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College Sports in the Carolinas


View from the East
Monday, May 19, 2003

By Al Myatt
ECU Beat Writer for The News & Observer

East Carolina well-situated for league upheavals


East Carolina’s geography, its status as an all-sports member in Conference USA and its record as a program which has achieved notable progress with integrity have given the Pirates credibility in terms of candidacy for a potential spot in a reconfigured Big East.

In recent days, the possibilities have been on the minds of a lot of people with a stake in the matter.

East Carolina athletics director Mike Hamrick returned from the C-USA meetings in Destin, Fla., this week. He has served as chairman for the league’s athletics directors this year.

The atmosphere at the C-USA meetings was certainly influenced to a degree by the expansion issue ACC leaders were dealing with in Amelia Island, Fla. If Miami, Syracuse and Boston College leave the Big East for the ACC, it could set off a domino effect in college athletics impacting C-USA and the Pirates.

With his league possibly facing a major shuffle, C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky spun the situation with a big scoop of vanilla.

“I was pleased by the discussion of our membership in light of recent speculation related to Division I conference alignment,” Banowsky said. “We are committed to ensuring that this area is managed with the highest degree of integrity and thoughtful analysis.”

ECU’s inclusion in C-USA has given the Pirates credibility in terms of possible candidacy for a spot in a reconfigured Big East — much more so than if ECU was still an independent in football or a member of the Colonial Athletic Association in other sports.

“We’ve been very pleased to be in Conference USA,” Hamrick said. “Our conference has really moved forward. Our basketball tournaments have been outstanding the last two years. We have a multi-year television agreement with ESPN. We’ve had a lot of really positive things come out of Conference USA, but to be real honest there’s a lot of anxiety among our conference members and among other conference members all across the country — just kind of sitting back waiting to see what happens with the potential expansion of the ACC.

“The way these things happen, once one school goes or two schools go to one conference or another, it has a domino effect and we’re just trying to figure where we stand in all of this.”

Football power Miami is in great bargaining position at the Big East meetings in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., which convened on Saturday. The Hurricanes could get a restructured revenue sharing plan in the Big East — read that as big bucks — and be content with their present league alignment.

It’s difficult to find a program from the mid-major level up in the eastern half of the United States that might not be affected by a shift by Miami.

“I don’t think there’s any question that everything hinges on the decision that Miami makes,” Hamrick said. “If Miami makes a decision to go to the ACC, that would leave the Big East with only five football-playing schools. What they would do — I don’t think anybody knows.

“Again, we’re committed to Conference USA; however, we’ve got to really keep abreast of what’s going on on the national scene and try to do everything possible to position East Carolina University athletics in the best possible position in case something happens that could affect us either positively or negatively.”

In the event that pursuing a vacancy in the Big East becomes the best course for the Pirate ship, selling ECU’s positives, enhancing existing relationships with Virginia Tech and West Virginia, and leveraging their influence with television interests will be among the tasks for ECU representatives such as Chancellor William Muse, Hamrick and associate athletics director Nick Floyd.

A lot would depend on how many teams the Big East might add. Its non-Division I-A football members such as St. John’s, Georgetown, Providence and Seton Hall could form a separate alliance with institutions in C-USA with similar interests and limitations such as Marquette, Saint Louis, DePaul and Charlotte.

If the Big East loses three schools to the ACC, it might decide that nine is a good number for football. Nine allows four home games and four road games in a round-robin format in league football scheduling. Five C-USA schools might be considered for four spots, including ECU, Louisville, Cincinnati, Memphis and South Florida.

ECU’s consideration for the Big East would be enhanced if the league went to 12 teams in order to have a championship football game.

Hamrick helped ECU put its best foot forward when football membership was initially the issue in C-USA and later when the Pirates pushed for all-sports inclusion. He knows the factors that are evaluated in the process and knows how to present the Pirates in the best possible light.

“First of all we have a quality athletic program,” Hamrick said. “Our graduation rates — of all the Division I football schools in the North Carolina system, we’re at the top for football. Our student-athlete graduation rates are very high, well above the entire student body. It’s a growing university. We’ve got great fan support. Fans travel to away games. We’re known for that. They travel to bowl games. We’re known for that.

“We’ve really tried to build the infrastructure of this program to make us attractive to whomever. With the addition of a $7.5 million baseball stadium that will be ready for play in the spring of 2005, we will have put over $46 million over the last six years into our athletics facilities. What that shows a potential conference is commitment to your program, that you want to be successful, that you do things right, and we’re trying to do that.

“Also I think we have a lot of credibility because we’re in a great conference already, Conference USA. There were reasons why we got into Conference USA in all sports two years ago. I think those same reasons could be beneficial down the road whenever there’s the potential for another conference affiliation.

“Again, we’re committed to Conference USA and hope it stays together. It’s been good for us and we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”

The Pirates’ annual athletics budget of $15.7 million is middle of the pack in C-USA but it’s significant that the ECU budget has practically doubled in the last seven years. The Pirates have done an incredible amount of work on facilities.

ECU also has a national television identity from a previous contract with ESPN. Television’s role in the potential reshuffling process shouldn’t be underestimated, nor should the fact that the Pirates have been an accommodating television partner. The anticipation of increased television contracts is the basis for the ACC’s interest in three Big East teams.

ECU is obviously an upwardly-mobile athletics program. Three decades ago, the Pirates were happy to be in the Southern Conference. The program's growth from that point is remarkable. Geography is a factor that could also help ECU in any consideration from the Big East — especially when presidents factor in the cost of travel for non-revenue sports compared to trips with Memphis and South Florida.

Baseball might suffer in terms of the competitive level of the Big East compared to C-USA but ECU’s climate compared to other programs would be an advantage.

There are uncertainties about C-USA. Tulane’s football future is very cloudy. UAB and Houston have concerns about resources. The Western Athletic Conference could be interested in Texas Christian and Southern Miss.

C-USA has been good for ECU but there is a wide range of viability within the league among its current members. In many respects, ECU is one of C-USA’s “haves” as opposed to the “have nots.” The Pirates may be poised on a great opportunity if a slot in the Big East opens up.

There’s still a question about the future of the bowl championship series, which is due for restructuring in 2006. If the BCS continues and still includes a spot for the Big East champion, then moving to the Big East would be a big step for ECU.

Until that issue is resolved, the situation’s potential amounts to a castle in the air. Its progress to reality appears to start with Miami moving into the ACC. Whether that move takes place may not be determined in the near future, but such a move by the Hurricanes could definitely give a big push to ECU's continued upward mobility.

East Carolina would appear to be a good fit for the Big East — right down to the geography of its name.

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02/23/2007 12:41:09 AM


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