One significant aspect of the Cincinnati-East Carolina game slipped my mind until I was ready to leave after a 48-20 Pirates victory.
I had packed up my laptop and camera when Malcolm Gray, director of athletics communications, said, “Al, you’re the last one to leave.”
Sure enough, Nathan Summers of The Daily Reflector in Greenville had bid adieu with a “See ya in Memphis,” and Stephen Igoe of Hoist the Colours made his exit as well.
Wow. After covering games in that press box at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium going back to 1978, that would be the final time.
Malcolm and I each recorded the moment with a few pictures on our phones.
Malcolm and I rode the elevator down together. He was pushing a grocery cart of game day gear back to the office in the Ward Sports Medicine Building. I started my walk to the media parking lot at the Presbyterian church on South Elm.
Next year, writers will be in temporary quarters. It will be open air, I’ve been told. Then the schedule calls for a transition to a new $60 million facility for the 2019 season. The press corps will move East from its former central location to a section placed at the Boneyard end, similar to those serving media at Virginia Tech, N.C. State and Central Florida.
The 50-yard line vantage points will go to big donors in the new suites. That’s the way of college football. ECU is just catching up.
For that last game on Nov. 18, I was on the 50-yard line. Tom McClellan, assistant athletic director for communications, showed me to seat No. 16.
The Pirates played a brand of football that day that many had witnessed from that press box over the years, solid in all aspects.
The first game I ever saw at then-Ficklen Stadium was against Western Carolina in 1976. I had just taken the position of sports editor at The Daily News in nearby Washington. I was the the guest of the publisher, Mr. Ashley Futrell. He was a former state senator, a Duke graduate and a member of the East Carolina Board of Trustees. He had helped Robert Morgan in the legislative battles that helped East Carolina become a university and start a medical school.
When speaking of someone who didn’t pay attention to sports, Mr. Futrell, who played baseball for the Blue Devils, used to say, “They don’t know a bunt from a punt.”
In 1976, there was a president’s box located just behind the ECU sideline. That was where I sat with Mr. Futrell for that game with Western Carolina, which ECU won 24-17. The ECU president at that time was Leo Jenkins, an incomparable mover and shaker in higher education.
Mr. Futrell loved to tell a story about when Sonny Jurgensen was playing quarterback for Duke. In those days, they didn’t have headphones and quarterbacks called the plays. Old school Bill Murray was coaching the Blue Devils and Duke was leading late in the game.
The offense was going on the field and Murray told Jurgensen to keep the ball on the ground to run out the clock. Jurgensen followed orders, but he was tempted to pass as the defense began crowding up on the line of scrimmage.
Jurgensen called a pass and it was intercepted. Jurgensen ran the defender down and made a touchdown- and game-saving tackle.
Mr. Futrell said the reporters gathered around Jurgensen after the game and he was asked, “Sonny, we’ve never seen you run so fast. What got into you? How did you catch that guy?”
Jurgensen replied, “Well, that guy was running for a touchdown. I was running for my life.”
The degree of urgency does make a difference and Jurgensen survived to have a successful career with the Washington Redskins.
Mr. Futrell never liked headphones for football. Former Pirate player Phil Harris came to Washington from Rocky Mount to coach the Pam Pack. Mr. Futrell didn’t think Phil would be successful because he wore headphones. Phil guided the Pam Pack to an 8-2 mark in his second season, which I believe was 1978. That was before everybody and his brother made the playoffs.
Harris used to tell a story about when he was playing for the Pirates. Phil bit somebody’s leg in the pile, thinking it belonged to an opponent. It turned out to be the leg of Ted Day, a teammate. Day was livid, but he thought someone on the other team had sunk their teeth into him. I’m not sure when or if Phil ever faced up directly to Ted, who had a seafood business in Washington.
My second East Carolina game was the season finale against Appalachian State in 1976. It was Nov. 20 and it was cold. The Pirates needed a win for the Southern Conference championship.
I sat in the old press box that game. Ken Smith, the sports information director, welcomed me as he did most everyone that showed an interest in the Pirates. Those were different times. Schools didn’t have internet sites to release information on athletics and were dependent on media outlets to publicize their teams. Smith put a lot of emphasis on public relations as a result.
I always felt like the press box that will come down for the pending renovation was modern. That’s because I remember what served as the press box before that. It was wooden with stairs, not an elevator. It was much smaller than the subsequent press box, which seated 60 writers.
ECU rose to the occasion and whipped the Mountaineers 35-7 for the league title. Pat Dye had a wishbone offense back then and got most of his skill players from the region. Quarterbacks Mike Weaver (Williamston), Jimmy Southerland (Wilmington) and Leander Green (Jacksonville) read defenses adroitly. Fullbacks such as Theodore Sutton (Kinston) could power on the give and running backs like Eddie Hicks (Henderson) could motor with the pitch.
The Pirates soon announced they were going to become a major college independent.
It wasn’t until a lot of water had gone under the bridge, as Mr. Futrell used to say, that ECU returned to a league framework, joining Conference USA in 1997.
I’ve witnessed a lot of history from the press box that is soon to become history itself.
The 1999 game with N.C. State stands out because it was the first time the Wolfpack had come to Greenville. There were portable bleachers at each end of the field, enabling a crowd of 50,092 to see a 23-6 ECU win.
In 2009, Skip Holtz guided the Pirates to a 38-32 win over a Kevin Sumlin-coached Houston team that featured Case Keenum at quarterback. It was the second straight C-USA championship for ECU. Holtz reached up to slap hands with Pirate fans on the North side while twirling a towel in the ensuing celebration, but he soon departed for South Florida.
ECU’s next home game was Ruffin McNeill’s debut as head coach in 2010 and produced a 51-49 win over Tulsa on a Hail Mary from Dominique Davis to Justin Jones.
Later that season, there was more end-game magic as Damon Magazu intercepted Russell Wilson in overtime to preserve a 33-27 win over N.C. State.
I can still see back-up quarterback Kurt Benkert scampering into the end zone for the final touchdown in a 70-41 win over North Carolina in 2014.
The soon-to-be-gone pressbox has stood sentinel for some not-so-great moments as well — a student streaker, a national anthem protest and, of course, the Central Florida debacle in 2014. Lincoln Riley, then-offensive coordinator, took responsibility for clock mismanagement that allowed the Knights time to win 32-30 on a Hail Mary. Riley, of course, soon will be guiding Oklahoma into the College Football Playoffs with McNeill on his staff.
An era closed with the win over the Bearcats in the penultimate contest of 2017. Hopefully, that was a preview of more good things to come.