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The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, December 5, 2012

By Bethany Bradsher

Bethany Bradsher

ECU's Olympic sports juggling the future

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

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East Carolina athletic director Terry Holland has clearly stated his hopes that Pirate football’s move to the Big East Conference will create a gateway for the university’s other 18 sports.

The coaches of those other sports have been equally clear that when something is good for football, it is good for them.

Underneath the solid surface of those two points, however, lies a tangled web of scheduling and recruiting considerations that won’t be unraveled until the future league home of those sports is determined.

The perspectives of six ECU Olympic sports coaches demonstrate that the landscape of conference upheaval varies widely from one sport to the next.

With the cloudy future of ECU’s sports minus football — a possible home in the Colonial Athletic Association, maybe the Atlantic-10, maybe the Southern Conference — and with hopes of Big East membership for all sports in their sights, these coaches are navigating the tricky marriage of what is and what might be as they strive to build winning programs.

The most heavily impacted will be sports like soccer, softball and volleyball, which traditionally play a full home-and-home conference schedule and today face a gaping hole after the 2013-14 season. Of course, with the nearly daily changes to Conference USA, even next fall’s schedule seems to be written with disappearing ink, said soccer coach Rob Donnenwirth.

“We know what weeks we’re playing (C-USA games), but we don’t even know who we’re playing yet,” Donnenwirth said. “For me to think ahead to 2014, we don’t even know how many conference games we’ll have to play.”

The most striking shift Donnenwirth has noticed since the Big East announcement came at a recruiting event last weekend, when club coaches who rarely approach him came up to talk about the prospect of soccer following football to the bigger-name conference.

But even though discussions of full Big East membership can be tantalizing for coaches, Donnenwirth told those coaches what he tells players and recruits: It’s all speculation at this point, so it’s best to focus on the things that are known.

The next tier of sports, in terms of degree of impact, includes programs like tennis that play a ‘soft’ conference schedule. Men’s tennis coach Shawn Heinchon, like most Olympic coaches, does all of his own scheduling, and he usually negotiates home-and-home arrangements with the handful of conference opponents the Pirates play each season. Now the uncertainty makes a promise of a reciprocal visit tricky.

“In the short term, we could lose some opponents because we can’t guarantee return trips,” Heinchon said. “In the long term it could be better because of the regionally-based rivalries we could develop over time.”

After tennis you find sports like track and field and swimming and diving, which compete almost exclusively against non-conference teams until the conference tournament rolls around at season’s end. However, these programs still benefit from a conference affiliation that will draw in recruits and raise the visibility of the university.

Because athletes in those sports qualify for the NCAA championships on an individual basis, conference affiliation doesn’t have significant bearing on postseason prospects, track and field coach Curt Kraft said. There is no ‘BCS track’ that makes a long jumper from a big conference more likely to rise to the top than one from a midsized conference.

“I think the key word here is access,” Craft said. “The access for us, it doesn’t change regardless of what conference we’re in. If we were in the SEC or we were in the Sun Belt, we can still get to where we’re going. As coaches we have to continue to do what we’re doing. We have to continue to recruit hard, we have to continue to coach hard.”

Rick Kobe is one of the few ECU head coaches who has traveled this road before. With 31 years under his belt at the helm of the swimming and diving program, Kobe knows that the non-revenue sports survived and even thrived in the late ‘90s when the CAA gave way to C-USA, first for football only and then for the rest of the sports.

Like track and field, Kobe doesn’t have to stress scheduling, because his swimmers compete in dual meets against schools regardless of conference affiliation — teams like N.C. State, Davidson and William and Mary. But years of chasing after swimmers have demonstrated to Kobe that unsteady conference ground can hurt recruiting even in sports that are virtually unaffected by conference affiliation.

“You always want to be in the best spot,” he said. “You do want to be somewhere and you want to be somewhere good, because at this point it’s all about recruiting.”

Golf is similar to track and swimming in that its athletes only see conference foes at the final competition of the season, but women’s coach Kevin Williams and men’s coach Press McPhaul are both proceeding exactly as they normally would, looking for berths in competitive tournaments against opponents from major conferences.

Golf’s emphasis is so far outside the conference that Williams doesn’t expect the changes to have any bearing of his pursuit of future Pirates.

“We basically don’t even use it in selling to a recruit, because it has no bearing in getting a recruit to come in,” Williams said. “We try to put our emphasis on how we are perceived nationally.”

Whether a sport is impacted to a great or less significant extent by conference shifts on the horizon, the Olympic sport coaches will do their daily tasks of recruiting, scheduling and instilling excellence in their programs, and they will make the most of what they know today.

Ultimately, they each trust ECU’s administrators to keep all of their best interests in the forefront, with hopes that the future will bring a unified Pirate Nation under the same conference banner.

“Personally, in an ideal world, which I know we don’t live in, it would be nice if we were all together,” Kraft said. “It’s nice to say, ‘We’re all in one league. We all eat at the same table.’ ”

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12/05/2012 01:34 AM

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