As if it wasn’t already obvious enough to anyone who knows the difference between Greenville, North Carolina and it’s namesake South of the border, a recent event confirmed East Carolina’s status as an elite national baseball program.
And no, it wasn’t the 44 wins this year’s team rang up, the NCAA regional the Pirates just hosted or the loyal legion of fans whose support and enthusiasm at Clark-LeClair Stadium made such a positive impression on ESPN’s tournament broadcasts — though none of those hurt.
Rather, it was the one paragraph statement coach Cliff Godwin issued last week, a few days after his team’s season-ending loss to UNC-Wilmington.
“Each of the past three seasons has generated interest from Power 5 programs,” Godwin said in the release. “There is too much unfinished business here at ECU. I love this team and program!”
In other words, Godwin has turned down another offer from a traditional college baseball power to stay at his alma mater.
Two years ago after leading the Pirates to a Super Regional and within 90 feet of a trip to the College World Series in Omaha, he said thanks but no thanks to Alabama when officials there approached him about their coaching opening.
This time it was another SEC team, Mississippi State, that is reported to have come calling.
Godwin has ties to the Magnolia State, having served as an assistant coach at Ole Miss before returning to ECU in 2015, and his resume — including a .632 winning percentage as a head coach — is certainly strong enough to warrant such high-profile consideration. So the fit would have made sense had he decided to pursue the opportunity.
But he didn’t.
It would be easy to dismiss Godwin’s decision to stay at ECU as simply an act of loyalty toward the school at which he played.
He does take his stewardship of former coach Keith LeClair’s legacy very seriously. He wears the same No. 23 as LeClair and is fully committed to fulfilling his old coach’s goal of getting the Pirates to Omaha.
He has become a popular and well-known figure around campus through his “Cliff’s Cab” endeavor.
The old college spirit, however, only goes so far.
Although he received a modest raise after Alabama’s flirtation and could very well get another one thanks to Mississippi State’s reported interest, he could easily have doubled his current salary — if not more — had he chosen to take the money and run.
One of the reasons he didn’t is because he stands just as realistic a chance at winning a national title at ECU as he does at one of those SEC schools.
The Pirates already have a top-of-the line stadium in Clark-LeClair and it’s only getting better with the addition of a new indoor hitting facility currently under construction. They have a rabid fan following, play in a competitive conference that had a higher RPI than both the Pac-12 and Big Ten this season, and boast a tradition of sustained success that includes 13 NCAA tournament appearances in 18 seasons since 2000.
And they have a leader that Dave Hart, the man currently in charge of the athletic department, described as an “an upper, upper, upper level baseball coach.”
It’s a combination that has helped ECU go head-to-head on even terms with higher-profile in-state rivals UNC and NC State — both on the playing field and in the recruiting battles for top North Carolina talent.
Just look at this year’s roster.
No fewer than 22 players were homegrown products, including American Athletic Conference Player of the Year Bryant Packard (from Greenville), Rookie Pitcher of the Year Alec Burleson (Denver, in Lincoln County) and Dwanya Williams-Sutton (Wilson), the newly minted fifth round draft pick of the San Diego Padres.
With a strong nucleus of returning players and another highly rated recruiting class set to arrive in the fall, there is no reason why the Pirates can’t build on this year’s success and accomplish even more in 2019.
Perhaps even a mid-June trip to Omaha.
While every college player and coach starts the season with that same expectation, it’s a goal only few can realistically hope to achieve. And it’s why Cliff Godwin is still at ECU.
There’s no reason to leave for an elite program when you’re already at one.