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Monday, January 23, 2012
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By Ron Cherubini
Staff Features Writer

Jolly Roger Thrives Out of Exile

Banished for years, the Pirate standard flies again with new meaning

By Ron Cherubini
©2012 Bonesville.net
All rights reserved.

Three years on, ECU's skull & bones flourishes as an apt logo

On a chilly November night in 2009, a national television audience witnessed a nationally-ranked Virginia Tech team eek out a 16-3 revenge win over East Carolina, which had Beamer-balled the Atlantic Coast Conference champion Hokies in a 27-22 upset victory in Charlotte in 2008.

The rematch was not remarkable. A sputtering ECU offense turned the ball over three times while a staunch Pirates defense kept the team in it. Tech was the better team that night and would go on to win another ACC title. ECU would, likewise, go on and repeat as C-USA champions.

What made that 2009 night notable was that the nation got to see the unveiling of one of the greatest midfield logos in college football. That night, the midfield-art – a visual representation of what has become known as the Pirate State of Mind movement – captivated not only ECU fans, but became a topic of discussion throughout the college football world. Additionally, the Pirates teased the fans a bit with the unveiling of a special helmet logo – the Jolly Roger – that was used again for the 2011 season.

Even the regular cast of ECU-anything detractors – fans from UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State – while maybe not acknowledging publicly that that logo rocked, certainly didn’t hesitate to quickly sample the art and create their own copycat versions of the PSOM image. Imitation is the highest form of flattery.

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Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium image courtesy East Carolina University

If you take a minute to really look at that image – whether on your computer desktop, smart phone wallpaper, picture on the wall, whatever – it doesn’t take long to realize that it so hits the mark of what it means to be a Pirate, you just know that Leo would have that image prominently displayed on his iPad if he were with us today. Yes, use of the image of the home state is not new – though it typically exists inside basketball arenas – ECU’s version is simply unique. The image speaks so thoroughly to ECU’s football past, present, and big dreams of the future, you would think that it just had to have been extensively market tested and thoroughly researched before a single drop of paint hit the midfield stripe in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium back in 2009.

A Quick History on the Jolly Roger at ECU

For many in the Pirate Nation, the emergence of the new ECU mark was a long time coming, harkening way back to the Pirates early days in football when the “Pirate” had a much harder edge and the Jolly Roger & crossbones were a regular part of the East Carolina’s brand. For others in the Pirate Nation, the mark has given some pause, harkening those folks to a time when the university’s public image was one of a party school with an unappreciated academic reputation – the old “EZU” moniker – and a Skull & Crossbones logo only seemed to further the rogue, outlaw reputation and tie the school to more negative impressions.

In fact, there was a moratorium of sorts on the use of the Jolly Roger and crossbones in association with ECU – the institution and athletics alike – from circa 1983, really, until about 2002, and it made a lot of sense at that point in time. Prior to 1983, the skull and bones were very much a part of the college’s culture and while clearly understood by those connected to the school, outside that small bubble, the identification was largely negative. For reasons unfair to the institution, the reputation of the school was one of lax admittance standards, sub-excellent academics, and a student body whose primary skill set was to party every night of the week. It was the days of “EZU” and, while those close to the university and region knew that reputation was not accurate, the Jolly Roger and crossbones didn’t do a whole lot to dispel that perception when the casual observer saw it and combined it with what they may have heard in the wind about the school.

So, by 1983, ECU was hard at work reshaping its local and national brand to ensure that those beyond the Pirate Nation could recognize the university for what it truly was and is – a serious academic institution that provides economic and service support of eastern North Carolina and research and development for the greater region and nation.

“Marketing-wise, we were not allowed to use the Skull and Crossbones in any way, shape, or form,” said Lee Workman, ECU Associate Athletics Director for Administration who had mulled the ideas for several years. “It wasn’t until 2002 when we started to actively determine how we might incorporate and introduce the Skull and Crossbones into our branding. We have waited for the right time and we felt that it was the right time.”

Workman, who has been associated with the university for decades, laughs about having to be the bad guy over the years as he was the messenger again and again when droves of Pirate fans, alumni and supporters would ask for the resurrection of the Skull and Bones. But, with the laugh, comes understanding that the use of a largely outlaw-perceived mark carries risk and responsibility on behalf of the university, its reputation, and hence, the perception attached to anyone associated with the institution.

“We felt we could approach (using the image) and said (the Jolly Roger) would not become our main mark, but rather, a secondary mark – which is a good position for it in an overall branding strategy,” said Workman. “The original Jolly Roger mark was developed in 2002, utilizing ECU art students to work with me to create the design as a secondary branding mark, to be used locally and for our fans on game days. The Pirate Head mark has been and continues to be used as the primary branding/marketing/image mark locally, regionally, and nationally.

“We need to manage this brand locally and nationally, because there is potential that negative connotations might be attached to it under certain circumstances,” Workman said. “The Jolly Roger mark, which is derived from the primary pirate head without the skin, was created as a ‘rallying,’ ‘spirit,’ ‘tough,’ ‘warning (to our foes)’ symbol, much like the Jolly Roger was used with pirates in history. The raising of a flag with the Jolly Roger crossbones mark and the use of the Jolly Roger crossbones on football game day was to be a ‘tougher’ symbol for ECU fans to rally around with excitement as we go into ‘battle’ so to speak. Over time others have added ideas for its use that include the No Quarter use and the North Carolina outline use. It has accomplished what I hoped it would and more in the context the Jolly Roger mark was originally developed for.”

Jolly Roger Finds his Way Back

Over the years, ECU – the institution and in a large part, athletics – has positioned itself as a national brand, which is seen in a very positive light. The “do more with less,” “undaunted,” “no one can keep us down” themes that we all hold so dear – true Pirate qualities – have been cast in a positive light and largely seen as such. The Jolly Roger is seen to be associated primarily with athletics at ECU and in the spirit of competition, once negative connotations associated with Pirates and the Jolly Roger and crossbones are reflective of a never-quit, never back down, never fear theme that is positively representative of our sports teams.

So, when the Jolly Roger’s comeback at ECU was plotted in 2002, it was with cautious optimism as the folks who would prove instrumental in resurrecting the mark really didn’t know what the ultimate reaction would be. Still, the early basis of what we now all know as the PSOM image was not some massive decision followed by a heavy concentration of planning and fan base market test groups and so on. Instead, its way back was tied to just another marketing campaign.

The Jolly Roger’s new life began as non-remarkably as any piece of art associated with any myriad marketing campaign. Its evolution was as much serendipity as it was multi-layered analysis of the greater meaning of being an ECU Pirate. It was an assignment… a job task. A task that ran in short order, going from a concept to the unveiling at the game in 2009, and has since has been a remarkably strong trademark that says a whole lot without a single word on it.

It was the brainchild of ECU’s Director of Commercial Marketing, Michael Weller, who though not an ECU Pirate born (he arrived at ECU in 2004 from SUNY-Cortland as an intern), is certainly an ECU Pirate bred, with an obviously strong handle on the ECU mindset.

“In the spring of 2009 I developed our first ‘Official Fan Shirt’ as part of a branding and licensing campaign that tied our upcoming athletics theme for the year, Pirates of the East … Where Purple Reigns, together with a graphic representation, which depicted the skull and crossbones from our Jolly Roger logo embedded in the outline of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia,” said Weller. “In June of that year, I was working on a concept for a billboard design that would be used for a program across multiple boards throughout North Carolina, reaching from Greenville to Greensboro, and southward to Wilmington, and happened to run across the artwork I’d done for the shirt and made a number of revisions to it for the billboard art.”

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Shirt art courtesy East Carolina University

Today’s logo, a large, harder-edged Jolly Roger filling the outline of the state of North Carolina, in its first iteration included outlines of Southeast Virginia and South Carolina, focused on tying to ECU’s stated geographic “backyard” for football. A fine concept, but for sake of argument… thank God that standard billboard geometry was not kind to this concept.

“Due both to the shape of the billboard and the message I was trying to convey with the image, I scrapped the extra states and focused on the image of the pirate theme within the borders of North Carolina,” said Weller. “The message I was hoping to push across was consistent with our theme, showing that the Pirates consider North Carolina to be OUR state and that we want our presence to be felt here. Although it wasn’t initially the point of my design, I realized this would also help dispel our unique North/South Carolina problem.”

What resulted was a Jolly Roger that overfills the state of North Carolina, allowing the mind to “fill in” where the rest of the Jolly Roger is – outside of the state. With no deference to former Sports Center anchor Keith Olbermann, You can’t stop the PSOM, you can only hope to contain it.

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Billboard art courtesy East Carolina University

The epicenter of the Jolly Roger emanates over the location of Greenville on the map, fully encompasses the eastern part of the state and spreads west to nearly encompass the whole state. The Jolly Roger is facing west, no doubt eyeing its future growth – a national brand. The non-covered parts of the state are black – absent of color, perhaps representing those who simply don’t get it… It’s an ECU thing… you wouldn’t understand. There is more, of course, when you start to attach theme to history and future plans. Like, for example, ECU’s determination – during Dr. Jenkins’ time – that the athletics focus would be on football first, with a desire to become the state’s premier football school; hence, owning the state. The Jolly Roger appears to be gritting its teeth to bust out of the N.C. limitations to a national stage – a long held goal of all Pirates since the program’s infancy.

Weller’s original concept and the decision to revise the logo to meet the issues presented by billboard scale served as the catalyst to a series of rapid actions that resulted in what has now become the graphic depiction of what it means to be a true ECU Pirate.

“I actually wasn’t very happy with my initial billboard layout and had begun working on a couple (of) alternate ideas that didn’t include the logo, but I showed a copy of it to my boss, Scott Wetherbee, who really liked the concept. He presented it at a staff meeting to Coach (Terry) Holland and the other senior staff members, and they all adamantly approved of using that design,” said Weller. “My goal wasn’t to have a new logo created, although I have been very excited that a project I designed for a billboard eventually found its way to being trademarked and so widely popular with the Pirate fans.”

Wetherbee – the Associate Athletics Director for Marketing/Ticket Operations – was responsible for overseeing the development and somewhat chuckles when he recalls the development process.

“I was the one who said, let’s add South Carolina and Virginia to represent the eastern seaboard,” Wetherbee laughed, noting that the logo as it turned out is just perfect. “But, the billboard cutoffs took it back to North Carolina only, which was the original that Michael had designed.”

Both Wetherbee and Weller felt they had something solid to present to Athletics Director Terry Holland and Workman for final review and hopefully approval.

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Logo art courtesy East Carolina University

“I was absolutely stunned,” said Coach Holland. “It seemed to tie together almost all the reasons for the Pirate pride and passion that Ann and I have experienced first-hand since arriving in Greenville in 2004.”

The image so deeply resonated with Holland’s long-held vision for ECU’s future – an aggressive, no-obstacle-can’t-be-overcome culture – that he and then-Senior Associate AD for External Operations Jimmy Bass, secretly put into motion the plans to transform the design into the midfield logo that was unveiled to the nation on the chilly night in November 2009.

“I remember Michael and I were like, ‘Man… I wish they had told us about (it being used for the midfield logo) ahead of time,’ so we could have really marketed it,” said Wetherbee. “But, the way it was unveiled – that it really was a stunning surprise to everyone – we were just ecstatic. The way it all came about was just really neat. Michael does such good job on his graphics, and that one was… well, just fantastic.”

The reaction was pretty much viral… as in national. Not only did the ESPN broadcast team remark about it, but discussion was generated on message boards all over the land discussing the merits of the logo.

“I got more text messages from friends across the country about that logo than anything else I can remember,” said Wetherbee. “They were all saying (how awesome) the logo was. The biggest thing was really Coach Holland and his mindset about what he wants for this university. We have our main pirate head logo but he has looked beyond that and that is where the whole Pirate State of Mind really took root. We really do have a different state of mind with our athletics here at ECU – a stronger and bolder mindset – and that logo… is recognized as part of that attitude.”

That logo and subsequent full brand that has built around it oozes that passionate attitude and, according to Coach Holland, that is where it really hits the mark.

“It gets me fired up for sure (to look at it),” said Coach Holland. “And I hope every member of the Pirate Nation feels the same about at least one of our primary logos and/or traditions.”

It seems that at least with this logo, a picture has said exponentially more than a thousand words and it keeps speaking to all generations of ECU Pirates.

When Weller coined the Pirate State of Mind, he wasn’t, himself, really all that aware of what it would come to embody, but he full understands it now.

“The name Pirate State of Mind… seemed to fit so well with the image,” said Weller. “(It) was a reference to the Jay-Z/Alicia Keys collaboration, ‘Empire State of Mind,’ that came out that fall.”

The Pirate State of Mind sort of captures what for years many would refer to as that “something different about ECU” and encompasses a common denominator among all in the Pirate Nation, a deep love and devotion for the university and the memories that are held dear to those who have attended, worked for, or adopted as their own.

For the athletics department, the logo has hit the mark dead center, and everywhere you look, it shows.

“Even though ECU lost the (Virginia Tech) game, the mark was well received and was left for the remaining games that year and ever since,” said Workman. “Our retailers indicate the Jolly Roger mark in general, along with the North Carolina outline Jolly Roger mark are popular with ECU consumers. While we do not have any breakdown of actual sales by trademark, the North Carolina outline Jolly Roger and Jolly Roger (by itself) has contributed to increased sales of East Carolina officially licensed products.”

That latter point is big, given the fact the Pirates are consistently among the top 50 or so colleges in athletics licensed merchandise sales.

For the fans, that mark has become a critical part of the game day experience at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, one that weaves itself from the midfield logo, to the scoreboard, to the attitude the players take onto the field, to the surge the stadium gets with the raising of the No Quarter flag in the fourth quarter, to the never-die-spirit that leaves with each Pirate fan when they leave the stadium, regardless of the outcome on the field.

E-mail Ron Cherubini

PAGE UPDATED 01/23/12 03:48 AM.

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