NEWS, NOTES &
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
By Bethany Bradsher
Disciples reflect on revered
VanSant legacy lives on in
those whose paths he crossed
Don Tyson was at a wedding shower
recently and he spotted an East Carolina T-shirt. He found himself in a
conversation with a former Pirate baseball player, and before long the talk
turned to Henry VanSant.
“When I see purple, or when I talk about East
Carolina, Coach VanSant comes up,” said Tyson, a Fayetteville building
contractor who played football at ECU from 1965-’68.
edition of Bonesville Magazine featured a special
"Pirate Time Machine" package, authored by Ron
Cherubini, about VanSant's life and his front row
seat as a devoted alum from the 1950's into the 21st
century. The publication of the feature in print was
preceded by a series of related online "teaser"
articles by Cherubini, each of which is linked
Pedigreed Pirate betting on ECU's
Old Coach has thing or two to say
LeClair hiring process made impact
previous editions of the annual Bonesville Magazine, including
the 2003 edition which included an extensive "Pirate
Time Machine" feature spread on Henry VanSant, can
be ordered by calling 252- 637-2944 between 9 a.m.
and 5 p.m. on weekdays.
The fellow Pirate he met at the shower talked of
VanSant in glowing terms, much like the hundreds of men who played on the
football teams he coached in the '60's. But the baseball player never knew
VanSant as a coach; he knew him as the professor in his Kinesiology class.
It just proved to Tyson what he has known in his
own life for years: That the man he calls “the single most influential male
in my life” brought passion and character to every venue in which he worked.
As a player, coach, administrator and teacher, VanSant left a profound
legacy to countless members of the Pirate Nation.
died on Thursday at the age of 70 after
an association with the university that spanned nearly 50 years. After
playing football for the Pirates from 1957-‘60, he served as, first, the
freshman team coach, and then an assistant coach under Clarence Stasavich
He then left Greenville for close to 15 years,
making coaching stops at several N.C. high schools as well as Guilford
College and Lenoir-Rhyne College. Along the way he earned a doctorate from
the University of Alabama in 1975, and when he next came to Greenville it
was in 1985 as assistant to the athletic director.
VanSant became the
associate athletic director in 1987 and served in that position for his
retirement in 2001. In 2003, he was elected to the East Carolina Athletics
Hall of Fame.
It was a career marked by
hard work, humility and an extraordinary ability to get the most out of
people, say those who knew him best. Tyson believes strongly that the
ripples of his influence will be felt in every forward step the athletic
program takes for a long time.
“I was talking to a
former Pirate teammate the other day and he said that in his opinion Henry
VanSant was the single most important person in the development of ECU
athletics,” Tyson said. “And I have to agree with him. That ‘chip on your
shoulder’ attitude at East Carolina? That came from Henry VanSant.”
“In my opinion, there’s
not been a person over the years who’s had more impact on East Carolina
athletics than Henry VanSant has,” said Dennis Young, the director of the
Pirate Club and one of VanSant’s former freshman team football players.
There are, literally,
concrete monuments to VanSant’s work at ECU, Young said, most notably the
rebuilt Minges Coliseum and the Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium expansion, both
overseen by VanSant. And then there are the personal monuments, people like
Neal Hughes and
Jim Gudger, all former players who
regarded VanSant like a second father.
“I have more respect for
Henry VanSant than probably any man I’ve ever met in my life,” said Gudger,
also a member of the 1966 freshman team that went undefeated. “I feel like
it’s the end of an era. In my opinion, he’s meant more to more people than
anybody I’ve ever met.”
“I tell you, I’ve never
known anybody like him,” said Hughes, who lives in Greensboro.
Every man who once played
for VanSant spoke of his uncanny radar into human nature, especially when
faced with the challenge of motivating young football players who had just
left home for the first time.
“Henry VanSant had a look
about him that you knew to pay attention, you knew he had been there, he had
done it, and no one ever questioned what he told them to do,” Hughes said.
“And it wasn’t just totally out of fear, it was just an awesome respect for
“I think he was probably
the premier coach-motivator that we have had, period.”
“Coach VanSant had a
unique ability, without ever saying it, to make a man reach down inside to
find something they suspected they might have, but he had the ability to
bring it out,” said Tyson, who could never bring himself to call VanSant
anything but “Coach.”
“He had a Ph.D., but I
think he arrived on the planet with that gift,” Hughes said.
Gudger is 57, but he said
when he saw VanSant out one night he found himself hiding his beer from his
former coach, because his fear of disappointing VanSant never faded with the
years. He has shed more tears in the past five days than at any time other
than his own father’s death, he said.
“He was the kind of guy
who could go into a board room with a coat and tie and his Ph.D and talk to
them, and he could go into an old country store and pull up a barrel of
nails and chew tobacco, and he was equally comfortable in both situations,”
Gudger said. “Most people go through life, and if they’re lucky they’ll run
into one or two special people. He was definitely one of those people. I
don’t have the vocabulary to do it justice.”
Some members of that 1966
freshman team had unforgettable parting moments with Coach VanSant. Tyson
was with him in the hospital when he died; Gudger had lunch with him just a
week before. And Hughes saw him in Greensboro at Christmas, when VanSant
made his first appearance at an annual Christmas party given for ex-Pirates
in the Piedmont area by former ECU kicker Earl Clary.
“He called and said, ‘You
know, I’ve been saying no for years. I’m coming,’” Hughes said. “A lot of
guys came to that party that wouldn’t normally, because the word was out
that Henry was coming. They showed up from Virginia and from all over.
“He stayed at my house,
and we stayed up half the night talking. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Pirate old-timers from
all over will
gather again on Thursday at Greenville’s First
Presbyterian Church, where VanSant will be remembered by
grown men who will undoubtedly cry at the thought of a world that doesn’t
contain their their friend and coach.
“He made friends with
everybody he met,” said Bill Cain, the former coach and athletic director
who now teaches in the school of Health and Human Performance and has known
VanSant since they played Pirate football together in the late ‘50s. “Most
of us, somebody’s got something bad to say about us. But it’s very, very
hard to find somebody who has something bad to say about Henry.”
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02/23/2007 01:12:54 AM