lineup that matches East Carolina against many of its natural regional rivals.

Holland is working on a similarly attractive schedule for basketball but the former Virginia hoops coach concedes that's not an easy assignment.

Is it more difficult than football?

"Definitely," Holland said. "Getting games is not a problem but we want quality opponents to come here, too, and not too many people are in a big hurry to do that."

The built-in attraction of Conference USA games with Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette and Charlotte is gone with league realignment officially taking place earlier this month.

"Losing power teams and coaches hurt us in terms of enthusiasm on campus," Holland said. "In the short term it won't hurt us but we've got to get together a schedule that our players want to play and our fans want to see."

ECU drew some good venues for its home and home opponents in C-USA scheduling. The Pirates will play every program in the 12-team league once and will match up with Central Florida, Marshall and Tulane twice for a total of 14 conference games. That means winter trips to Orlando and New Orleans — a great opportunity for fans to support the Pirates on the road in some fun locales.

But Holland's concern is finding foes that fans will want to see in the Pirates' house. He would love to lure an occasional ACC, Big East or Southeastern Conference team to Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum to spark ticket sales, but home wins over Marquette, Louisville and Charlotte in recent seasons have no doubt raised red flags about the wisdom of such ventures for high profile opponents with concerns about maintaining their rating power index for NCAA Tournament seeding.

The raucous nature of Williams Arena is a two-edged sword. It has made the Pirates about 20 points better than on the road in recent years but it's no doubt viewed as a mine field when Holland calls potential foes.

Television is the driving force behind many of the more compelling non-conference matchups in college basketball and the programming executives don't yet see the Pirates as an entity that will drive ratings.

From the mid-'nineties into the first couple of years of the new millennium, the football Pirates were in demand on the national TV dance cards, appearing 19 times on the ESPN networks and 10 times on Fox Sports Net from 1996-2001.

But basketball at ECU has never commanded the same degree of exposure.

If Holland has a challenge in terms of scheduling, it is no less formidable than the job Stokes faces in taking over a program that has not had a winning season since 1996-97. Still, there have been signs at ECU that a hoops ascension is not impossible.

"We were making progress when I was there because we had an athletics director in Dave Hart who understood basketball," said Eddie Payne, who coached ECU to its last NCAA Tournament appearance in 1993.

Hart played basketball at Alabama. But Hart departed for Florida State and Payne left for Oregon State. Henry VanSant, who acted as interim AD upon Hart's departure, maintained some progressive continuity by elevating Payne's top assistant, Joe Dooley, to head coach.

Dooley was 57-52 over four seasons, the only coach among ECU's last 10 to leave Greenville with a winning record. Dooley was dismissed by former AD Mike Hamrick in favor of Bill Herrion, who had been highly successful at Drexel.

Herrion's personality didn't mesh with Dooley's former players and the challenge changed dramatically when ECU became a full member of C-USA. The program never got sufficient traction under Herrion's guidance to compile a winning record and Holland saw enough during a 9-19 season in 2004-05 to feel a change was needed.

Enter Stokes, a former Holland player at Virginia, who showed progress during his tenure as head man at Virginia Tech. As an assistant at several prominent programs, he gained a reputation as a top recruiter.

The task at hand isn't too different from the one Holland faced when he took over a Virginia program that had been 11-16 in 1973-74, had never won an ACC title or been to the Final Four.

"It's probably fairly similar," Holland said. "Virginia had had some successful moments but nothing consistent against the better teams."

Approach was the initial factor that helped Holland turn the Cavaliers around.

"Some of my assistants told me 'These guys can't win,' " Holland recalled. "I said we've got to treat them like they can win. These guys have to find a way. We set to work asking them to do things."

Current television analyst Dan Bonner, whose senior season coincided with Holland's arrival at UVa said there was a perceptible change in expectations from the first time the team did calisthenics under Holland.

"They set a tone for work ethic," Holland said.

Holland said he is encouraged because Stokes feels he has some talent with which to work.

"They key at East Carolina is to keep working hard and believe in what you're doing," said Dooley, now an assistant at Kansas.

Big time recruits helped Holland get it done at Virginia. Stokes' first ECU class will feature two junior college signees and three freshmen. He'll have three scholarships to award next year.

Stokes likes the fact that his staff has strong regional ties. He wants to recruit North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

"We want guys who are unselfish, who play hard and are competitive," Stokes said.

With frontcourt performers Corey Rouse and Mike Castro departing after the 2005-06 season, Stokes said the Pirates will likely sign two big men and take the best player available with the third grant.

"I like where we're headed," said Stokes, who will be scouting upcoming AAU events in Las Vegas and Orlando.

In Stokes' favor in terms of immediate competitiveness is the fact that C-USA's basketball strength appears to have been significantly diluted with realignment.

Consistent basketball success has eluded ECU for decades. Perhaps the new coach's energy and focus plus direction from his former mentor will be an effective combination.


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02/23/2007 12:33:18 AM

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