The years have been kind to Joe Dooley on and off the court since he exited as basketball coach at East Carolina.
Hairlines can recede and waist lines can expand with time, neither of which has happened to an appreciable degree with Dooley, who has the highest winning percentage at ECU among hoops coaches in the Division I era.
Since going 57-52 with the Pirates in four seasons culminating in 1999, Dooley has continued to win as an assistant at New Mexico, Wyoming and Kansas before proving himself as a head coach again at Florida Gulf Coast.
The highlights during his journey were a national championship with the Jayhawks in 2008 and two trips to the NCAA Tournament in five seasons at FGCU as he pushed his career record as a head coach to 171-110.
“It’s good to be home,” Dooley said Thursday as he stepped to the podium at Harvey Hall of the Murphy Center after his formal introduction from Dr. Cecil Staton, ECU chancellor, as basketball coach once again
The statement was more than a reach to win the press conference. Dooley’s parents, Joe and Margaret, have resided in the area since Dooley worked out of the old basketball office in the Ward Sports Medicine Building. Dooley’s son, Max, stayed with his paternal grandparents in September during a hurricane evacuation in Florida.
“In totality, the eight years here (as assistant and head coach) was a very good experience,” Dooley said. “Our family liked it here. It’s an exciting time, especially with some things the university wants to do.”
Staton noted that Dooley “checked all the boxes,” according to the recommendation of former ECU athletic director Dave Hart, who is working as a special advisor to the chancellor.
Hart interviewed Dooley at Hart’s home in Knoxville, TN, during the search process. Lee Workman, senior associate AD, was involved with the off-campus sessions with several candidates.
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Hart hired Dooley by proxy during his first stint with the Pirates. When Hart named Eddie Payne as coach, Payne made Dooley an assistant. Payne guided ECU to the Colonial Athletic Association tournament championship in 1993 for the Pirates’ second and most recent NCAA Tournament berth.
When Payne departed for Oregon State after Hart had left ECU to be the AD at Florida State, Dr. Henry Vansant, interim AD for the Pirates, promoted Dooley, then 29, to head coach.
The program has competed in the CAA, Conference USA and the American Athletic Conference since then.
“Joe likes the fact that the American is a multi-bid conference (to the NCAA Tournament),” Hart said. “It’s a little different from the one-bid situation where he’s been.”
Cincinnati, Houston and Wichita State received NCAA bids from the American this past season.
“Those are high levels programs and we’re going to have to recruit players who can compete with their guys,” Dooley said.
Dooley, a captain at George Washington as a player, knows that good talent is the primary factor that makes good coaches. He plans to center recruiting efforts in North Carolina and expand from Washington, D.C. to Atlanta as needed.
His initial recruiting efforts have started within the program, determining who among the existing personnel is committed to achieving success. Dooley met with current ECU players on Wednesday and Thursday.
The Pirates were 10-20 overall last season and 4-14 in the AAC, playing the bulk of the season under interim coach Michael Perry after Jeff Lebo resigned following the sixth game.
Dooley encouraged fans to come out and make Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum a difficult place for opponents to play.
Indications are that more resources may be available to the basketball program. Dooley’s total annual compensation is in the $900,000 range, according to one source.
“We’ll have to offer the level of support that is warranted to get where we want to go,” Hart said. “In basketball, we haven’t had a lot of tradition and success at a very high level.”
Dooley doesn’t know who he will be working for as far as the athletic director at ECU with the resignation of Jeff Compher.
“That’s obviously something that we’ll work through,” Dooley said. “I trust that the chancellor and Dave will pull this thing in the right direction and it will be fine.”
Hart said the possibility of his return as AD had not been discussed. He emphasized that was not part of his mission at present as special advisor to the chancellor. Hart also is evaluating structures and efficiencies within the athletic department for which Staton has requested feedback.
“Nobody knows exactly what the future holds, nobody on this earth,” Hart said. “I’m here in that role for six months.”
Hart also hired basketball coaches Leonard Hamilton at Florida State and Rick Barnes at Tennessee. Both programs won games in the most recent NCAA Tournament.
“Joe understands that this is a grassroots opportunity,” Hart said. “That was one of the things I loved about being at East Carolina. Joe will be among the student body. Joe will be out and among the fan base in Eastern North Carolina and the alumni with a very sincere and welcoming message. That is part of the fabric of East Carolina University.”
Staton noted that ECU still trails in the AAC in terms of financial strength but Dooley’s addition is in keeping with his vision for athletics and the university.
“All of us, within the administration, our board of trustees and, certainly, our fan base, we want our teams to be competitive in the American Conference,” Staton said. “It was a step up when we went to the American several years ago before I arrived.
“We are at a disadvantage because our average expenditures on athletics is $17 million lower than the average in our conference. So we start off with some disadvantages, but what we have as disadvantages we’re going to make up for in working smart and working hard, prioritizing our investments and our strategy.
“Then, really, just having good people. I can’t think of a better way to do that than to have Dave Hart on board. I’m so grateful. … His leadership is incredibly important because he’s done this at the highest levels. He knows ECU and our culture and our fan base.
“And then Coach Dooley, what a home run that is. He fits right in to the profile of what we’re looking for. These guys are going to help us take those first steps. Ultimately, the goal is to be competitive in the American Conference. Obviously, we’re having a great year with baseball thus far. I think Coach Dooley is going to get us on the right track in basketball. We’ve got work to do in football, but there are encouraging signs there. We’re looking forward to the campaign this fall.
“It’s ultimately, at the end of the day, about winning and being competitive.”
Staton wants ECU to be the next great national university. Dooley’s return will give the Pirates a vital element from which to build toward that objective.