Originally, Thursday was supposed to unfold for Jeff Lebo much like home game days have for the last seven-plus seasons — last-minute scouting of UNC-Wilmington, mapping out game strategy, and making sure the players are focused, warmed up and ready to play.
On Wednesday afternoon, with his decision to resign as the head basketball coach at East Carolina, that slate was wiped clean for Lebo. He didn’t actually know what he was going to do on Thursday, he said at the press conference announcing his resignation. He would just let the day unfold.
Lebo wasn’t the only one who experienced a sudden change of plans this week. Sports media members finishing up their work for the day saw their plans for typical daily stories or radio shows detonate with the unexpected news. And earlier Wednesday, athletic director Jeff Compher realized quickly that what seemed like a routine meeting with his basketball coach was anything but.
“I didn’t think it was out of the ordinary, because often things come up, especially the day before a game,” Compher said of the Lebo-initiated meeting. “But when he came to the office, the first thing he said was, ‘Melissa (Lebo’s wife) is here with me,’ and I knew this wasn’t going to be an ordinary meeting. As we sat down he said, ‘I’m going to drop a bombshell on you,’ and then he told me he was stepping down as head coach, effective immediately.
“You never know how your day is going to go in this world of college athletics, but I can tell you this news did come as quite a surprise to me.”
From a logistical standpoint, Compher said that Lebo’s departure wouldn’t affect the ECU athletic department’s finances, indicating that since Lebo resigned voluntarily the university will not pay out the remainder of his contract. In terms of future leadership for the basketball program, Compher said with Lebo’s unexpected announcement he had not yet had a chance to lay any groundwork or set a timetable for a coaching search.
As atypical as it is for a college basketball coach to resign six games into the season, Lebo said that his decision wasn’t linked to the team’s early season struggles that resulted in losses to teams like Radford, Central Connecticut State, and North Carolina A&T.
“We could be undefeated right now, and it wouldn’t have changed anything,” he said.
The timing was precipitated by recent in-depth conversations with his wife and children, he said, conversations that convinced him he needed to shift his priorities away from coaching and toward those family relationships.
“After careful consideration and a lot of thought and talk with my family and my wife, after 36 years of playing and coaching and the sacrifices that we have made as a family, it’s time for me to make a change and a pivot into a new chapter in my life,” said Lebo, whose 116 victories make him the winningest coach in ECU’s Division I era. “As a coach, you pour your heart and your soul and everything that you have into coaching, into your players, into your programs, and sometimes there comes a time when you want to focus a little more on some areas where you might have fallen short over the course of the past 36 years.
“The timing is never good in these situations, but I’ve poured my heart and soul into everything I’ve tried to do here. Every decision I’ve made, I tried to make what was best for East Carolina and for this basketball program, and I hope that I leave here with my reputation in hand, that I leave here and people say, ‘He did it the right way. He was honorable; he believed in the right things and made the right decisions.’ ”
Lebo’s uncertainty about his future extends even further than his plans for Thursday, but there are a few things he feels sure about as he heads into this new chapter. For one thing, he is confident that Pirate basketball is in excellent hands, he said. Compher announced at the press conference that Michael Perry had accepted the offer to become the interim head coach — a familiar role for Perry since he filled in for the final two months of the 2016-‘17 while Lebo underwent hip surgery.
Lebo also has little doubt that the current ECU players will handle the transition well and continue to work hard for victories. He met with the players Wednesday afternoon after his conversation with Compher, he said.
“They’re players, they love to play,” he said. “They’re going to play because they love this game. And I would expect them to come out and compete hard in practice today and play their butts off tomorrow.”
Another thing Lebo is confident about, at least for now, is his family’s intention to stay in Greenville. He won’t go to Pirate basketball games in the near future, he said, because he doesn’t want to be a distraction for Perry and the players, but he will be connected and supportive of ECU and the larger community.
“This place has given me new life,” he said. “When I was at a low point in my career, I poured my heart and soul into this place. I love East Carolina, I love Greenville. We plan on staying here and living here. We love this community.”
One place where he will be watching basketball games is J.H. Rose High School, where his son Creighton is a sophomore standout. He has been coaching throughout his children’s lives, he said, and he has been acutely aware lately of the things he has missed because of the demands of the profession.
“I missed a lot with him,” he said of Creighton. “AAU, I missed playing, games, I missed a lot. I was fortunate to play for my dad, so I was with him every single day, and that relationship that I had with my own father obviously was tremendous. And I haven’t been able to have that kind of same thing with my son.”
Since Lebo’s schedule is now clear for today, he can start tonight, when Rose plays host to North Pitt.