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View from the 'ville
Thursday, July 13, 2006

By Al Myatt

Thirty years later, Leo's decision still reverberates


Independence Day has come and gone. The Fourth of July fireworks, cookouts and patriotic observances are over for 2006.

Independence days for East Carolina are over, too, but the duration that the Pirates spent competing without a football conference affiliation remains an enduring part of the program's identity.

Presented with a decision to stay "small college" or step up to "major" status in 1976, East Carolina made the choice to go "big time" in football. Pat Dye had coached the Pirates to a Southern Conference championship with a 35-7 win over Appalachian State in ECU's last game in the league. A crowd of 15,335 was reported at Ficklen Stadium.

"We knew we couldn't go where we wanted to go in the Southern Conference," Dye said. "It was a great little conference but — I don't know — I guess we outgrew it."

Bill Cain was athletic director at ECU when the decision was made to withdraw from the Southern Conference.

The NCAA essentially forced the Pirates to make a decision between Division I-A and Division I-AA, according to Cain. The rest of the Southern Conference was content to play I-AA, but Dr. Leo Jenkins, ECU's chancellor at the time, wanted ECU to play on the highest level.

"It wasn't a hard decision," Cain said. "Dr. Jenkins wanted to be in the top level and that was everybody's consensus. The Southern Conference wouldn't go I-A ... so we had no choice. Dr. Jenkins said, 'We'll go independent.'

"I remember a board of trustees meeting distinctly. Dr. Jenkins wanted to be the best. So 'Boom' we were out."

The Atlantic Coast Conference had only seven members at the time.

"Where we would like to have gone was the ACC," Dye said. "But nobody thought we'd fit but us."

Only four teams compete as independents today — Army, Navy, Notre Dame and Temple. Back then there were more programs without a conference home.

"Memphis State, South Carolina, Florida State, Tulane, Georgia Tech, Navy and Southern Miss were all independents and we talked about forming a conference," Dye said.

Dye, who left ECU after the 1979 season for Wyoming and later became a successful coach at Auburn, said he thought the move had a positive effect on recruiting at the time.

"It was a plus for us," he said, "but we were still going against the same people anyway — N.C. State and North Carolina."

In the early stages of independency, ECU's schedule was not dramatically different. There were highly-emotional matchups with the Tar Heels and Wolfpack as well as Duke and Wake Forest. The Pirates continued to play a lot of their former foes in the Southern Conference.

It wasn't until Ed Emory was at the helm in the early 1980's that the VMI's and William & Marys began to be replaced by programs such as Florida State, Miami (FL), Florida, Pittsburgh, Missouri and West Virginia. Ken Karr had become AD.

"We played the most challenging games on the road," Emory said. "We'd play in front of 70 or 80 thousand on the road and have 28,000 at home. It was kind of a downer to come home. We probably played better on the road. We were psyched up by all that noise."

Officials were another factor Emory's teams had to deal with.

"Ken didn't make contracts that called for neutral officials," Emory said.

In losses at Florida (24-17) and Florida State (47-46) in 1983, Emory can cite chapter and verse on late-game calls that impacted the outcome of both games.

"The Miami game (12-7 road) loss was our fault." Emory said. "We dropped a pass in the endzone."

Despite the adversities that season, the Pirates were 8-3 in '83.

"The positives about the situation were that we got on the plane — the coaches and the players — and we were together. We'd go to the hotel and we'd have control of the kids. We had a schedule. We'd eat together, talk together and meet together. We were close."

The circumstances made the Pirates mentally tough.

"We weren't going to be intimidated," Emory said. "That was sort of our motto. We were made in God's eyes the same as everybody else and when we walked on the field, we felt like it was as much ours as theirs."

Emory remembers a long pass play in a season-ending 10-6 win at Southern Miss in 1983. Rain was pouring and Emory was loudly questioning the play call as Kevin Ingram dropped back.

Norwood Vann made a catch for a sizeable gain, as Emory recalled, and flanker/returner Henry Williams made a point to the Pirate boss.

"Little Henry got in my face and said, 'Coach, don't be intimidated by the rain,' " Emory said.

It was a quick reminder about the Pirate spirit that was formed in the cauldron of independence.

Cain said he has pondered the decision to leave the Southern Conference in retrospect.

"I think it took 10 or 15 years for me to realize it was the right decision," Cain said. "I look at the stadium and facilities. I look at Appalachian, which just won the I-AA national championship. They're celebrating going over $1 million with their fund raising. We raise over $3 million. We had worked hard to meet the criteria of I-A and nobody wanted to stay I-AA.

"We'd do it again."

A conference affiliation for ECU on the I-A level finally materialized in 1997 — in Conference USA — after the Pirates had wandered as football nomads for 20 years.

League membership was a welcome change for former coach Steve Logan, whose 1996 team had missed a bowl invitation despite an 8-3 record that included wins over South Carolina, Miami and N.C. State.

As ECU enters its 10th season in C-USA, it has been 30 years since the Pirates celebrated a league title — that Southern Conference crown in 1976. Perhaps the wait won't be too much longer.

"The name of the game is recruiting and building the chemistry of the team," Emory said. "I think Skip (Holtz) can build a program. From everything I understand and everything I've seen, he's on track."

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02/23/2007 12:30:30 AM


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