Doug Groome of the Charlotte chapter of the Pirate Club said in March when East Carolina was there to take on the 49ers in baseball that the ECU fan base was hungry for wins.
A pair of 3-9 seasons in football have left a limp where there used to be a swagger.
The baseball Pirates are ranked in the top eight in the national polls. That’s Super Regional-hosting range. Since coach Cliff Godwin has curtailed talk about Omaha, it seems like ECU has become a solid contender to get there.
At 30-9 going into a home series with Houston that starts tonight, the Diamond Bucs have been providing the sort of outcomes the fan base can feast on.
There have been signals that baseball success may be something of a jump start across the board for Pirate athletics.
The hiring of alumnus David Blackwell as defensive coordinator provides hope for improvement in ECU’s flagship sport.
Dave Hart is back in an advisory role to Dr. Cecil Staton, an astute move by the chancellor, given Hart’s contributions in some of the Pirates’ glory days.
Hart hired winning football coaches Bill Lewis and Steve Logan. He worked with current American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco to make ECU a regular on ESPN in the previous millennium.
That exposure was a factor that helped the Pirates gain admission to Conference USA. Former chancellor Steve Ballard, a shortstop on a College World Series team from Arizona, brought in Terry Holland as athletic director in 2004. Holland put Skip Holtz in charge of the football program and that decision produced two C-USA championships.
Holland later turned to Ruffin McNeill, who was 42-34 at the Pirate helm before former athletic director Jeff Compher cut him loose.
That decision has coincided with the start of general struggles, competitively and financially, throughout ECU athletics.
But Hart is a difference maker. His choice for basketball coach, Joe Dooley, has won with the Pirates before and has gained valuable experience since he left Greenville.
Gaining ground in the AAC in football and basketball is no easy task, particularly when the Piratess lack the same degree of resources as some other league members.
But the example of the baseball team provides hope. A little success can turn hope into belief.
The belief factor was huge in 1991 when the Pirates had the kind of football team that would certainly be representative of Dr. Staton’s concept of ECU as the next great national university.
Hart knows what it takes from the bygone days of glory at ECU as well as his tenures as athletic director at Florida State and Tennessee.
“Dave’s been great for us,” said ECU baseball coach Cliff Godwin. “I’m just excited about the future of ECU athletics. I think Dave Hart and what he has brought to East Carolina athletics for the brief time he’s been here, we’re moving in the right direction, which we needed to.
“What we have done over here in baseball is just what we do every day. It doesn’t matter if we have an athletic director or not. You just try to get better every day and I think our guys have done that. We just need to continue to do that.”
Godwin is a passionate supporter of his alma mater’s football program. He played quarterback at Greene Central in Snow Hill.
“When things are going well, I mean there’s not a better place to be on a Saturday than Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium,” Godwin said. “As a student when I was here, Steve Logan was the coach. … On Saturdays, the environment and the experience you had as a student-athlete to hang out with your teammates and your friends and go to the game and it was packed. That’s the thing that I remember the most.”
Godwin is in his fourth season as head coach in baseball. He guided the Pirates to a Super Regional at Texas Tech in 2016. He knows the value of fan support in football.
“Even since I’ve been back, when we played North Carolina and N.C. State here at home, just the passion and the fans,” Godwin said. “We need the fans to get back on board and to come back out and support us. The kids are trying. It’s not like they’re not trying. Nobody wants to lose. The more support we can have in that stadium, it’s the better.”
Fan support translates in baseball, too.
“We’ve played well this year,” Godwin said. “We’ve put ourselves in a good situation. We’ve got to continue to play well. I can tell you this — one of the reasons that we beat South Florida on that Friday night was the crowd and how loud they were on that Friday night in the second inning when Nick Barber was hitting.
“The more people we can get in here and the louder they can be and the more Purple/Gold chants we can get going, it’s a better home field advantage. It makes it a tough place to play.”
Virus plaguing Pirates
The bug that had bitten so many ECU players over the last several weeks got Godwin in Memphis.
“If we can get rid of this 24-hour virus that just seems to get one person a day . . . , “Godwin said. “Turner Brown was sick Friday. Sam Lanier was sick Friday last week when we were playing Memphis. Turner played on Friday and Saturday, but just wasn’t 100 percent feeling well. I got it on Saturday night and couldn’t even come back with the team on Sunday because I didn’t want to get anybody sick. . . . Brady Lloyd was sick yesterday. If we can get that out of here, I think we’ll be in good shape.
“Our guys have handled any injuries that we’ve had, well, and just kept moving forward. Other guys have stepped up and just done what they’re supposed to do.”
Godwin has a great deal of respect for Mount Olive baseball coach Carl Lancaster, who announced he will step down from that position after 31 years at the conclusion of the 2018 season. Lancaster guided the Trojans to a 58-6 record and the NCAA Division II championship in 2008.
“He actually recruited me to play baseball at Mount Olive when I was coming out of high school,” Godwin said. “Great baseball guy. He’s given a lot to North Carolina baseball. Obviously, North Carolina baseball holds a special place in my heart. The guys I think about when I think of Carl Lancaster, I think of Rabbit Fulghum (former Greene Central coach), George Whitfield (Goldsboro clinic and hall of fame icon), guys who have been around here for a long time and given back to North Carolina baseball. He’s a guy I respect a ton and what he’s done at Mount Olive. He’s had a hall of fame career at Mount Olive.”
Chris Holba (9-0) will toss the first pitch against the Cougars at Clark-LeClair Stadium tonight at 6:30 p.m.
“We’re going Holba, [Alec] Burleson, [Tyler] Smith,” Godwin said of his rotation for the series with Houston.. “Agnos was going to start on Tuesday (at N.C. State — canceled). Agnos and Trey Benton will be available this weekend. We don’t have a midweek game next week because of exams. We start exams [Thursday]. They’ll be done next Thursday.”
The term student-athlete has real meaning in the baseball program
“A lot of the credit goes to the kids for buying in to the culture that we have here academically,” Godwin said. “Rebecca Wade is our academic advisor. All of our coaches have academic teams. All of our assistant coaches are responsible for eight or nine guys. They make sure that guys are doing what they need to be doing in the classroom.
“The kids have to put in the work. They’re the ones that have to go to class — have to pay attention, take notes and study.
“What our guys have done in the classroom, especially over the past two years is remarkable. They had a 3.5 GPA (grade point average) last fall. All 35 guys above a 3.1. That’s really impressive. I’m just so proud of the amount of time and effort they put in.
“That’s going to be the most important thing that they carry out of East Carolina is their education.”
Key vs. Houston
Godwin was succinct when asked about keys this weekend.
“Play well,” he said. “When we show up and have good intensity and energy and we execute, then normally we come out on the positive side. If we go out there and do what we’ve done for the most part this year, I think we’ll be OK.”