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East Carolina 24, Duke 21
Saturday, Sept. 3, 2005
By Al Myatt
Story posted Sunday, Sept. 4, 2005

Therapy brought to you by Terry Holland



Scoreboard: C-USA teams & ECU opponents



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 Maryland.

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. kickoff.

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 Bowl. "I think it's all paying off."


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02/23/2007 12:34:08 AM

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