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College Sports in the Realm of Bonesville

Friday, March 18, 2005

By Danny Whitford
Publisher & Editor

Hope justified as historical forces converge


East Carolina has been groping, searching, stumbling in the darkness for decades, looking for that distant glimmer of light it could focus on to stagger out of the basketball wilderness.

A motley assortment of coaches — ranging from good, to mediocre, to bad, to shady — has shuffled in and out the revolving door since the Pirates began playing a major college schedule in the 'sixties. Each of them left the program in more or less the same frustrating state of suspended animation it was in when he arrived.

Could it be that the ever-growing network of coaches and administrators with direct or indirect connections to ECU's historic struggles on the hardwood has suddenly spun off the new leader that will guide the Pirates out of purgatory?

Ricky Stokes, whose pedigree traces directly to the only two figures with East Carolina ties that are associated with college basketball royalty, holds that kind of promise.

Terry Holland, ECU's AD with a purpose, turned to one of his own this week when he selected Stokes to tackle the maze that befuddled those before him dating back to Wendell Carr and Tom Quinn.

Stokes, one of the School of Holland's star pupils during Virginia's domination of the Atlantic Coast Conference in the early 'eighties, knows firsthand what it takes — as a player and a coach — to climb to the upper reaches of the college hoops universe.

He played on two Final Four teams, an Elite Eight club and a Sweet 16 squad at UVa, and his career path has included an apprenticeship as a graduate assistant to Holland (1984-85) and a pair of stints as a key aide to Dave Odom at Wake Forest (1989-97) and South Carolina (2003-05).

In the intervening years, Stokes served on staffs at Bowling Green (under Jim Larranaga, a former Holland assistant), Virginia (under Jeff Jones, a former teammate and longtime Holland assistant) and Texas (under Rick Barnes).

In a career stop relevant to the test that confronts him at ECU, he then took on the task of trying to elevate Virginia Tech from the Atlantic 10 to the Big East as head coach of the Hokies (1999-2003).

The parallels between the challenges faced by Tech in that monumental jump were strikingly similar to ECU's kiss-and-a-prayer leap from the Colonial Athletic Association to Conference USA.

The talent Stokes recruited to Blacksburg in those years was at the core of VPI's startling success in this, the school's inaugural year in the ACC. Stokes' successor at Tech, Seth Greenberg — named this week as ACC Coach of the Year — has acknowledged as much.

Does Stokes have the answer to ECU's basketball riddle?

I am reminded of a conversation a couple of reporters, including yours truly, had twenty-some years ago with the man who would become the biggest influence in Stokes' coaching life.

No, not Holland.

Odom, Stokes' longtime boss at Wake and USC, is the mentor I'm talking about.

In the final year of dutifully beating his head against the wall as East Carolina's head basketball coach (1979-82), Odom talked from the heart about how fond he was of the school, the community and the region, yet how impossible the burden was to be the guardian of the orphan hoops program.

Like all of his predecessors and successors, he alluded directly or indirectly to the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball gorilla hovering over the landscape and the resulting genetically-evolved concentration of focus and resources on football at ECU.

Not long after that, for the sake of his sanity — not to mention his professional future — the Goldsboro native and holder of a graduate degree from ECU ('69) felt compelled to trade in his head coach's whistle to hook up as an assistant with Holland in Charlottesville.

History demonstrates that move was a good one for Dave Odom. He progressed from being an elite assistant with the Cavaliers, to becoming a member of that small fraternity of college basketball movers and shakers as head coach of the Demon Deacons, then the Gamecocks.

Along the way, he apparently continued to ponder the puzzle he left behind at East Carolina, followed the program over the years and — by all recent indications — eventually concluded the plight of the Pirates was not necessarily one of permanent despair.

Odom encouraged his friend, professional soul mate and fellow eastern North Carolinian, Holland, to take a jab at harnessing ECU's unique assets. Not long thereafter, he endorsed Skip Holtz as a candidate to right the listing Pirate football ship.

Now, Ricky Stokes, a sparkplug on Holland's dynasty teams at UVa and, subsequently, a fixture alongside Odom for ten seasons as an assistant coach, will take a shot at unraveling the enigma that is ECU basketball.

Odom has experienced the challenge firsthand and has since observed and analyzed it from afar. Holland had a front row seat this season to observe the perplexing phenomenon and saw for himself the obstacles and the continuation of the decades-long tendency to excuse the present and look vaguely to the future.

Which brings us full circle.

Both men, it seems, see the potential for their mutual friend, Ricky Stokes, to overcome that mindset and bring an end to the ever-repeating cycle of gloom. And friends don't send friends into hopeless situations.

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02/23/2007 01:37:46 AM

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