One of the first things Joe Dooley did upon his triumphant return to Greenville last week was telling his new players to have their ring sizes ready.
It was a symbolic statement, since there’s a good chance everyone currently on East Carolina’s basketball roster will be gone by the time Dooley has the Pirates in a position to win anything worth commemorating with a ring.
But it was significant nonetheless.
Simply by walking in the door and proclaiming his intention to compete for championships, something he’s done consistently at Kansas and Florida Gulf Coast since his first tenure at ECU ended prematurely in 1999, the new Pirates coach raised the bar to a level that hasn’t been seen around the Pirates’ program in a long time.
In doing so, Dooley took the first steps toward the culture change needed to finally shake ECU’s long-suffering program from its seemingly endless doldrums.
“One of the big things is if you are not in it to win it, don’t play,” the 52-year-old New Jersey native said Wednesday during an uplifting introductory press conference. “I think that with our guys, it’s a challenge. If you challenge them to do things, they’ll raise their level of expectations and we need to raise that.
“I think that we have got to give our guys some confidence… I think that sometimes when your confidence isn’t great, you’ve got to go in there and build it, boost their confidence a little bit and get them thinking about big things. If you don’t think about big things, you can’t attain big things.”
That attitude and the fact that he was so happy to be back “home” to do a job few others would have even considered touching helped Dooley win the press conference in a rout. But then, all he had to do was show up wearing a purple tie and a smile to make a positive first impression.
Dooley is a popular choice with a track record that suggests he is the right man at the right time for the ECU job. But even with the support he currently has among Pirates fans and administrators, along with a resume that includes a national championship as an assistant to Bill Self at Kansas and two trips to the NCAA tournament with FGCU, its going to take more than just high expectations and motivational speeches to finally set ECU on a winning track.
For Dooley to succeed to the point in which championship rings are even a remote possibility in a conference as deep and talented as the American, it’s going to take a much higher caliber of player than the Pirates are used to attracting.
If anyone can succeed at bringing that kind of talent Greenville, it’s Dooley — who earned acclaim as one of the nation’s top recruiters during his days with the Jayhawks.
“I think the league is a high-level league,” the new ECU coach said. “Look at Wichita State and Cincinnati this year, as well as Houston, those are high-level teams. We’ve got to recruit guys that can compete with those guys, those teams. I do think we can recruit up and down (Interstate) 95, D.C., all the way through Atlanta, through South Carolina and then just relationship recruit. But, we need to have high-level players.”
Getting them on campus, however, is only half the battle.
Once those higher caliber players get to ECU, Dooley has to do a better job than his predecessor Jeff Lebo of keeping them there. To that end, his first recruiting job has to be on the foundational talent already on the roster, starting with AAC Rookie of the Year Shawn Williams and top incoming recruit Jayden Gardner.
Dooley has clearly hit the ground running and that’s a good thing considering that it’s not going to be an easy sell, at least at first, convincing recruits to come to a school with no appreciable tradition and only two winning records in the last 21 seasons.
It certainly helps that the sales pitch will now be delivered by a coach that has actually won at ECU — his .523 winning percentage from 1995-99 is still the highest in the school’s Division I era — and who was a member of the staff for the Pirates’ most recent NCAA tournament appearance in ‘93.
As special advisor Dave Hart said after finally pulling the trigger and making the hire, Dooley “checks all the boxes” when it comes to meeting the unique challenge of coaching basketball at ECU.
“He certainly understands the game of basketball and the grassroots nature of our alumni and fan base,” Chancellor Cecil P. Staton said. “He’s a great basketball coach but more importantly, he is a good person. We know that Coach Dooley is the coach who will be able to build a great men’s basketball program at ECU which will compete at the highest levels within the American Athletic Conference and beyond – making Pirate Nation proud and excited about the future of our program.”
It’s been a long time since anyone has been able to say that with real conviction. But while meaningful change won’t happen overnight, Dooley’s return to Greenville does provide reasonable hope that better days for ECU basketball may actually be on the way.
That’s a sentiment that sure has a nice ring to it.
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