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Part of me is happy my name isn’t listed
on the East Carolina football roster. Part of me isn’t.
On one hand, I’m glad I won’t be a
participant in those early morning drills, that my morning wake-up call
won’t be a series of tongue-dragging sprints. On the other, I’m bummed
that I won’t experience the mental and physical results that Pirate
players are certain to attain throughout the remainder of their ECU
Because that’s what
ECU’s new strength and conditioning coordinator,
Jeff Connors, will deliver starting today. He proved that during his
first stint with East Carolina, a decade during which the program made
the transition from a regional afterthought to one that is nationally
It occurred with quarterbacks who were
lightly recruited for their position, running backs who were overlooked
by big-time suitors, and receivers who didn’t rank too highly on many
recruiting wish lists. From top to bottom, the ECU roster was filled
with athletes once perceived too small or too slow, a perception that
Connors used as a motivational spark to maximize their development.
“A lot of the athletes we have at East
Carolina, and this is no secret, are not four and five-star recruits,”
Connors said after AD Terry Holland's announcement of his hiring. “If
you want to compete with teams that frequently recruit and successfully
recruit those types of athletes, then you have to somehow find an edge.
“The edge that we found during the time
when I was there with Bill Lewis and Steve Logan was that I felt we
outworked the teams we played against. We were in superior condition. We
were mentally tougher. The players realized that the hard work we put in
was the difference, and they appreciated it.”
Probably because they saw the difference
in both their physiques and on the scoreboard. In 1996 alone, the
Pirates blew out South Carolina and Miami on the road and N.C State in
They didn’t do it with trickery, either.
Smoke and mirrors? Not part of the equation. The program that previously
was recognized mostly for its razzle and dazzle in the early 1990s had
evolved into one also capable of beating opponents with brute force.
But that isn’t exactly front page news.
At least it shouldn’t be. Anyone who knows anything about the fabric of
East Carolina football should understand that the edge the Pirates had
over their opponents then wasn’t isolated between the ears.
There simply weren’t many programs that
could push the Pirates around anymore, and most who opposed them spent
the better part of the fourth quarter sucking wind. To say that superior
conditioning became a recognized trademark for the ECU program would be
Just like it will be moving forward.
Because it is clear that Connors’ decade away from Greenville has served
only to fuel his passion for East Carolina and a town that he considers
“There are some very close parallels to
where I grew up and the town of Greenville,” Connors said. “It is a
football town with people who have a hunger for winning football games,
and they understand the work that needs to be done in relationship to
“For me, I understand it because I grew
up in it. I relate to Greenville because it reminds me of exactly the
place I grew up. I always felt so at home there, because everything I
learned growing up fit in very well with what we needed to do to be
successful at East Carolina.”
Perhaps that explains Connors’ unique
ability to connect with the caliber of athletes ECU generally attracts,
and how to motivate them to exceed personal expectations. And perhaps
that’s also the reason that, despite his departure for North Carolina in
2001, he never lost his affinity for the Pirates.
How else do you explain the fact that
many of his closest friends are former ECU players? And why else would
Connors decide to make a significant financial contribution to the major
renovation to the Pirates’ locker room a few years ago?
Unabridged passion and devotion for East
Carolina are the only explanations. The Pirates certainly have that on
the sidelines with head coach Ruffin McNeill, and they again have it in
the weight room with Connors.
That creates an intriguing combination
for ECU, one that should serve well towards the development of its
players. McNeill provides the Pirates with that father figure presence
who embraces his “Ruff love” principles, while Connors presents them
with a commanding drill sergeant.
To the latter, life just got tougher for
the Pirates. A lot tougher.
But my guess is that will make them
appreciate the results even more.