It was all but inevitable, given the immediate reaction of Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock, that the Hokies would eventually cancel their future football dates at East Carolina as retaliation for the Pirates choosing the safety of their players over their scheduled game in Blacksburg last September.
Last week, just three days before Christmas, Babcock finally made it official by announcing that Tech would not travel to Greenville to play next season. He also indicated that his school would cancel contracted meetings at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in 2023 and 2025.
The Pirates and Hokies have games in Blacksburg scheduled for 2020, 2022 and 2024. But despite Babcock’s disingenuous assertion that “if East Carolina still wants to come up here and play we will happily host them,” it’s almost certain that’ll never happen.
The cancellations signal an end to what was once a mutually beneficial rivalry that saw the teams from neighboring states play one another 10 times in an 11-year stretch from 2007-2017.
It’s a series that came about, in part, because of the respect former Tech coach Frank Beamer had for the Pirates’ and ECU’s long-standing desire to increase the profile of its traditionally successful program.
“When you find a team that you can schedule long-term like we have with East Carolina,” Beamer said in 2015, “it’s a real, real plus.”
Times and circumstances change, however. And the dynamic of the relationship between ECU and Virginia Tech became dramatically altered the moment Beamer announced his retirement and walked away two seasons ago.
At that point it was only a matter of time before the Hokies began looking elsewhere for their future football opponents. All they needed was an excuse to get out of their contract with the Pirates.
They got it courtesy of Mother Nature.
Hurricane Florence made a direct hit on the coastline of Eastern North Carolina, doing $17 billion in damage and killing 41 people in the state. The ensuing flooding closed Interstate 40 and some other thoroughfares in the region for an extended period.
And yet, despite the dangers the approaching storm presented — and the fact that North Carolina, N.C. State, South Carolina and other schools throughout the region had already cancelled their games — Babcock criticized ECU for relocating to the safety of Orlando, FL, rather than traveling to Virginia to play as scheduled.
He issued a statement saying that it would have been “more responsible and accurate” to wait until Florence got closer to landfall before cancelling the game. That was followed closely by a post on Tech’s official Twitter account questioning the Pirates’ motives for not playing.
ECU eventually scheduled a makeup game at N.C. State on Dec. 1. While the Hokies recouped the home date they lost by playing Marshall that same day, they were still able to use the Pirates’ cancellation as an excuse to sever their ties with them.
The truth is, as Babcock admitted to the Richmond Times-Dispatch last week, that the future of the ECU-Virginia Tech series would have been in doubt with or without the help of a killer hurricane.
“It had somewhat been on our mind in previous years,” Babcock told the newspaper. “Obviously, with the miscommunication and situation this year, it gave us the chance to sit back and evaluate our schedule.”
Babcock’s use of the word “miscommunication” is interesting, considering that the only miscommunication involved with last September’s cancellation had to do with the motives of the two schools’ athletic programs.
Newly hired ECU athletic director Jon Gilbert called Tech out for its apparent callousness by issuing a statement suggesting that while his school was more concerned with the safety of its players, coaches and fans, Tech was only interested in the financial benefits of playing a home football game.
“ECU’s decision not to travel to Blacksburg last September was based on imminent safety concerns related to Hurricane Florence, which tragically claimed multiple fatalities and devastated many North Carolina communities that are still in the recovery process today,” Gilbert said. “Ultimately, the decision was made for the safety and welfare of our student-athletes, coaches, staff and their families and that will always be our top priority.”
Gilbert added that he was disappointed the Pirates’ “long-standing partnership” with Tech is apparently coming to an end. But while it might look as though Babcock is the Grinch for putting coal in ECU’s stocking around Christmastime, he’s actually given Gilbert and new coach Mike Houston a valuable gift in the opportunity to fill open spots on their upcoming schedules.
There was a time in which ECU needed games against the likes of Virginia Tech, South Carolina, West Virginia and Florida to make a little money and steal a few minutes in the national spotlight.
That’s not the case since the Pirates upgraded their affiliation from Conference USA to the much more competitive American Athletic Conference. Faced with a significantly tougher league slate year in and year out, ECU can now afford to use at least three of its four nonconference dates on opponents more conducive to producing winning records and bowl bids.
It’s a process that can begin sooner rather than later — as early as next fall, in fact — thanks to Virginia Tech’s decision to end a relationship that continues to be a “real plus-plus” situation even as it’s in the process of being dissolved.