Even before last week’s news on Jeff Lebo’s bad hip, this East Carolina basketball season was on a downward spiral.
Lebo’s departure puts a whole new twist on the year. The Pirate coach says it was the only solution.
“It’s been bad for two years but I have tried to get through it because I’m young,” said Lebo. “But it has gotten to the place where I couldn’t function. I couldn’t function in my life, not just in my job but in my life. It’s in bad shape and getting worse.”
Lebo leaves the team indefinitely after the Pirate’s 55-46 loss to No. 22 Cincinnati on Sunday afternoon. It was ECU’s fifth straight loss and a replay of a story the team has seen before.
“I thought we did so many good things out there tonight,” Lebo said in his postgame press conference. “If we could have just got a few to go. Every time we had a chance to get one or two of them to go, we just could not put the ball in the basket.”
The most fundamental part of the sport of basketball continues to be the Achilles heel for this team. East Carolina once again found good shots, but failed to make many of them in losing another game.
Five straight losses have moved the Pirates to near the basement of the American Athletic Conference. Tulane and Temple, like ECU, have just one American win. South Florida is still winless in league play.
Lebo says any one of his assistants could have taken over in his absence.
Any of them could do it,” said Lebo. “Mike has been a head coach and he’s been in this situation before because he did this at Georgia State with Coach [“Lefty”] Driesell. But they will all be working together.”
Taking over has to be a daunting task for assistant coach Michael Perry, but Perry has done this before. In 2003 at Georgia State, he took over for Driesell, who abruptly retired and handpicked Perry to take over.
Georgia State won 165 games during Perry’s assistant coaching and head coaching tenures and advanced to postseason play twice with Perry at the helm. In 2001, Perry led the Panthers to the Atlantic Sun Conference title and an NCAA tournament first round upset of Wisconsin.
“I have a good group of coaches, they’re experienced,” Lebo said. “I’ve got a good group of kids. I’ve missed practices before going on the road recruiting, so they’ve had to do some things a day or two without me occasionally, but not this long for an extended period of time. I don’t think anything is going to change. My guys have been with me for a long period of time. They know how we do business. My players know how we do business.”
Still, leaving his team, especially in a five-game losing streak and struggling, was especially difficult for the Pirate coach.
“It didn’t really feel any different until after the game, when I had to tell them goodbye and leave,” Lebo said. “I’ve never had that before in my 30 years of coaching. That was the hard part. I’ve never had to separate for a period of time from my group.”
As for Perry, he hopes to make the most of a very difficult situation.
“We talked about it being a possibility and with his hip like it was we put a plan together to move forward,” Perry explained. “This will be a team effort for not only the coaches but for the players as well.”
Perry realizes the challenge is an uphill battle. Still he looks forward to moving on to try and help this team turn things around.
“There is some excitement but you’re caught up in the moment,” said Perry. “There are a lot more things to deal with and be responsible for. I think my experience can help with this.”
Without a mid-week game this week Perry will make his Pirate debut at Connecticut on Sunday night.