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Insights and Observations

Henry's Highlights
Wednesday, November 8, 2006

By Henry Hinton

Are Pirate program and fans up to the BCS test? 

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Not only are a bowl game and potential trip to the Conference USA championship game on the line this Saturday when Marshall visits East Carolina, an argument can be made that the very future of the Pirate program is at stake.

Too dramatic? Overstated? Maybe. But maybe not.

For years, Pirate fans have made claims that they want ECU to be a big-time football school. The program has flirted with the so-called big-time, finishing the 1991 season with a Top Ten ranking. Sustaining that level of national prominence has proven elusive.

Adding to the difficulty, the creation of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998 separated Division I-A programs into two distinct groups — the haves and the have nots — and since that time East Carolina has once again been on the outside looking in.

Other members of C-USA will forgive Terry Holland when he says that ECU is “keeping its options open” with regard to league affiliation. They understand that the Pirate program would jump at a chance to gain membership in a BCS conference. They understand it because they would do the very same.

The question is when and if ECU will have that chance. We continue to hear that there is going to be more expansion and restructuring of BCS leagues. The Big East certainly appears to be a candidate, but at this moment the commissioner of that league is drawing a line when it comes to who it will invite to join their party. At this time, it is clear that East Carolina is not on his wish list.

Since the departure of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College to the Atlantic Coast Conference, rumors have swirled about the Big East’s future. Prior to this season, there were a lot of sportswriters and reporters who were ready to write the league’s obituary.

Now it appears Louisville or Rutgers could be playing for the national championship. Add West Virginia’s high ranking and the Big East has silenced its critics. For now.

However, schools inside that league have scheduling problems due to the fact that there are currently just eight members. That means each school in the Big East has to schedule five non-conference games each year instead of the desired four.

A ninth football-only member would solve that problem for the member schools. Coaches and athletic directors have publicly stated that they would like to have a ninth member, but Commissioner Mike Tranghese is now publicly stating that any new member will have to enhance the league’s standing — and he does not see anyone available that can do that.

That brings us to this weekend’s ECU game with Marshall. Filling the stands for a game like this one is imperative if the Pirate program expects to catch anyone’s attention. As of Tuesday morning, the university was predicting a possible 40,000-plus crowd, depending on student pick-up this week.

Along with ECU there are other Big East hopefuls. Central Florida and Memphis from C-USA are hoping to catch the eye of a BCS league. There is also talk that Navy would like to be considered. This past week, Tranghese hinted that none of these schools are on his radar screen.

"I think we would at some point look at an additional football member," Tranghese told the Lexington (KY) Herald-Leader. "But it is going to have to be someone that makes us better. And candidly, I think the people that are available don't necessarily make us any better. I know who the people are that would make us better and they aren't available. They are going to have to call us because we are not going to go out there and start tampering."

It sounds as if Tranghese has a wish list but it is clear that ECU is not on his mind today. He goes on to say that he has continued discussions with Notre Dame about scheduling more Big East games and the Irish have agreed. Notre Dame is already in the league for basketball but has chosen to keep its football program independent due to its attractive national standing with television.

What could change this for ECU is the renewal of the spirit and success the Pirate program experienced in the ‘nineties. The 2006 season has proven that Pirate fans want a winner and appreciate one, but that alone will not be enough to overcome the stigma that seems to be attached to the program in Tranghese’s eyes after stumping its toe in the early part of this decade.

There is no question that the timing of the collapse of the ECU program came at the worst possible moment. While bringing in Louisville seemed to make sense after the ACC raid, many are still scratching their heads over the Big East's decision to admit South Florida and Cincinnati over the Pirates.

It seems the best case will be made for ECU to move into the Big East or any BCS Conference if the Pirates keep showing up on the field and Pirate fans show up in the stands. Saturday’s game is an opportunity to show the football world that the program belongs among the nation’s elite again.

That kind of response gives Terry Holland and Steve Ballard the ammunition necessary to promote the ECU program to those who really matter, namely the presidents and athletic directors of any league looking for a new member.

After all, keep in mind that while he carries great clout, the commissioner does not have a vote. Hopefully, Pirate fans will send a message on Saturday that support for their team is not conditional on a marquee’ opponent.

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This page updated 04/21/08 07:05 PM.

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