East Carolina fans can be excused if they feel as though they’ve climbed into a shiny DeLorean, revved it up to 88 MPH to generate the necessary 1.21 gigawatts of energy and been transported back to 1995.
With the return of Dave Hart as the de facto athletic director and the hiring of Joe Dooley to coach the men’s basketball program, the parallels to that more successful, more stable time in Pirates history are unmistakable.
The problem is that times, circumstance and conference affiliations have changed dramatically since the last time Hart and Dooley were together in Greenville. What was successful two decades ago wouldn’t work in today’s college athletic environment.
That’s why Hart is focused solely on looking ahead rather than behind as he conducts his six-month (or more) review of ECU’s athletic program under the title of special adviser to Chancellor Cecil Staton.
Bonesville’s Brett Friedlander recently conducted a wide-ranging interview with Hart that touched on a number of subjects important to Pirates fans.
Here, in the first installment of a multi-part series, are Hart’s thoughts and insights on his love for ECU, why he took the job, what exactly it entails and what it will take for the school to turn around its athletic fortunes:
Q: What specifically is your current role at ECU?
A: “What the chancellor has got me doing is a deep dive into all facets of our athletics program here. I try to come to Greenville and be on site for a week at a time and I’ll actually be here more than that in June. He and I talk very frequently as I’ve had a chance to visit with each and every unit. I’m in that process now. I’ve met with coaches. I’ve met with the new SGA president. I’ve always put a high priority on having open lines of communication with students and leaders on campuses where I’ve been. It’s about as detailed as you can possibly imagine.”
Q: You retired as AD at Tennessee about a year ago. What made you decide to come back?
A: “I had started an LLC, knowing how complex the profession has become today, to help coaches, ADs, presidents and chancellors. I’ve seen it all — the good, the bad and the ugly during my 35 years in athletic administration — and I wanted to put that experience to good use. I wanted to give back to the profession I’ve spent most of my adult life in, that my father spent most of his adult life in and now my son, who is the athletic director at SMU, is in.
“I was going in and assessing programs for their structure and efficiency, and doing some executive coaching as well. So when the chancellor reached out, I was more than honored to accept his offer to come aboard for six months, reboot the basketball search and once that search was completed, do a total assessment of the overall athletic program.”
Q: How much did your love for ECU and your connection to Greenville play into your decision to take on this assignment?
A: “It was extremely important. Because of my strong feelings for East Carolina, not only was I willing to do it, I was honored to do it. East Carolina gave me my first opportunity in a newly created position in marketing before that became fashionable. I didn’t know much about anything related to administration and (then-AD) Ken Carr rolled the dice. We raised all three of our kids here. I was more than happy to accept this opportunity.”
Q: Does it feel a little like Back to the Future with both you and Joe Dooley back together in Greenville?
A: “It’s definitely not 1995 again. Going into the search process, I didn’t know if Joe would take the job if it was offered. We reached out to five people, two of them were already in searches elsewhere and moving in that direction. We interviewed three people that I felt could do the job. We interviewed them all at our home (in Knoxville, TN), which is something I’ve liked to do throughout my career if it’s logistically feasible at all. We tried not to put them in a hotel so we could get to know them. When Joe came by the house, he knew that some pieces had been put into place, specifically the practice facility. He knew that being in the American was huge, because it’s the first [time for] East Carolina basketball that we’re not in a one-bid league.
“There was definitely a comfort level between us. We’d known each other and there was a genuine level of mutual respect and trust. So that worked out and the chancellor was very excited to have Joe come on board. I just think it’s a matter of circumstances and fit more than the Back to the Future thing. But Joe held East Carolina in the highest esteem as well. I think he and his family were anxious for the opportunity to return. Those factors came into play, but I don’t think those factors would have won the day if Joe wouldn’t have felt good about the opportunity to build a program here. And let me just say that it’s not going to be a quick fix by anybody’s stretch of anybody’s imagination. It’s going to take some time. But it will happen.”
Q: Why are you so confident that Dooley is such a good fit?
A: “Joe knows that this is still a grassroots place. You’ve got to be out there. You’ve got to be among our fan base, among the student body, among our donors. And it has to be genuine. It can’t be a forced environment. He’s got some great ideas of just how to reconnect. Believe me, he’ll be in the tailgate areas in a golf cart. It’s a whole lot easier to get people on board when they do witness that genuine effort to connect.”
Q: What’s the biggest challenge ECU athletics faces right now?
A: “We have financial challenges. That’s not a secret. We’ve got to get some planning done to wade into those challenges and give our coaches and our student-athletes the best opportunity to compete in the American, which is a really good league. It’s just a hair below the Power 5 leagues, with a lot of good teams.
“One thing we’ve got to do is make certain that our investment matches our expectations. That’s hard when you’re facing financial challenges. But we’ve got to do that. We can not operate on the same financial level we did in the old CAA and Conference USA. This requires more of an investment. We’ll get there. We don’t have a magic wand, we have to operate within our means. But we have to enhance those financial means to give ourselves a chance.”
Q: What are the chances you stay on beyond your current six-month deal?
A: “The chancellor has not broached that, but that was by design. He told me at the outset [that the objective] is to find the facts, present the facts and then advise him from that point. He wants me to have the time to do a complete and total and accurate assessment. So he’s not racing. There will come a time when he thinks it’s appropriate to have those type of conversations [about staying]. But no, we have not addressed that now. There’s a long way still to go before I’m ready to say here’s where we are, here’s how we can address the financial challenges.”
Q: So then you would be receptive to stay on?
A: “If I can help in any way possible, then I want to do that if the chancellor feels it’s in the best interest of the university, the athletic department and his mission as it relates to this.”