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View from the 'ville
Thursday, August 12, 2010

By Al Myatt

Success breeds self-assurance

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

East Carolina has won back-to-back Conference USA football championships. Although the Pirates lost 29 players from last year's team and a new coaching staff has brought in different schemes, the success of the last two seasons has engendered confidence among returning players.

That's the way new ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill would rather have it.

"Two things happen to a coach," said McNeill, who has found himself in different situations as he has changed jobs in his coaching journey. "He leaves because he does not do well, or he leaves because he does well. In this case, Skip Holtz and his staff did a great job."

Holtz took over a program that had won just three of its previous 25 games and began to get things turned around immediately with a 24-21 home win over Duke in his first game. Holtz went on to compile a 38-27 record over five seasons, taking the Pirates to an unprecedented four straight bowl games.

"I've learned a lot just watching," said former backup quarterback turned receiver, Josh Jordan.

Jordan made the position switch to improve his chances of getting on the field. ECU's performance this season will depend heavily on how fast a significant number of unproven players adapt to expanded roles. At least the inexperienced Pirates have been incubated in an atmosphere of achievement. That goes for both the players and the coaches with the bulk of the staff making their change of address from Texas Tech.

Championships have a bandwagon effect that translates to increased support. The recent success of the program has been instrumental in adding 7,000 seats at the East end of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Average attendance increased by over 10,000 fans per game during the Holtz era. Winning is a proven promotion.

"All the hard work we've put in the program, we're seeing the benefits of the stadium being added on to," said senior cornerback Travis Simmons. "Now we can have more crazy fans out there supporting us, rooting us on to victory."

Receiver/returner Dwayne Harris, ECU's Mr. Offense, is excited about the expanded environment, too.

"I'm just glad I can see it all happening," Harris said. "I've heard about it for a couple of years. I'm just glad for my senior year I can play in this stadium with 7,000 more seats. Without the 7,000, it was ringing. With the 7,000, I can only imagine how loud it's going to be."

The Pirates will get acclimated to the new noise level in the season opener at home against Tulsa on Sunday, Sept. 5 at 2 p.m. on ESPN2. Memphis comes to Greenville for another C-USA contest the following week. Then the Pirates travel to Virginia Tech, North Carolina and return to league play at Southern Miss.

"We've got a tough road ahead of us," Harris said. "We've just got to stay focused, rise to the occasion, play hard each game like it's our last and try to come out with Ws."

Despite the challenges, Harris is confident. He has caught 167 passes for 1,878 yards and 10 touchdowns in his ECU career. He also has run 70 times for a net of 422 yards with six scores.

"It's going to be an exciting season," he said. "Expect big things from me this year. Expect better numbers, more excitement. Expect me to be a better player all around. I'm faster, stronger, and a little bigger. I think it's going to be a Dwayne Harris that nobody has seen since I've been here."

Senior running back Jonathan Williams said the Pirates need to be ready for everyone's best shot in the league as well as dealing with the challenging non-conference schedule.

"We need to prepare just like we're doing now," Williams said at media day on Saturday. "Keep working hard, staying together as a team, staying focused. We're looking at the schedule but we're not really worried about the other team. We're really focused on us and we're working hard. We're doing what we've got to do to win every game out there."

Williams has run 111 times at ECU for 568 yards and six TDs. He has caught nine passes for 30 yards but will likely be a more frequent pass receiver in ECU's new spread offense. The former Greenville Rose star might have had bigger numbers if he had avoided the injuries and disciplinary action that have limited his career. McNeill's presence seems to have provided a positive influence on a former resident of Holtz's doghouse.

"I'm in a good position right now," Williams said. "I'm staying humble, not getting complacent. I love just getting out there and working with these guys. We're a team. I just see some good things happening for us this year. Coach Ruff has been a good coach, a respectable leader, a good person for us. He's helped us out a lot."

The Pirate players have earned two C-USA championship rings the last two seasons. Junior defensive back Emanuel Davis has given his rings to his parents for safe keeping. The rings also mean that ECU will be a team others will get up for in the league race in 2010.

"We know going into every game that we're going to have a big bullseye on our forehead," Davis said. "Everybody's going to be gunning for us, but as an athlete you like being the head team in your conference. I think everybody is up for the challenge. I think we're going to respond very well this year."

Ruff's three last names

Coach Ruff's full name is Ruffin Horne McNeill, Jr.

"My dad is Ruffin Horne McNeill, Sr.," said the former Pirate defensive back, who grew up in Lumberton. "My grandfather was the first African American mailman in the city of Fayetteville, North Carolina. While he was there, there was a gentleman that he worked with and worked for. My name came from the association that my grandfather had there. They had a great relationship long before I was thought about."

Records show that Henry Ruffin Horne was named to the Public Works Commission in Fayetteville in 1905.

"They said I had three last names," said the ECU coach. "David Ruffin and Lena Horne."

David Ruffin sang with the Motown group, the Temptations. Lena Horne was a movie star and singer. Coach Ruff said it was a point of emphasis with the younger generation at a family reunion that McNeill was spelled with two Ls, not one.

Scaled down media guide

For many years, East Carolina football media guides have been 8.5 inches by 11 inches. This year's edition is smaller, six inches by nine. The 2010 ECU Fact Book is all black and white on the 208 interior pages.

Tom McClellan, ECU's assistant athletic director for media relations, said that such publications can no longer be sent to recruits due to a new NCAA rule.

"Most people have gone to interactive, online guides and they're going to push, hopefully, the recruiting process in that direction," McClellan said. "Some people are going with DVDs. Some people are doing USB or jump drives. I felt strongly enough that we needed to have a printed version for our media, considering the coverage we get.

"We elected to print, albeit a much smaller, media only, black and white, notes, numbers, stats only book. The smaller size is like the NFL's for people's convenience. We are planning in a couple of weeks on putting up an interactive guide (on for our fans and for our recruits as well.

"I just felt very strongly, being in the service providing business, about having the media with something in their hands as a resource tool."

Elite company

New East Carolina defensive tackles coach Duane Price played baseball and football at Texas Tech. He then spent two years in the minor leagues in the Cincinnati Reds organization.

"I was drafted the same year as Austin Kearns and Adam Dunn," Price said. "Our first year, I played center(field), Dunn played right and Kearns played left."

Dunn now plays for the Washington Nationals and Kearns was recently acquired by the New York Yankees.

"Those guys went on and they've had great careers," Price said. "I hope they get to continue to play for a long time because they're great ball players and not only that. They were good guys and good guys to hang out with."

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08/12/2010 03:10 AM


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