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The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, November 16, 2005

By Bethany Bradsher

Rediscovering magic a trying mission

Quitting not an option for storied East Carolina football program


Defensive coordinator Greg Hudson struck a chord when he recalled Charles Dickens to characterize East Carolina's 45-13 loss to Tulsa last weekend:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

Brian Bailey, in his Tuesday column, evoked Hudson's reference to the famous passage from A Tale of Two Cities in summing up the stark contrast between ECU's first half performance against the Golden Hurricane and its subsequent second half meltdown.

The same dichotomy can be used to illustrate the nearly seven years I have spent covering the East Carolina team, a span that has encompassed some of the highest highs and the lowest lows in Pirate gridiron history.

I moved to town in August of 1999 with almost no knowledge of East Carolina football. (My expertise could probably be summed up as, “Jeff Blake played there, didn’t he?) I found some freelance outlets willing to pay me to cover the team, unaware that a real hurricane called Floyd and a game against a team called the Hurricanes would converge to make it an unforgettable autumn.

Needless to say, I lacked the perspective to truly appreciate what I was witnessing during that 9-3 season, as the Pirates defeated Miami in Raleigh, became a fixture in the AP Top 25 and concluded with a trip to the Mobile Alabama Bowl. I just considered myself blessed to be an eyewitness to such a team.

I missed the Blake-led miracle run of 1991, but the fall of 1999 was, for me, the best of times.

Over the past three seasons, I have become all too acquainted with the worst of times. It’s hard to identify the lowest point, because in 2003 and 2004 the defeats all ran together, a seemingly endless stream of press conferences featuring a theme of unmet expectations. But somehow, the stumbles seem to hurt worse this year.

A new coaching staff, experienced and excited, came in and injected hope into the frustration that had started to surround the Pirates. Three victories in the first five games seemed like a herald of the new era that the Pirate Nation has desperately hoped to find just around the corner. The Southern Miss and Memphis games were tough, but it was during the second half of the Tulsa loss that things seemed the bleakest.

“We really didn’t handle adversity very well on the road,” head coach Skip Holtz said this week. “And from then on I don’t think it was about stats, it was not about individual performances or anything else, it was about the momentum and a mindset that started to go against us. At that point the same calls on offense and defense that were working in the first half weren’t going very well.”

Holtz is saying — and meaning — all of the right things. It may be a tired old cliché that adversity builds character, but it’s also true. If college is ultimately about producing young men and women who can face up to the challenges of life, then the upperclassmen on this Pirates team should be ready for anything.

“There (were) so many goals set forth that they wanted to accomplish that are no longer attainable,” Holtz said when the Pirates fell to 3-6 after the Tulsa defeat. “But we’re still building for the future in this program. We’re still building as we go through every single day.”

As I listened to the same missteps that have plagued ECU all year trip them up again on Saturday, it struck me that assembling a miraculous season like 1999 is something like Peter Pan’s prescription for flying: faith, trust and pixie dust. Talent and coaching count, of course, but the intangibles and subtle mental factors can loom even larger.

I am, at the core, an eternal optimist, and I know that the best of times can come again soon for the Pirates. They have coaches with intelligence, vision and decades of experience. Those coaches will pour themselves into recruiting players who can run their schemes competitively to match up against the formidable opponents that Terry Holland has been scheduling for the coming years.

The bricks look solid, but the mortar will only come as this team finds its heart, its swagger and its ability to wear victory like a set of comfortable clothes. When those things converge, roughing the passer penalties and fumbles in the red zone will become exceptions rather than the rule.

“As I told the players, this is real life,” Holtz said. “What do you do? Do you close your books, fold your tents and say, ‘It’s over, it’s gone.’ No, there’s an awful lot of pride, there’s an awful lot of people that support this program. We have an obligation to this university, to this program and to the people who support it to go out there and play it with the same heart and soul that we played the first half of the season with.”

It’s hard to watch this team struggle, especially the seniors who have labored under three different coaches and deserve an exuberant midfield celebration more than anyone. I feel like a heel when I ask them questions about building the foundation for the future, putting money in the bank for a Pirates team they will only see from the bleachers.

Two victories to ice the season would go a long way toward easing the disappointment that I’m sure has visited the players this week. But ultimately, the Pirate Nation is already looking past those games and thinking about late summer. It’s a season bathed in anticipation, in a fan’s hope that 2006 will be the year when the best of times come back around.

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02/23/2007 01:11:52 AM

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