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View from the East
Thursday, June 20, 2002

By Al Myatt
ECU Beat Writer for The News & Observer

If a tree falls in 'The Jungle'...


If a tree falls in 'The Jungle' and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

I ask that question because one of the most telling statements about what Keith LeClair has done for the ECU baseball program was tucked in the last paragraph in a university release issued on Wednesday. It stated that ECU drew an average of 283 fans in LeClairís first season with the Pirates in 1998. This past season, ECU averaged 1,766 fans per home game.

LeClair did plenty while he was baseball coach at ECU and, very importantly, he made people care about the national pastime.

When attendance increases by six times what it was in five years, that means a lot. It means athletic director Mike Hamrick can look upon baseball as a potential revenue producer. It means the Pirates Club can organize a campaign to raise $6 million to build a larger stadium. It means players, coaches and ECU supporters can establish a mission of making their way to Omaha, Nebraska for the College World Series.

LeClair did that for ECU. That will be his professional legacy.

No longer able to meet the physical demands of directing the Piratesí day-to-day quest for Omaha, LeClair officially stepped aside on Wednesday with the announcement that he had resigned his duties as baseball coach to become a special assistant to athletics director Mike Hamrick. That was the best possible resolution to the difficult circumstances created by LeClairís physical limitations resulting from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which is also known as ALS or Lou Gehrigís disease.

His personal legacy will be the courageous and spiritual manner in which he has fought a fight that doctors tell us he can not physically win. Speech and mobility have become difficult for LeClair in recent months and he has not been able to guide the Pirates program in the active manner that he had since he arrived from Western Carolina in 1998.

LeClair has done a lot for ECU and his mind is still sharp. Now his contributions will be in an advisory capacity. His contract is for $100,000 annually, runs through 2006 and, admirably, ECU plans to honor it.

ECU is doing the right thing to make provisions for the 36-year old father of two in a time when the financial bottom line too often speaks louder than human compassion. Thatís class or perhaps, just simple human decency.

Hamrick will initiate a national search immediately for a successor. His track record has been to hire head coaches with proven success. Coaches who could surface include Gary Gilmore of Coastal Carolina and Mike Kennedy of Elon, who have each achieved significantly at their current institutions despite limited resources.

Kennedy had just seven scholarships this past season ó four below what the NCAA allows ó and yet the Phoenix took two of three games at defending national champion Miami in 2002. They beat some other nationally-ranked teams as well, including a home and home split with the Pirates.

Assistant coaches Kevin McMullan and Tommy Eason, who guided ECU to a 43-20-1 record in LeClairís limited presence during the 2002 season, may be given the courtesy of interviews but they donít fit the traditional profile Hamrick has sought.

McMullan told me recently that his contract as an assistant runs out at the end of this month. He will surely be glad to have some resolution to what has been an uncertain future under the circumstances.

A new coach might not retain all or any of the present staff. If they arenít retained, McMullan and Eason can begin sending out resumes which include their significant roles in ECUís four straight NCAA Tournament berths. Hopefully, their work for the ECU program will be rewarded in terms of career advancement in some manner, whether they remain at ECU or not.

Hamrick is certainly aware that a swift hire is desirable under the circumstances. Recruiting has been more or less on hold because the efforts of the assistants have been directed elsewhere out of necessity. If possible, Hamrick should use LeClair as an advisory resource in the hiring process. With what LeClair has done for ECU, he deserves some input into who will carry on his work.

Iím glad ECU won its first Conference USA baseball championship in Eastern North Carolina last month where its fans and its coach could behold the celebration.

Iíll remember the Pirates players and staff moving en masse ó after beating Houston 4-0 on Sunday, May 26, at Grainger Stadium in Kinston ó to the van near right field where LeClair was watching.

Iíll remember a near-capacity crowd watching the impromptu theater of the team dousing the vehicle with the contents of the Gatorade cooler. The gesture could be appreciated for its humor and creativity on a simple level, although everyone in the park surely wished and have probably prayed that the stark circumstances confining the blue vanís occupant could be different.

The Pirates outfought the other seven teams in the C-USA field to win that title. To a man they said that was the least they could do for a coach who was fighting for his life.

Send an e-mail message to Al Myatt.

Click here to dig into Al Myatt's Bonesville archives.

02/23/2007 12:58:41 AM

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