It was April 7, 2008, hours after Kansas had captured its first national title in twenty years, and as the fever pitch died down Jayhawks head coach Bill Self had a memorable conversation with his assistant coach Joe Dooley, who had come to KU when Self took over five years earlier.
“Coach,” Dooley said to his boss, “We’ve got to find a way to do this again.”
As Dooley enjoyed the view from the apex of his sport, he was just over a decade removed from his career low point, when he was fired as the head coach at East Carolina after compiling a 57-52 record in five seasons.
In a way that is characteristic of the best in the profession, Dooley responded to that blow by licking his wounds briefly and then searching for an assistant coaching post. He removed himself as far from Eastern North Carolina as possible, assisting first at New Mexico for three seasons and then at Wyoming for one before Self, who Dooley had met on the recruiting trail when Self was at Tulsa, came calling with an opportunity to work at one of college basketball’s premier programs.
On Thursday Dooley, who spent ten years at Kansas before leading Florida Gulf Coast to five straight 21-win seasons and two NCAA appearances, will be introduced as East Carolina’s 15th basketball coach.
Of course, Dooley was also the ninth head coach, offering him that rarest of opportunities — the chance to rewrite an unhappy ending. It’s a do-over that many in the Pirate Nation have hoped for since 1999, when Dooley left town just a few months before Hurricane Floyd ravaged Eastern North Carolina.
Just as the effects of that catastrophic storm are still felt in pockets of the region today, the debris from years of basketball disappointments have piled up and left a disillusioned fan base wondering if Pirate hoops can ever rise above mediocrity and unlucky breaks.
The Pirate Nation has long looked for one big win to give them reason for hope, and they got it when Dooley, who has been the first choice of many Pirates since the search began, said yes this week. Despite the unceremonious ending to his last stint in Greenville, he is still the winningest coach in ECU Division I history.
Known as a masterful recruiter and emotional leader who has experienced the college game at every level, Dooley is older and plenty wiser than he was when he went west before the turn of the century. When he left Kansas for the top job at FGCU five years ago, Self described him as “a guy who’s unbelievably well connected … a guy with a lot of personality that’s extremely tough. He gives me more ideas than anybody that we can potentially implement to help our team.”
Starting Thursday, Dooley will unleash those ideas — and his practiced habit of winning — on a fan base that needs it perhaps more than any other fan base in the nation.
After a circuitous path across the country and more than twenty years of triumphs and struggles, Dooley stands at a podium today in purple as a picture of a man who sees the value of a do-over. Together, he and the Pirate Nation will remove the debris from too many ECU hoops disappointments and re-imagine a world of packed Minges home games — a time when March can still stretch out as a hopeful adventure for the Pirate basketball fan.
At long last, Joe Dooley has found a way to do this again.