From a hotel room in Indianapolis, where Tennessee is preparing to launch its bid in the NCAA Tournament, Michael Schwartz was introduced Wednesday as East Carolina’s new basketball coach.
“We’re looking forward to welcoming Mike and his wife, Stephanie and his two daughters, Sydney and Samantha to Greenville and meet all of Pirate Nation at the appropriate time,” said ECU athletic director Jon Gilbert after the board of trustees had approved the hire. “Obviously, Mike is still on staff at the University of Tennessee, getting ready to play this weekend in the NCAA tournament. And so he will be joining us after the fact, but really excited about where that is going to take us.”
The delay in taking over the program is reminiscent of Scottie Montgomery’s arrival as football coach after the 2015 season when Montgomery remained with Duke for the Pinstripe Bowl, but with a significant difference. Gilbert apparently identified Schwartz quickly, maybe even locked in on him before making the move to dismiss Joe Dooley on Friday.
Former AD Jeff Compher settled on Montgomery after some bigger names with head coaching experience declined to be candidates.
Gilbert knew Schwartz at Tennessee when Gilbert was an athletic administrator for the Volunteers. It’s hard to fathom that the ECU AD doesn’t have some insight into Schwartz’s potential through his son, Kent Gilbert, a sophomore walk-on for the Vols.
If this season’s basketball turnaround at Wake Forest is any indication, a Tennessee connection can be productive. Wake AD John Currie brought in Steve Forbes after getting to know him in Knoxville.
That the transition had to come at Joe Dooley’s expense is unfortunate. Dooley was a hoops workaholic who deserved better than to be jettisoned in 1999, the first time he was at ECU. Dooley’s second stint with the Pirates was marred by COVID-generated personnel absences, injuries and exits through the transfer portal.
Gilbert’s decision must have come down to extending Dooley’s contract after four years and a 15-15 season in 2021-22 or opening the door for one of the nation’s most promising assistants. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes had said that Schwartz has had other opportunities to fulfill his desire to be a head coach.
Coincidentally, Barnes’ coach at Lenoir-Rhyne was Bob Hodges. Schwartz had done enough homework for Wednesday’s Zoom session to know that Hodges is ECU’s all-time leading scorer.
“Mike is highly regarded in the basketball industry,” Gilbert said. “I really feel like we’re fortunate to have him on board to lead the program. He has an infectious personality and he brings a lot of enthusiasm and positive energy daily. He really is going to emphasize accountability, academics, player development. He and I talked long about engaging our community and region and making sure that we build a program for us to sustain success.
“He really emphasizes the player development piece. There are a number of student athletes over the years that are not as highly recruited that Mike has done a really good job of developing from a player development standpoint, which is a key factor.”
The Eastern North Carolina region has produced some great players but ECU has not been able to attract players like Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins or Jerry Stackhouse over the years. Developing players with upside becomes a priority.
Purple and gold
Schwartz was wearing a purple Pirate pullover as he met with media online. Purple and gold are the colors of the Los Angeles Lakers, for whom Schwartz must have pulled for growing up.
“Really, really excited about this opportunity. And I’ll say this, I’m going to start with this,” said the new coach. “Many of you may or may not know that I’m from Los Angeles, born and raised. I grew up dreaming about being in the purple and gold. I dreamt about it. There was a passion for the purple and gold and little would I know that many, many years later that I would be in the purple and gold living the dream out.
“That’s exactly what this is. And to be able to have an opportunity to lead the men’s basketball program of East Carolina University, my wife, Stephanie, my two daughters as Jon alluded to, we’re so thrilled to be a part of Pirate Nation and just cannot wait to get our feet on the ground in Greenville. Obviously, with that being said, at the moment it’s all Tennessee and all orange right now.”
The Vols meet Longwood in the first round today (CBS, 2:45 p.m.).
Schwartz acknowledged ECU’s leadership and expressed his appreciation to Gilbert and Dr. Philip Rogers, chancellor, for the opportunity at hand.
Schwartz has witnessed the supportive atmosphere in Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum as an assistant at Tulsa. He has recruited in Eastern North Carolina and throughout the state.
He did a facetime with ECU players on Wednesday as well. He is looking forward to Eastern barbecue. He was impressed that Gilbert drove to Knoxville to meet him Sunday night after Tennessee topped Texas A&M in Tampa for the Southeastern Conference tournament championship.
Schwartz talked about ECU’s potential as a national brand.
Schwartz is looking forward to being part of the athletic community at ECU.
“I am an avid sports fan,” Schwartz said. “My wife would probably call me a sports nut and I love it. I love college athletics. I love the whole intensity and competition of college athletics, all sports. And I’m really fired up about Coach (Mike) Houston and the Pirate football program, Coach (Kim) McNeill and the women’s basketball program, Coach (Cliff) Godwin, and the baseball program. My daughter loves soccer and Coach (Gary) Higgins and the soccer program, so I just can’t wait to get to Greenville and get a chance to experience the awesome fan base and go to football games and baseball games and just be a part of the community. Just be a part of the ECU Pirate athletics community. I want to make it better any way I can, but I want to be a part of it. And I’m just excited to be in the trenches with everybody in the athletic department and all the coaches in the athletic department.”
Schwartz talked about foundational elements of success.
“A great program has an opportunity to produce good teams on a year-in and year-out basis,” Schwartz said. “A good team, or even a great team doesn’t necessarily mean a great program. So our emphasis is going to be the culture of building a great program. The four cornerstones for me, the foundation, the pillars that we are going to build this program around at ECU are going to be this, the character of the people who we bring into the program, coaches, players, staff, anyone associated with our program, the character of them is going to be paramount. The competitiveness. The second pillar will be our competitiveness. You cannot be successful in athletics, competitive sports, or in our opinion, our staff’s opinion in life without a competitive spirit. So the competitiveness and the competitive spirit of our players, coaches, staff, and that is not just on the court. That is on the court, that is in the classroom, that is in the community. We have to aspire to be the best. There’s going to be a very high standard in everything we do.
“The third is going to be our work ethic. Jon alluded to this in his introduction. He talked about the player development piece. Player development, again, goes well beyond just the court. That will be very strong. There will be a huge emphasis on the development of our players as basketball players in between the lines. But as a person, as a human being, as a student, as a part of the Greenville community and surrounding area, that is equally as important if not more important, the development of them. And the only way to develop is if you have a strong work ethic.
“I learned that a long time ago from my family growing up. I look forward to sharing that with you, my history of how I grew up in Los Angeles and my background. You can’t develop without a strong work ethic. So that goes for us as a team, that goes for us as individuals, it goes for our players, coaches, staff. And the last piece that is going to be very important to the building of our program is going to be humility. And I shared this with the guys. I really believe confidence is such an important aspect of sports, of competing, of life. We want our young men, our student athletes, to be very confident in everything they do. They should walk around with their shoulder up. They should be proud. They should be proud of what they’re doing. They should be proud and honored to be an ECU Pirate. They should be proud and confident communicating with the community. They should be proud of attacking the classroom to get the best grades they can to set themself up for a bright future. So we want great confidence.
“The fine line right now is great confidence and entitlement, and that’s where humility comes in. And that is going to be something that is going to be talked about. It is going to be emphasized. And it’s going to be something that we are really going to live by within our program is the humility of the personnel in our program; coaches, players, staff. We want to be a very confident group of guys, a very confident program, but we’re going to do it all with humility. And again, that is on and off the court.
“And the last emphasis that will bring all this together is the communication. I’m a very optimistic, positive person by nature. That is who I’m going to be, that’s who I’m always going to be. And I believe that needs to be expressed out into the community. And I want our players to be the same. There’s going to be a strong emphasis within our program to have great communication and have great engagement in the community of Greenville and the surrounding areas. The basketball culture in North Carolina to me is second to none. I mean, I’ve been a part of some great state cultures in terms of high school athletics and prep athletics. I liken the high school basketball and prep in North Carolina to what Texas high school football is, to what Indiana high school basketball is. I believe it is every bit as strong and one of the very strongest in the country. And our job as a coaching staff at ECU is going to be, to be really engaged with that community. Both the basketball community and the non basketball community. But we are going to endear ourself to Greenville, the surrounding areas. You look down the road, two million people in the triangle.”
While some may look at what the Pirates lack in terms of basketball resources, Schwartz spun the situation differently.
“I’ve had a chance, five different programs to be a part of building NCAA tournament teams,’ Schwartz said. “And I’ve seen it from a lot of different angles and I’ve seen it at different levels, not just the high major level. I’ve seen it. Here’s what I know we do have at ECU. We have great leadership. That is really important. Starting from Chancellor Rogers, to Jon Gilbert, to Ryan Robinson, Caroline Bevillard, I know there is great leadership there.
“I alluded to some of the coaches that are already at ECU. I know there’s a great head coaching and coaching community there that is going to help me in the transition and that I’m going to lean on. Athletics, the momentum of the university, the momentum of the athletic department is going up. So that is as important as anything. And I’m so fired up about that.
“When it comes to specifically basketball, we have one of the best states in the country for high school talent and prep talent. And I know that for a fact, because I’ve had a chance to recruit them when I was at Miami, when I was at Tulsa, here at Tennessee, we’ve always recruited North Carolina. So I know the talent that’s there. And when you look at those two things, leadership proximity to great student athletes, when you talk about the facilities that are there, we have a practice facility, we have a newly renovated weight room, there is what it takes there to build a successful program for day one. We have what it takes to come in, dig our feet in the ground and start to build it.”
The transfer portal has become a huge factor in college athletics. Schwartz was asked about keeping current ECU players.
“It’s hard to put a timeline on that,” he said. “Are there going to be phone calls we’re making? Is there going to be people that I’m talking with? Absolutely. But to say that we can dive in the way that we want to dive in and the way we will dive in, it’s difficult to make that comment right now, just because of this situation. I’m sitting in my hotel room in Indianapolis and doing this and we’re getting ready. We have a meeting here shortly. So the focus that I have is with our guys here. But like anything, I think we all know, … being able to make sure that you can touch and touch the touchstones of all things that are important, we’ll do that, myself included. I’ll be doing that. And we’ll just have to see.
“Hopefully, I’m not in Greenville for three more weeks. I mean, that would be what we would hope because that means the University of Tennessee is making a run that we want to make here. But we’re going to find a way to stay productive as this transition is happening without a doubt.
“I believe in communication. I believe in transparency. I’ve learned this also. And again, Coach Barnes has provided a foundation for me as a coach and as a person and addressing things head on and really clarity is very important.
“We talked about the transfer portal. We talked about what this looks like. I told them, I wish I was there face to face with them and had a chance to meet with them individually and get a chance to really discuss what they’re thinking, what our program vision looks like. But that’s not the case right now. So when you talk about the transfer portal and the roster, it’s very hard to predict that. It’s very difficult to say, “Hey, we know we’re going to be able to hold on to this many guys, or we may lose these guys.” What I did say to them is I’m hopeful that whenever that time is, that they’re going to give the opportunity to meet with them face to face. And if I have the opportunity to come do that prior to our season ending, I’m going to find a way to do that.”
Building starts now
One goal is ECU’s first berth in the NCAA Tournament in this millennium.
“There’s no timeline,” Schwartz said. “I know this, that the process starts today. That’s what I do know. I don’t know how long it will take and I don’t want to give you any coaching jargon about it, but here’s what I’ll say. What has happened in the past does not affect what happens in the future. All we can do, and all I can do is we can build our program, the campus with the athletic department, with the community. We’re going to build it and we are going to do everything we can to do what you just said, make this an NCAA tournament team, make this a post-season team and build the strongest program possible. A program that the expectations are comprehensive excellence. And that again is on the court, off the court. But you specifically asked about post-season, you specifically asked about the NCAA tournament. What has happened over the last 30 years has no bearing of what my vision is and our staff’s vision will be for what can happen hopefully sooner than later.
“We’re going to do everything we can to build a program where we hang our hat on defense, we hang our hat on execution, we hang our hat on being one of the most elite conditioned team in the country. If we can build that foundation amongst some of the other things we spoke about, we’re going to give ourself a chance to build towards what you asked about, a post-season team, an NCAA tournament team. I wish I could look into the crystal ball and say, “Hey, this many years we’re going to be there.” All I can tell you is how we are going to try and do it. And again, back to when we were on the call, hopefully ECU, the community and everybody involved is going to be excited about the process and how we did it and the results and the winning and hopefully postseason will speak for itself.
If anyone knows about the value of staff, it would be Schwartz, who has had a variety of responsibilities in the college game. He has developed a reputation as an expert defensively.
He shared his thoughts on putting together a staff at ECU.
“We are only going to be as good as our entire staff,” he said. ” … We know that. Again, for me to even have this opportunity to be on this call with you guys today is because of all the great coaches that I’ve had a chance to work with in the past, not just head coaches, but all the assistant coaches and staff and managers and grad assistants and you name it. So I truly do understand the value of that. Again, I’m not someone that was just in the business for five or 10 years, and then became a head coach. I’ve been a part of so many different staffs. I’ve worked with a lot of people and I’ve seen what that connection can mean amongst the staff. So what am I going to be looking for specifically? Number one, is that coaches that align with the same vision, have the same optimism and same energy towards ECU that I have.
“It’s okay if they have different philosophy basketball. That is actually going to be a good thing. Offense, defense, that’s how we’re going to put this thing together in terms of being able to build something special. But the vision, the excitement, the development piece, the accountability piece that we are going to have for the program, all coaches, all staff on board got to have that same mindset. And I really do live by those four pillars. So the character of competitiveness, work ethic and humility, those are all… We don’t want to check two or three or one of the four boxes. We want to check four out of four. So every staff, every coach, every potential student athlete that we have a chance to interact with and hopefully bring in to the ECU family, those are going to be the four things that we really look at.
“So from a staff perspective, we want that to mirror that. We want those things to mirror the same that we’re going to expect of our play. And other than that, I couldn’t tell you anything specific in terms of offense, defense, recruiting. I mean, I think the relationship piece is going to be really big. We want our program to mirror that community. And for that to be the case, we’re going to be very engaged with that community. I mean, this is a hard working community. This is a community that’s going to appreciate the process. And I want staff members and coaches that think like that.”