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The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, January 18, 2006

By Bethany Bradsher

McCarthy key part of ECU coaching equation


Mack McCarthy

Photo: ECU SID

Early in his coaching career, Mack McCarthy learned a dramatic lesson that has stayed with him through the years: As a result of what seems like an ordinary recruiting visit, an entire program can be transformed.

The process by which McCarthy gained that perspective started when he visited the small town of Leeds, AL, to recruit a player for Auburn, where he was working as an assistant coach. In the process of watching the player who had prompted his trip, he had a chance to see a young man named Charles Barkley.

Through the efforts of McCarthy and his fellow coaches, Barkley became a Tiger. But it would be years before they would grasp the impact of the relationship between one exceptional player and a university that was looking for its basketball identity.

“We tried to sign other kids before Charles,” McCarthy said. “We ended up getting Charles, and it turned a whole program. Auburn University had never been to an NCAA tournament, and after Charles got there I think we went to maybe eight straight NCAA tournaments.

“He literally changed an entire institution’s athletic department.”

It’s experiences like that one, as well as the scars in the hardwood from more than 30 years of coaching throughout the Southeast, that made McCarthy a vital player in the ECU basketball program’s new leadership. Whereas most new head coaches come on board and then commence to hire a staff, McCarthy was introduced alongside Ricky Stokes last March on the very day Stokes was introduced as the team’s 21st head coach.

“Coach Holland called, and we actually started talking about what would be good for this job,” he said. “He kept running ideas by me about this situation, all the time with this kind of concept in mind, but I didn’t know it.”

The relationship between Stokes and McCarthy, who has the title of associate head coach, was forged through years of coaching in the same circles. The two men, both Virginia natives, are similar in some important ways and different enough to harmonize one another’s leadership styles, McCarthy said.

“We’ve been comfortable with each other from day one,” McCarthy said. “He’s a little more relaxed, and I’m a little more intense. Not that he’s not intense, but he just displays it less than I do. We’re probably more similar than we are different, but at the same time we’ve been a nice complement to one another.”

McCarthy’s career started at his alma mater, Virginia Tech, which is the last place Stokes served as a head coach before coming to Greenville. And when McCarthy was offered the head coach’s job at Virginia Commonwealth in the late ‘90s, he learned that Stokes had been offered the same post the year before.

Besides stints at Auburn and the Virginia schools, McCarthy most recently worked as an assistant for the women’s team at Georgia Tech. But the bulk of his career was spent at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he was the three-time Southern Conference Coach of the Year and, with a record of 243-122 at UTC, the winningest coach in Southern Conference history.

The Chattanooga program had long been respected on a regional level, but under McCarthy the Mocs found national recognition through five NCAA tournament bids in his 12 seasons. In 1997, his last year with the program, the 14th-seeded Mocs made the Sweet 16 and found themselves at the center of a media maelstrom.

“Between the first two games and playing in the Sweet 16, we had USA Today with us the whole week, the Los Angeles Times with us the whole week, and CBS was there the whole week filming everything that we did, whether we went to lunch or class, or whatever we did.”

McCarthy was as surprised as anybody to find himself assimilating to Eastern North Carolina last spring, he said, but his daughter Katherine was graduating from high school and preparing to enter the University of Virginia so he and his wife Jean were up for a change.

They have found it easy to become Pirates, he said, and even though he had coached against the ECU team several times he wasn’t prepared for the fervor of the Pirate Nation or the family atmosphere in the ECU community.

And as he and Stokes work to improve on the 6-9 record compiled by a team they didn’t recruit, he said that he has been pleased by the willingness of the players to embrace the new system and work hard to put it into place.

“One great thing about kids is that they want to win,” he said. “And if you can show them a way to have success, both collectively and individually, they’ll buy into it.”

He has also enjoyed putting his broadcasting experience to work in Greenville with a weekly radio show on 1250 AM. And last week, McCarthy welcomed to the show his most famous recruit — Charles Barkley.

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02/23/2007 01:12:43 AM

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