There’s no reason to doubt Jeff Lebo’s explanation for abruptly resigning as East Carolina’s basketball coach last Wednesday.
The man said he’s burned out, and he sure looked like it during the press conference announcing his decision to step down six games into his eighth season with the Pirates.
In retrospect, maybe we should have seen it coming.
“One thing about coaches, particularly when they’ve been in the business a long time (is that) when they know, they know,” Lebo’s interim successor Michael Perry said after leading the Pirates to an overtime win against UNC-Wilmington on Thursday, “You can’t plan it and it often does happen during the season. It’s strange timing, seemingly, but when they know, they know when they’re ready to pivot away from it.”
That’s the explanation Lebo gave for walking away when he did. But truth be told, the timing wasn’t really that strange at all considering the Pirates’ 2-4 start, which included losses to Central Connecticut State and N.C. A&T, teams currently ranked 323rd and 325th among the nation’s 351 Division I programs.
Despite the now-former coach’s insistence that he would have come to the same conclusion even if his team had been 6-0, his resignation sure seemed like a case of getting out of Dodge before the posse caught up with him.
With a 116-122 record that included only two winning seasons, the last of which came in 2013, Lebo had worn out his welcome at ECU. By leaving when he did, he took the pressure to fire him off athletic director Jeff Compher.
There’s a good chance that would have happened already had Lebo not taken a leave of absence for the final 14 games of last season while undergoing hip surgery.
So now that the change has been made, where does that leave the Pirates’ perpetually rebuilding program?
Several current team members put in an early endorsement for Perry to be given the job on a permanent basis.
“I feel like he can be the head coach in the future,” senior B.J. Tyson said after scoring a career-high 30 points in the win against UNCW.
It’s an opinion that was seconded by junior transfer Isaac Fleming, who added a decisive “Hell yeah.”
“We go through a lot,” Tyson said. “With Lebo stepping down, you’ve got Perry stepping up and taking that challenge six games in. That shows a lot of pride and gives us energy to want to play for him.”
The results speak for themselves.
After assuming command in Lebo’s absence last Jan. 22, Perry led a team languishing in the midst of a five-game losing streak to a 6-8 record to finish the season. He’s currently 2-0 this year after Saturday’s win against Delaware State.
Perry has experience dealing with just this kind of situation, having inherited the job at Georgia State from Lefty Driesell in January in 2003 and being hired full-time at the end of that year. He went 62-75 in four full seasons with the Panthers.
In this case, however, all indications are that barring a miraculous turnaround and a surprise NIT or NCAA tournament appearance, Compher is poised to make a clean break from the previous regime and give the Pirates a fresh start with a new coach from outside the program.
Despite ECU’s woeful lack of hoops tradition and the challenge of having to recruit in an area dominated by national powers Duke and UNC, in addition to fellow in-state ACC members N.C. State and Wake Forest, there are a number of factors that could make the Pirates’ job an attractive one to the right coach.
Not the least of them are a strong, multi-bid conference affiliation and competitive facilities, which include a state-of the-art practice gym and a home court at Minges Coliseum that can, in the words of Perry last Thursday, can be a “great college basketball atmosphere” when it “gets rocking.”
The list of potential candidates are LaVelle Moton, whose creative recruiting and coaching talent have helped make N.C. Central a perennial NCAA tournament participant; UNC-Asheville’s Nick McDevitt; UMBC’s Ryan Odom, whose father Dave coached the Pirates from 1979-82; former Charlotte coach and N.C. State assistant Bobby Lutz; Duke assistant Jon Scheyer; College of Charleston’s Earl Grant — or perhaps even Jerry Stackhouse, a Kinston native whose name and resume as a former UNC and NBA star player who led the Toronto Raptors’ developmental league team to a league title last spring might help the Pirates attract in-state players that might not otherwise consider at ECU.
No matter which direction Compher decides to go, the one thing he shouldn’t do is sell the program short by setting his sights too low.
If the recent success of Wichita State, Virginia Commonwealth, Northern Iowa and other mid-major schools like them have proven anything, it’s that anyone — even ECU — can win at the highest level of college basketball with the right combination of factors.
It’s a process that starts with a coach competent and confident enough to take on the challenge of establishing a winning culture and bringing in the kind of talent necessary to sustain it.
Jeff Compher, you’re on the clock.