NEWS, NOTES & COMMENTARY
The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, December 5, 2012
By Bethany Bradsher
ECU's Olympic sports juggling
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East Carolina athletic
director Terry Holland has clearly stated his hopes that Pirate football’s
move to the Big East Conference will create a gateway for the university’s
other 18 sports.
The coaches of those other
sports have been equally clear that when something is good for football, it
is good for them.
Underneath the solid surface
of those two points, however, lies a tangled web of scheduling and
recruiting considerations that won’t be unraveled until the future league
home of those sports is determined.
The perspectives of six ECU
Olympic sports coaches demonstrate that the landscape of conference upheaval
varies widely from one sport to the next.
With the cloudy future of
ECU’s sports minus football — a possible home in the Colonial Athletic
Association, maybe the Atlantic-10, maybe the Southern Conference — and with
hopes of Big East membership for all sports in their sights, these coaches
are navigating the tricky marriage of what is and what might be as they
strive to build winning programs.
The most heavily impacted will
be sports like soccer, softball and volleyball, which traditionally play a
full home-and-home conference schedule and today face a gaping hole after
the 2013-14 season. Of course, with the nearly daily changes to Conference
USA, even next fall’s schedule seems to be written with disappearing ink,
said soccer coach Rob Donnenwirth.
“We know what weeks we’re
playing (C-USA games), but we don’t even know who we’re playing yet,”
Donnenwirth said. “For me to think ahead to 2014, we don’t even know how
many conference games we’ll have to play.”
The most striking shift
Donnenwirth has noticed since the Big East announcement came at a recruiting
event last weekend, when club coaches who rarely approach him came up to
talk about the prospect of soccer following football to the bigger-name
But even though discussions of
full Big East membership can be tantalizing for coaches, Donnenwirth told
those coaches what he tells players and recruits: It’s all speculation at
this point, so it’s best to focus on the things that are known.
The next tier of sports, in
terms of degree of impact, includes programs like tennis that play a ‘soft’
conference schedule. Men’s tennis coach Shawn Heinchon, like most Olympic
coaches, does all of his own scheduling, and he usually negotiates
home-and-home arrangements with the handful of conference opponents the
Pirates play each season. Now the uncertainty makes a promise of a
reciprocal visit tricky.
“In the short term, we could
lose some opponents because we can’t guarantee return trips,” Heinchon said.
“In the long term it could be better because of the regionally-based
rivalries we could develop over time.”
After tennis you find sports
like track and field and swimming and diving, which compete almost
exclusively against non-conference teams until the conference tournament
rolls around at season’s end. However, these programs still benefit from a
conference affiliation that will draw in recruits and raise the visibility
of the university.
Because athletes in those
sports qualify for the NCAA championships on an individual basis, conference
affiliation doesn’t have significant bearing on postseason prospects, track
and field coach Curt Kraft said. There is no ‘BCS track’ that makes a long
jumper from a big conference more likely to rise to the top than one from a
“I think the key word here is
access,” Craft said. “The access for us, it doesn’t change regardless of
what conference we’re in. If we were in the SEC or we were in the Sun Belt,
we can still get to where we’re going. As coaches we have to continue to do
what we’re doing. We have to continue to recruit hard, we have to continue
to coach hard.”
Rick Kobe is one of the few
ECU head coaches who has traveled this road before. With 31 years under his
belt at the helm of the swimming and diving program, Kobe knows that the
non-revenue sports survived and even thrived in the late ‘90s when the CAA
gave way to C-USA, first for football only and then for the rest of the
Like track and field, Kobe
doesn’t have to stress scheduling, because his swimmers compete in dual
meets against schools regardless of conference affiliation — teams like N.C.
State, Davidson and William and Mary. But years of chasing after swimmers
have demonstrated to Kobe that unsteady conference ground can hurt
recruiting even in sports that are virtually unaffected by conference
“You always want to be in the
best spot,” he said. “You do want to be somewhere and you want to be
somewhere good, because at this point it’s all about recruiting.”
Golf is similar to track and
swimming in that its athletes only see conference foes at the final
competition of the season, but women’s coach Kevin Williams and men’s coach
Press McPhaul are both proceeding exactly as they normally would, looking
for berths in competitive tournaments against opponents from major
Golf’s emphasis is so far
outside the conference that Williams doesn’t expect the changes to have any
bearing of his pursuit of future Pirates.
“We basically don’t even use
it in selling to a recruit, because it has no bearing in getting a recruit
to come in,” Williams said. “We try to put our emphasis on how we are
Whether a sport is impacted to
a great or less significant extent by conference shifts on the horizon, the
Olympic sport coaches will do their daily tasks of recruiting, scheduling
and instilling excellence in their programs, and they will make the most of
what they know today.
Ultimately, they each trust
ECU’s administrators to keep all of their best interests in the forefront,
with hopes that the future will bring a unified Pirate Nation under the same
“Personally, in an ideal
world, which I know we don’t live in, it would be nice if we were all
together,” Kraft said. “It’s nice to say, ‘We’re all in one league. We all
eat at the same table.’ ”
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