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Monday, June 27, 2005

By Henry Hinton

Holland assembles a league of his own


Replay the archives of last week's Talk of the Town with Henry Hinton, including the June 22 show in which Hinton broke the news of ECU's forthcoming football scheduling deals:
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When the media was informed East Carolina would make an announcement of unprecedented proportions this past Thursday, there was speculation that Terry Holland may have cut a deal with a new conference. In many ways the actual announcement was better.

There they were. Helmets of upcoming opponents on placards lined up behind the podium and microphone where Holland addressed the media. It was almost as if Holland was, indeed, announcing a new league. No, it is not actually a real conference but for ECU fans, playing North Carolina, N.C. State, Virginia, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and Navy on a home and home basis offers everything the Pirates' current league affiliation cannot.

Holland’s first East Carolina football experience came a few days after he was announced as the new Director of Athletics in Greenville. He stayed over for the weekend because the Pirates were hosting Wake Forest in the home opener. While the outcome of the game was disappointing, what Holland saw was a motivated fan base that nearly filled Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

In the ensuing weeks that atmosphere would not be re-created. Cincinnati, Tulane, Army and Memphis were the opponents and Pirate fans stayed away in droves. Sure, it was hard to get excited about a team that had gone 1-11 the previous year and continued to struggle, but it became painfully clear to Holland that Pirate fans are more excited to play in-state and regional teams than league foes from far away places.

It was then and there that the new AD formed his opinion and set about his strategy of convincing the Tar Heels, Wolfpack, Hokies, Cavaliers, Mountaineers and Midshipmen to play ECU. Maybe we should call it the “Holland Conference.”

Most who closely follow college athletics in this area are amazed not only that Holland accomplished getting home and home games with all of the above but also that he got it done so swiftly.

Getting North Carolina and N.C. State to Greenville the first time took years of political wrangling. It is true that Holland already had established positive relationships with those schools prior to becoming a Greenville resident, but you can be sure that there are those inside the General Assembly who understand the economic benefit of having 50,000 fans attend a game east of I-95.

In a Talk 1070 interview recently, Holland explained it like this: “We understand that all of those institutions have their own financial and competitive goals that sometimes conflict with what may be best for eastern North Carolina, but there should still be at some stage a recognition of how important this area is. It doesn’t have to be did you play here every year or every other year even, but there has to be some recognition.”

In forming his strategy for re-energizing the ECU program Holland seems to be placing great significance on past history. In fact, in that same June 10 interview he even mentioned the largest moment in Pirate football history when talking about which teams the Pirates should be playing on a regular basis.

“Who did we play in the Peach bowl?" Holland asked rhetorically, then answered his own question. "N.C. State."

"Then there is North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech, West Virginia," he added. "In other words, who are the people that have been playing in the Gator Bowl, and who are the people that have been playing in the Peach Bowl. Well by golly, let’s play those people but hey, it’s even better if we play them at home half the time, isn’t it?” Holland said on June 10."

So, now we have the Holland Conference — a grouping of teams that have the potential to reignite the passion for Pirate football. It is interesting that Wake Forest and Duke did not get invited to join the new imaginary league.

In fact, at Thursday’s media briefing, Holland’s response to a question we posed about future games with the Deacons and Devils was remarkable in the insight it gave into how he views the bigger picture. Holland actually said ECU had to “pick and choose” the teams most important in what it is trying to do.

That is proof positive of the magnitude of Holland’s accomplishment. Let me get this straight. WE had to pick and choose and Wake and Duke didn’t make it? How far has this thing come in one short year?

Terry Holland for President!

Of course there is one potential problem with all of this good news. Can Skip Holtz get the program competitive in time to play these games? Will the Pirates be ready to take on the likes of West Virginia and (gulp) Virginia Tech on a week in week out basis?

It may have been fitting that Coach Holtz appeared by phone at the Thursday media briefing. Had he been there in person the microphones from the area TV and radio stations may have actually picked up the puckering sound.

And what does this mean for conference affiliation? Most likely nothing except that Holland has put ECU in a position to worry less about that now.

It is no secret that the Big East is discussing its situation and re-evaluating its future. The Pirates could well fit as a football-only member but it appears that decision is still as much as a year away. There are also persistent rumors that Holland would even consider going independent. This new schedule may even create that option.

With a couple of home games each year expected to draw 40,000-plus, East Carolina’s current situation with Conference USA does not look as undesirable.

So, get your season tickets now. The Holland Conference will not commence until 2006, but you can check out your seats while ECU takes on Duke, Southern Miss, Rice, Central Florida and UAB this fall.


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02/23/2007 10:16:25 AM

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