CHRONICLING ECU & C-USA SPORTS
from the 'ville
July 20, 2006
By Al Myatt
Coach's short life had no
shortage of triumphs
One might wonder if Matthew, Mark, Luke and
John weren't daunted to a degree with the responsibility of recording the
Then again, they had the great inspiration of
the same Lord and Savior to whom Keith LeClair dedicated the close of his
That in mind, we attempt to pay tribute.
LeClair, the coach who restored East
Carolina's baseball program to national prominence,
passed from this realm on Monday. His
life, though relatively brief at 40 years, was crammed with achievement and
created a legacy that will endure beyond the grave.
celebration of his life is set for
Friday at 6 p.m. at the field of his dreams that appropriately carries his
name. Many of the coach's former players and colleagues will share
testimonials of his impact on their lives. There will be related video on
Dress is casual. Seating will be on a
first-come, first-served basis. Proceeds on drinks from the concession
stands will support the ALS Association (Jim
"Catfish" Hunter Chapter) and SPORTworks Ministry.
A memorial service is scheduled earlier
Friday, at 2 p.m., at his church, Oakmont Baptist, at 1100 Red Banks Road in
Greenville. The family will receive friends tonight from 5 to 8 p.m. at the
Wilkerson funeral home, 2100 East Fifth Street, in Greenville.
LeClair's passing brings mixed emotions. We're
glad his suffering and incapacitation are over. We have faith that his soul
is in a better place. We have the same regret that he expressed about not
seeing his children grow up.
LeClair, in effect, had been sentenced to
death with a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis following the 2001
The always-terminal affliction ran in his New
England family, which may explain the motivation that made him a successful
coach in spite of his youth. Like a hitter who may premonition fastball on a
full count, LeClair may have suspicioned that genetics would cut his time
That factor may have driven him.
There was an insistence that bordered on
obsession after a Super Regional loss to Tennessee at Kinston's Grainger
Stadium in 2001 that the Pirate program would make it to the College World
Series in Omaha. Perhaps LeClair knew then that he was operating on a
As a player at Western Carolina, as an
assistant and head coach of the Catamounts, and in a 5-year span at ECU
beginning in 1998, he was involved with teams that reached the NCAA
Tournament 13 times. That's pretty amazing, even more so when you consider
that he was bedridden and away from an active role in the college game for
the last four years of his life.
The news had been incomprehensible at first.
I remember Brett Johnson, now a walk-on long
snapper in the football program, telling me in the clubhouse of Northgreen
Country Club in Rocky Mount in the summer of 2001 that there had been talk
at the East-West games in Greensboro that LeClair had been stricken with Lou
"You might want to check on that," Johnson
I didn't want to, but I had to. I called
former athletic director Mike Hamrick as I often did to dispel wild rumors.
I was hoping for one of his, "Where do you get
this stuff?" responses. Instead, there was a pause and Hamrick, in contrast
to his usual bluster, said, "They don't know for sure."
Second and third opinions were sought. One
lady contacted the coach and said her mother had been incorrectly diagnosed
when she actually had Lyme's disease. There was hope, but it diminished and
the handwriting on the wall spelled ALS. No cure, just a slow deterioration
of the nerves that control muscular function.
Not to be sexist or politically incorrect, but
LeClair took it like a man.
The ECU community loved him even more for
that. When he was presented at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium at a football game in
2002 following his hall of fame induction the night before, all he could do
was wave a foot from his wheelchair on the Murphy Center terrace but it sent
electric emotion — high voltage — through the cheering crowd.
He didn't immerse himself in self pity or
curse his fate. While he could, he traveled with his family. He got to know
the Lord. He even
wrote for Bonesville.
And he followed baseball. Coaches and players
often visited, many for counsel. He saw Chad Tracy and Sam Narron make it to
the majors. He saw his Red Sox finally win a World Series. He saw the
Pirates extend their string of NCAA appearances to seven.
He had a 212-96-1 record at ECU that included
four NCAA trips and three conference tournament titles. He's credited with
the team's accomplishments in 2002 although Kevin McMullan essentially
guided the team on the field. LeClair, however, provided the inspiration.
The Pirates went into that season's Conference
USA Tournament in Kinston having finished sixth in the league's regular
season standings. Their only apparent means of getting to the NCAA
Tournament was by seizing the C-USA tournament championship. The players
expressed their feeling for the coach, who was watching in a blue van along
the right field line,
by finishing unbeaten in four games in
the double-elimination event.
They ran to him in celebration and modified
the traditional Gatorade dousing by pouring it on the van.
LeClair rebuilt the program on the goal of
making it to Omaha. That meant expanding the recruiting base, toughening the
schedule and improving facilities. It would be hard to get to Omaha without
a stadium capable of hosting NCAA Tournament games. That situation has, of
course, been more than taken care of.
Clark-LeClair Stadium is a
$10 million testimonial to the coach's impact
and the support of the ECU community for his dream.
As the end approached, LeClair communicated
with the world through a specially-adapted computer procured by former
football coach Steve Logan. It responded to his eye movement. I interviewed
him one time through his saintly wife Lynn. She relayed the questions and
you could hear the keys strike one by one over the phone. Then she read his
Last winter, he sent out a blanket e-mail
explaining that he couldn't answer everyone personally. We knew it was a
sign of what was coming.
And Monday, it finally came.
I like to think of Coach LeClair joining those
Chicago White Sox players that materialized out of the corn field in "Field
of Dreams." There were eight of them, I believe. Now they have enough for a
Heaven is better than Omaha anyway.
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02/23/2007 12:30:30 AM