Sometimes the most profound answer to a question is also the simplest.
Everyone in the Pirate Nation wants to believe in a dramatic turnaround for the East Carolina basketball program. As new head coach Joe Dooley has hired a seasoned staff and put his players through a grueling summer strength and conditioning regimen, fans and boosters want to believe that the new leadership has determined the formula, the magic dust that will bring a severely depleted program into the space occupied by teams that have forged fairytale routes to the NCAA Tournament.
So what is Dooley’s plan? What is the secret that will provide the building materials for the monument to excellence he and top assistants Raphael Chillious and Steve Roccaforte have envisioned?
“It’s all about players,” new ECU assistant Steve Roccaforte said on Tuesday. “That’s what it is.”
It’s about the current players, the two upperclassmen and nine underclassmen pushing their bodies and lungs to new limits within the Smith-Williams Center this summer.
Dooley has some very specific basketball and fitness goals for these Pirates, but they boil down to drilling fundamentals and building confidence. The summer months have hinged on strength and conditioning, and Dooley likes the transformation he has seen so far.
“We had four guys over twenty percent body fat (when we started), and now everyone is under ten, with one exception, and he’s only been here a couple of weeks,” Dooley said. “I think when guys start seeing their bodies change, they buy in more to a strength and conditioning program. It’s not just getting bigger and stronger, but I think also strength and conditioning is injury prevention. And when you can keep guys on the court, and you can get them back quicker, those are all important factors.”
With senior Isaac Fleming as the only upperclassmen who has seen playing time for the Pirates, Dooley is looking for vocal leadership to emerge within what he calls a quiet group. But the key to developing on-court leaders is preparation in the big and small aspects of the game, he said, and that relentless preparation will bring an infusion of the confidence that eroded through the difficult 2017-’18 campaign.
“Their effort has gotten a lot better,” he said. “The biggest thing is getting them to compete at a high level. Everything we do is competitive. We do shooting drills that are competitive. If we can figure out how to do stretching competitive we will.”
It’s also about the future players, the ones in the crosshairs of Dooley, Roccaforte, Raphael Chillious and the rest of the staff as they recruit first in North Carolina, and then strategically throughout the region. It’s first and foremost about the men traveling that recruiting trail, touting the advantages of a school that at least one of them (Roccaforte) has only called home for less than a week. But the heart of the effort is Dooley, whose passionate belief in what they are building in Greenville is easy to sell.
“It’s relationship-based,” said Roccaforte, who took off on a three-day recruiting trip just days after arriving at ECU. “I think people that know Joe, people that know me, people that know our coaches, you’ve got to go to those. It’s all about players. That’s what it is. As you lose players and you get guys who are three, four, times better than those guys, you’re going to get better in a hurry.”
As Dooley assembled his staff, he was looking for coaching pedigree (the big names Roccaforte and Chillious have worked with include John Calipari, Jay Wright, Lorenzo Romar and Buzz Williams) as well as regional recruiting expertise. Roccaforte’s last stop, Virginia Tech, targeted the same geographical footprint as East Carolina, and Chillious has established strong ties in the Delaware-Maryland-Virginia Eastern corridor.
Chillious was taken with Dooley’s persistence — he told him he would call every day until Chillious agreed to join the Pirate staff — and also with the challenge of being part of a reclamation project. In 2003, he and his wife visited South Kent School in Connecticut, where he was interviewing to become the basketball coach and co-athletic director. The gym had wooden basketball goals, the program was at a low place, and his wife wondered out loud if he really wanted to take on such a formidable challenge.
“I remembered then what my grandma used to tell me: ‘Dry wood burns the best,’ ” Chillious said. “And it couldn’t get any drier. That’s not to say it’s the same here, but there’s a thirst to be good. And I’ve known Joe for a long time, I know how passionate he is, and how passionate he is about this place.
“We have people at the top who believe in what we can do here, we have a plan of how to play and how to get recruits on board.”
It’s all about the people — the ones taking the court today, the ones planning visits in the fall and the men tasked with turning them into a team with a habit of winning.