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View from the 'ville
Thursday, July 22, 2010

By Al Myatt

Lebo looking to build facility, program

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

The landscape of East Carolina's athletic facilities is changing dramatically. Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium looks big time with the south end enclosed and, along Charles Boulevard, construction is apparent on new homes for ECU softball as well as track and field.

There is a significant project still in the fund-raising stage which will impact the Pirates' overall competitive balance. Major sport performance level is an important factor in the big picture of possible affiliation with a bowl championship series conference.

Basketball has lagged well behind football and baseball at ECU. The Pirates haven't had a winning season in hoops since 1996-97. The next step toward getting the hardwood program to an acceptable level in terms of BCS conference consideration is a practice facility for basketball. It is greatly needed, according to new hoops coach Jeff Lebo.

"We're talking about a practice facility, which I think is important as anything for your basketball program," Lebo said. "We've had to share (Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum) for a long time. You share it with other sports, graduation and other events.

"Everybody knows now at this level that you've got to have access to a court, pretty much 24/7."

Playing and practice facilities are a selling point with high level recruits. ECU's current playing facility is generally its practice facility, too.

"Your players want access to (a practice facility)," Lebo said. "To me, great players are made in the offseason. Great teams are made during the season. Those kids have got to have access. They have schedules during the summer that are all over the place.

"They can only play at eight o'clock at night or they have to work out at maybe two o'clock in the afternoon. Some have to work at 10. You've got to have access to those things. I think Terry (Holland, athletic director) really understands how vital that is.

"Everything revolves around the time that you can get into that gym. With class schedules, if you can't get in the gym at the optimal time it messes up everything else. It becomes very difficult because if you can't practice from the two to five slot and you've got to go at 12, that affects class scheduling. That affects how you eat. That affects study hall. That affects all these other parts of your program."

Holland, no doubt, can empathize from his coaching days at Davidson and Virginia.

"He understands that," Lebo said. "Obviously, being a basketball coach he understands the importance of having that access to court space when you need it. You see these practice facilities popping up at all these other places all over the country. It's just something that you need."

Lebo points out that football programs often have multiple practice fields, as is the case at ECU.

"They have access to them whenever they need them and that's what we need in basketball," Lebo said.

Crunching the numbers

When Mack McCarthy stepped down as basketball coach at the close of the 2009-10 season, he moved into a fund-raising position with the Pirate Club for the basketball practice facility. Efforts to finance the proposed structure are apparently progressing well.

"We're obviously in the fund-raising portion of it," Lebo said. "It's hard but it's a good time to build, too. At Auburn, we had to raise a lot of money — close to $90 million (for an arena that will open next season). It's hard to raise it but it's a good time to build, too, because the materials and the workers are able to get there and get it done quickly.

"We're hopeful that we can get to the 50 percent of it raised soon, maybe this summer. At that point, once we get 50 percent of it, I think we can start to go to the next level with it."

Lebo said the cost of the proposed practice facility would be about $15 million. The proposed facility would be an extension from the natatorium end of the Minges Coliseum building.

Underappreciated at Auburn

Lebo's departure at Auburn led to his availability for ECU. Lebo took over for the Tigers under some difficult circumstances. He finished 96-93 overall in six seasons at Auburn and 35-61 in the SEC.

Lebo was 74-42 in four seasons at Tennessee Tech and 40-20 in two seasons at Chattanooga. His overall record in 12 seasons as a head coach is 210-155.

Lebo followed Cliff Ellis at Auburn and there were a lot of obstacles between the Tigers and success at the time.

"When I took over the NCAA was in there," Lebo said. "I knew there was a storm that was out to sea and it was going to hit but how hard and what was going to happen I did not know. We got hit with probation. We got hit with sanctions that we had to deal with.

"When you hear the word probation, people get scared of that. During that period when I first took over the program, the kids were afraid that were coming back that we may lose postseason. They started to leave and transfer."

The storm hit the Auburn program pretty hard.

"What we were left with was probably the smallest team in Division I basketball and we're playing in the Southeastern Conference," Lebo said. "My starting center was 6-foot-4 — in the SEC. We played five guards and had a massive rebuilding job. We signed eight or nine players in really less than a year.

"Year two in rebuilding situations is typically the hardest year. I started four freshmen and I don't recommend that to anybody. You know, 80 percent of your team is freshmen. We went from the smallest team probably in Division I in year two to probably the youngest team in Division I. We knew we were going to take some lumps.

"We had some issues with scholarship reductions, recruiting days, all the sanctions that go with the program."

Lebo learned that the NCAA sanctions had a prolonged effect.

"The sanctions linger with your program," he said. "By the time you can get by it and get moving forward, maybe two more years have actually passed. We were lucky that we played these freshmen and we were hopeful that in their senior years those guys would be good — and they were."

The Tigers went 24-12 in the 2008-09, when the freshmen from Lebo's second year at Auburn played their final season of college eligibility.

"We probably, in my opinion, should have been in the NCAA Tournament," Lebo said. "We had won, I think, eight of our last nine in the SEC. We had beaten LSU, which was the champion, badly at home. We got a bye in the first round of the SEC Tournament and beat Florida in our first game. We were playing probably as good as anybody in the country at that point.

"We had 11 SEC wins. No team had ever not gone in (to the NCAA Tournament) with 10 wins. We had 11 and didn't get in. We were the number one seed in the NIT. That was a hard thing for our kids to swallow."

Football king at Auburn, too

One aspect in which Auburn parallels East Carolina is in its emphasis on football. Lebo thinks that can be of benefit in basketball, too.

"You see the passion here with the Pirate fans," Lebo said. "I've seen it for many years. My father-in-law (Dink Mills) played football here. I've been to a game here before and I've seen the passion for football but I think it's just a passion for East Carolina.

"It's like a volcano in basketball. It's bubbling. If we can ever just get it over the hump here, the state of North Carolina is a basketball state. People are educated in the game of basketball. They know good basketball ... and they appreciate it. If we can get it to that point, I think people will come out. The people will, no doubt, support it."

ECU added another football fan with Lebo's arrival.

"I've seen what they've done here obviously in football and I love football," Lebo said. "I love college football. I love it and enjoy it. The tailgating and the pageantry of college football and all the traditions that it brings — it's pretty neat. I'll be right amongst them when we play. I mean I really, really like it."

Football will be a recruiting tool for hoops, too.

"When we bring kids in we can show 'em — look at these people," Lebo said. "Look at all these people. Look at how much passion these people have for their programs here. Football has obviously been very, very good here and people pack that place up for baseball."

Conference USA challenge

Football drives the bus at ECU but in Conference USA as a whole, basketball may be the stronger sport. Lebo will be a rookie in C-USA this season but he plans on being a quick learner.

"The league is very good," Lebo said. "We played Tulsa when we were at Auburn in the NIT. One of my good friends, Doug Wojcik, is the coach there. I follow Conference USA. There were four players from the league drafted this year so that tells you how good the league is in basketball.

"Obviously, when you talk about Conference USA basketball you've got to start with Memphis. They've got it going. They're a national power. Memphis has kind of brought the other teams up. If you want to compete you have to put the resources in to try to get up close to their level.

"People have started to do that. The Tulsas and UTEPs have been very good. UAB has good tradition there in basketball. We followed them because they were up the road from us in Alabama."

Lebo's successor at Auburn is Tony Barbee, who guided UTEP last season.

"It will be a learning curve for me," Lebo said. "When you take over, you learn. There are actually a lot of new coaches in the league. They'll be learning, too. I know most of the coaches already in the league."

Lebo, of course, is familiar with SMU coach Matt Doherty, a former North Carolina player — like himself. He knows Larry Eustachy at Southern Miss and Mike Davis at UAB. He also knows fellow C-USA rookies Tim Floyd at UTEP and Tom Herrion at Marshall. Herrion, of course, is the brother of former Pirates coach Bill Herrion, who is now at New Hampshire.

"I was in the Southern Conference when Tommy was at Charleston," Lebo said. "I know the majority of the guys. It's a good group of coaches. Learning the league and the travel. There are a lot of things you've got to work through to figure out.

"The best way to figure it out is to actually do it."

E-mail Al Myatt

Al Myatt Archives

08/06/2010 01:57 AM


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