If you repeat something enough times, with enough certainty, it will eventually be perceived as reality.
So it is with East Carolina and the widely-held belief that the Pirates can’t truly be successful in basketball because of Greenville’s small size, its off-the-beaten-path location and the fact that it is surrounded by some of the nation’s best, most high-profile programs.
Joe Dooley has heard those “reasons” so many times since returning to ECU last April, he can recite them by heart. But that doesn’t mean he accepts them as fact.
Instead, he’d prefer to talk about why Greenville’s size and location can work in its favor in attracting the kind of talent necessary to build a successful program. And if anyone should know about the subject it’s Dooley, who is still the only coach in school history to post a winning career record while with the Pirates.
“People say that Greenville is not a huge town, but you look at some of these other places where college towns are — Blacksburg, Clemson, Lawrence, Kansas, Storrs, Connecticut — they’re not big cities either, and they’ve done pretty well,” said Dooley, who compiled a 57-52 record in his first term at ECU from 1995-99 before becoming one of the victims of Mike Hamrick’s disastrous reign as athletic director.
“Have you ever been to Stillwater, Oklahoma? There’s a lot of similarities and those are some of the things we’re going to try to draw from. Manhattan, Kansas. Those guys have all figured it out. We’ve got to figure it out.”
It’s a mystery that begins and ends with recruiting.
The only way a program can reach its full potential, regardless of where it’s located, is by having talented players on the roster. According to Dooley, there are plenty enough of them to go around. It’s just a matter of identifying who they are and creating an appropriate sales pitch to get them to come.
In ECU’s case, that means narrowing the scope of the search rather than casting a wider net and wasting time and effort pursuing players the Pirates have little chance of signing. During a recent summer press conference, Dooley spelled out the criteria he’s targeting in potential recruits — talented, solid academically, coachable, but most of all, someone who enjoys living and playing in a smaller, college town environment.
To that end, Dooley has filled his staff with two assistants that have successfully recruited under similar circumstances and limitations.
Raphael Chillious comes to ECU from American Athletic Conference rival Connecticut, where he served as associate head coach and helped Kevin Ollie assemble a top-25 class. Steve Roccaforte, meanwhile, was part of a Virginia Tech staff under Buzz Williams that built the Hokies from the ground up into a team that posted three straight 20-win seasons and back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances.
“For Raphael having been in our league and Roc having been in the ACC, they understand the type of recruiting we need to do and what it takes to be successful at a high level,” Dooley said. “The blueprint for ours is very similar. We’re a little bit off the beaten path, so you have to figure out what type of guy you’re going to recruit, where you’re going to recruit from, who wants to be in a college town. We talk about it all the time.”
Though the new Pirates’ staff has only be out on the road a short time, Chillious said he’s encouraged by the reception he’s gotten from both the players he’s talked to and their parents.
“You really realize that this is a place that if you cultivate things the right way it’s really a sleeping monster,” Chillious said. “We’re getting a lot of great reception from kids out of the state who didn’t know about East Carolina. We knew them and the people around them and got them excited. That’s the number one thing. You get people excited here about where we want to go.”
Dooley said the key to doing that is accentuating the positives Greenville and ECU have to offer, rather than dwelling on the things they aren’t.
Among them are a state-of-the-art practice facility, a respected head coach, a supportive community, a fan base desperate for a winning team to back and, most of all, a competitive conference that provides postseason opportunities for more than just one team per season.
“It’s not a single-bid league anymore,” Dooley said. “You look at four guys drafted last year. We had two four seeds, which means that Cincinnati and Wichita State were top 16 in the country. We can sell that. If you get to the top half of our league you’re in a postseason tournament. We need to get that out a little more.
“We need to sell those things about our league. Our practice facility is great. Our weight room is great, now come be part of something we’re trying to build.”
While the staff’s focus has been on building for the future through the 2019 and 2020 recruiting classes, they’ve also done a good job of stocking the roster with promising young players for the upcoming season.
While the foundation of the 2018-19 Pirates will be guards Isaac Fleming and Shawn Williams — the AAC’s Rookie of the Year — along with long-awaited Virginia Tech transfer Seth LeDay, the bulk of the team will be comprised of freshmen.
Dooley said he’s excited about the progress the players have made during the Pirates’ offseason workouts and is anxious to begin the process of changing the perception of his program.
“Everybody says it’s a hard job. East Carolina is hard. (But) every job I’ve been at as is hard,” said Dooley, who served an apprenticeship under Bill Self at Kansas before going on to a successful run as head coach at Florida Gulf Coast. “I think the guys are excited about the challenge.”