East Carolina athletic director Jeff Compher may or may not be the kind of guy that makes a lot of New Year’s resolutions this time each year.
But just in case he is, here’s a suggestion: Be it resolved that 2017 will be the year in which the school’s athletic administration decides exactly how serious it wants to be about having a competitive men’s basketball program.
To be fair, Compher has already taken several major steps in an effort to improve the Pirates’ hardwood fortunes. He’s overseen the construction of a new $17 million state-of-the-art practice facility and another $4 million expenditure for upgrades to Minges Coliseum. Just last spring, he gave coach Jeff Lebo the green light to do whatever it takes to spread a wider recruiting net in search of better talent.
And yet, barring a dramatic turnaround between now and the end of the season, ECU appears headed for an all-too-familiar result.
Consider that in the six years Lebo has been in charge of the program, his Pirates have posted a winning conference record only once — a 9-7 mark in Conference USA in 2012-13. That was the season in which hot-shooting guard Akeem Richmond led ECU to 23 wins and the championship of the postseason College Insiders Tournament.
Since then, the Pirates have seen their win totals decrease every year, from 17 in 2014 to 14 in ‘15 and just 12 a season ago.
Though this year’s team has already posted nine victories in its first 16 games, it has won only twice since Dec. 3 — once against a team that has already fired its coach. On three occasions during that slump, it has failed to score more than 45 points.
That’s not the kind of performance that will aid ECU’s chances should the Big 12 or any other Power 5 conference begin vetting potential expansion candidates again. It’s certainly not the kind of record that instills confidence in an athletic director, especially one who just a year ago dispatched a popular football coach after one losing season.
Upon announcing the dismissal of Ruffin McNeill last December, Compher publicly stated the expectation that ECU’s programs compete for championships. At this point in the process, the Pirates’ basketball team is about as far away from competing for championships as Greenville is from Greenland.
That’s significant considering that in announcing Lebo’s return after last season, Compher was quoted as saying that “you want to see progress and you certainly don’t want to feel like you’re going in the other way.”
It should be noted that Ws and Ls aren’t the only factor in determining progress. The problem is that even with a roster that includes four true freshmen, a redshirt freshman, a junior college transfer and a fifth-year graduate transfer all in their first year in the program, it sure feels as though ECU is “going in the other way.”
You can only bang your head against a wall so many times before it finally dawns on you that it hurts. That’s when you stop.
So when does Compher finally acknowledge that the Pirates’ status quo isn’t working and decides to try something different?
It could happen as soon as the end of this season. Or maybe not.
There’s a real chance that Compher will give Lebo at least one more year to try and develop talented freshmen Jeremy Sheppard, Elijah Hughes, Raquan Wilkins and Shawn Williams — who is currently redshirting for academic reasons — and avoid paying him not to coach through the end of his contract in 2021.
Either way, the time is rapidly approaching for ECU to decide whether it’s really serious about having a competitive men’s basketball program or if it will continue to bang its head against a wall until it finally figures out how much it hurts.