Thursday marks Wichita State’s first ever men’s basketball visit to Minges Coliseum as a member of the American Athletic Conference.
It’s a significant occasion and not just because the Shockers are currently ranked ninth in both major polls. Or that, like Gonzaga and Butler, they have successfully made the difficult transition from plucky mid-major to one of the nation’s elite.
Rather, it’s because of the living, breathing, dribbling example they present for ECU officials on the possibilities that exist when an administration makes a true and complete commitment to building a successful program.
This is not to suggest that the Pirates will ever rise to the same level as its new conference rival or that any kind of drastic improvement will happen quickly or easily. But it is possible to, at the very least, become more than just than the AAC’s version of the Washington Generals.
And the Shockers have laid out a successful roadmap on how to do it.
While it’s true that Wichita State had more of a basketball tradition than ECU, with four NCAA tournament appearances during the 1980s, it was a similarly stagnant program languishing in the shadow of a perennial national power (Kansas) when it produced only two winning seasons during a 12-year stretch between 1989-2001.
Unwilling to accept losing as an inevitable fate, then-athletic director Jim Schaus began the culture-changing process that would ultimately lead the Shockers to a Final Four and a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed.
It was an undertaking that, as is the case with most major projects, required money.
A lot of money, enough to finance everything from recruiting to competitive facilities and eventually, a top-notch coach willing to stick around awhile rather than looking at the job as a quick way to climb the career ladder.
A pile of cash that big is often the obstacle that prevents many athletic directors and university presidents from fully endorsing such a building effort.
But not Schaus.
Understanding that nothing inspires donors to reach for their checkbooks faster than a winning team, Schaus’s first step on the road to basketball relevance was to hire a coach competent enough to put a competitive product on the court.
In his case, it was Mark Turgeon, who after seven increasingly more successful seasons, gave way to current coach Gregg Marshall in 2007 to complete the ascent to the upper reaches of the college basketball universe.
Wichita State has reached such lofty heights both competitively and financially that Marshall — who makes $3.5 million a year — has turned down jobs that many would consider to be better in order to stay with the Shockers.
So how does that affect ECU?
That all depends on how athletic director Jeff Compher handles the hire he’ll have to make at the end of the current season.
If he’s truly serious about making the commitment necessary to pull the Pirates out of a malaise that has produced only two winning seasons in the last two DECADES, then he needs to set the bar high in his search for his Mark Turgeon.
Think Cliff Godwin rather than Scottie Montgomery.
He must reject the standard excuses that ECU is devoid of basketball tradition, that it is irrevocably handicapped by its location and the proximity of neighboring ACC powers, and that its fan base just doesn’t care about the sport. You’ll be surprised how much fans will start to care once they’re given something to care about.
In many ways, Compher and the Pirates are in a more advantageous situation now than Schaus and Wichita State were in 1999 when they faced a similar crossroads.
ECU has already made a commitment to facilities — and to prospective recruits — by building a new state-of-the-art practice court to supplement an already-better-than-average game day environment at Minges Coliseum.
It has enough money — thanks in part to former coach Jeff Lebo’s decision to take himself off the payroll by resigning — to afford a qualified coach with a strong knowledge of the game, the integrity to do things the right way, the patience to see the process through and the proven ability to recruit under difficult circumstances and retain those players once they arrive.
Hiring a leader with those qualities won’t be easy, but it’s not impossible. And while putting the right coach in place won’t magically cure the ills that have plagued the Pirates for as long as most of us can remember or produce the level of success Wichita State has achieved, no meaningful or lasting improvement can begin to take place until it happens.