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The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, March 22, 2006

By Bethany Bradsher

Disciples reflect on revered mentor

VanSant legacy lives on in those whose paths he crossed


Don Tyson was at a wedding shower recently and he spotted an East Carolina T-shirt. He found himself in a conversation with a former Pirate baseball player, and before long the talk turned to Henry VanSant.

“When I see purple, or when I talk about East Carolina, Coach VanSant comes up,” said Tyson, a Fayetteville building contractor who played football at ECU from 1965-’68.

Henry VanSant


The 2003 edition of Bonesville Magazine featured a special "Pirate Time Machine" package, authored by Ron Cherubini, about VanSant's life and his front row seat as a devoted alum from the 1950's into the 21st century. The publication of the feature in print was preceded by a series of related online "teaser" articles by Cherubini, each of which is linked below:

Pedigreed Pirate betting on ECU's gumption
Old Coach has thing or two to say about coaching
LeClair hiring process made impact on VanSant



All previous editions of the annual Bonesville Magazine, including the 2003 edition which included an extensive "Pirate Time Machine" feature spread on Henry VanSant, can be ordered by calling 252- 637-2944 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays.

The fellow Pirate he met at the shower talked of VanSant in glowing terms, much like the hundreds of men who played on the football teams he coached in the '60's. But the baseball player never knew VanSant as a coach; he knew him as the professor in his Kinesiology class.

It just proved to Tyson what he has known in his own life for years: That the man he calls “the single most influential male in my life” brought passion and character to every venue in which he worked. As a player, coach, administrator and teacher, VanSant left a profound legacy to countless members of the Pirate Nation.

VanSant died on Thursday at the age of 70 after an association with the university that spanned nearly 50 years. After playing football for the Pirates from 1957-‘60, he served as, first, the freshman team coach, and then an assistant coach under Clarence Stasavich from 1962-‘70.

He then left Greenville for close to 15 years, making coaching stops at several N.C. high schools as well as Guilford College and Lenoir-Rhyne College. Along the way he earned a doctorate from the University of Alabama in 1975, and when he next came to Greenville it was in 1985 as assistant to the athletic director.

VanSant became the associate athletic director in 1987 and served in that position for his retirement in 2001. In 2003, he was elected to the East Carolina Athletics Hall of Fame.

It was a career marked by hard work, humility and an extraordinary ability to get the most out of people, say those who knew him best. Tyson believes strongly that the ripples of his influence will be felt in every forward step the athletic program takes for a long time.

“I was talking to a former Pirate teammate the other day and he said that in his opinion Henry VanSant was the single most important person in the development of ECU athletics,” Tyson said. “And I have to agree with him. That ‘chip on your shoulder’ attitude at East Carolina? That came from Henry VanSant.”

“In my opinion, there’s not been a person over the years who’s had more impact on East Carolina athletics than Henry VanSant has,” said Dennis Young, the director of the Pirate Club and one of VanSant’s former freshman team football players.

There are, literally, concrete monuments to VanSant’s work at ECU, Young said, most notably the rebuilt Minges Coliseum and the Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium expansion, both overseen by VanSant. And then there are the personal monuments, people like Tyson and Neal Hughes and Jim Gudger, all former players who regarded VanSant like a second father.

“I have more respect for Henry VanSant than probably any man I’ve ever met in my life,” said Gudger, also a member of the 1966 freshman team that went undefeated. “I feel like it’s the end of an era. In my opinion, he’s meant more to more people than anybody I’ve ever met.”

“I tell you, I’ve never known anybody like him,” said Hughes, who lives in Greensboro.

Every man who once played for VanSant spoke of his uncanny radar into human nature, especially when faced with the challenge of motivating young football players who had just left home for the first time.

“Henry VanSant had a look about him that you knew to pay attention, you knew he had been there, he had done it, and no one ever questioned what he told them to do,” Hughes said. “And it wasn’t just totally out of fear, it was just an awesome respect for him.

“I think he was probably the premier coach-motivator that we have had, period.”

“Coach VanSant had a unique ability, without ever saying it, to make a man reach down inside to find something they suspected they might have, but he had the ability to bring it out,” said Tyson, who could never bring himself to call VanSant anything but “Coach.”

“He had a Ph.D., but I think he arrived on the planet with that gift,” Hughes said.

Gudger is 57, but he said when he saw VanSant out one night he found himself hiding his beer from his former coach, because his fear of disappointing VanSant never faded with the years. He has shed more tears in the past five days than at any time other than his own father’s death, he said.

“He was the kind of guy who could go into a board room with a coat and tie and his Ph.D and talk to them, and he could go into an old country store and pull up a barrel of nails and chew tobacco, and he was equally comfortable in both situations,” Gudger said. “Most people go through life, and if they’re lucky they’ll run into one or two special people. He was definitely one of those people. I don’t have the vocabulary to do it justice.”

Some members of that 1966 freshman team had unforgettable parting moments with Coach VanSant. Tyson was with him in the hospital when he died; Gudger had lunch with him just a week before. And Hughes saw him in Greensboro at Christmas, when VanSant made his first appearance at an annual Christmas party given for ex-Pirates in the Piedmont area by former ECU kicker Earl Clary.

“He called and said, ‘You know, I’ve been saying no for years. I’m coming,’” Hughes said. “A lot of guys came to that party that wouldn’t normally, because the word was out that Henry was coming. They showed up from Virginia and from all over.

“He stayed at my house, and we stayed up half the night talking. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Pirate old-timers from all over will gather again on Thursday at Greenville’s First Presbyterian Church, where VanSant will be remembered by grown men who will undoubtedly cry at the thought of a world that doesn’t contain their their friend and coach.

“He made friends with everybody he met,” said Bill Cain, the former coach and athletic director who now teaches in the school of Health and Human Performance and has known VanSant since they played Pirate football together in the late ‘50s. “Most of us, somebody’s got something bad to say about us. But it’s very, very hard to find somebody who has something bad to say about Henry.”

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02/23/2007 01:12:54 AM

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