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College Sports in the Realm of Bonesville

Friday, February 1, 2002

By Danny Whitford

If Merle Isn't Your Style, You're Too Young to Get It


If you're not old enough to appreciate real music — Zeppelin, Lynrd Skynrd, Merle Haggard, The Temptations, etc. — then you're probably not old enough to appreciate how much the region's college football landscape has changed.

There's no better indicator of the transformation than recruiting.

At East Carolina, back when Merle was belting out 'Okie from Muskogee,' the task of recruiting resembled a scavenger hunt.

Coaches ranging from Stasavich to Dye in the 'sixties and 'seventies, to Emory and Baker in the 'eighties, all the way up to Lewis and Logan into the early 'nineties, searched high and low for backwater sleepers and raw projects with potential.

In those days, after the region's top prospects had been cherry-picked by ACC schools, ECU's staff shoved all pretenses of pride into the background and rounded out the harvest by scooping up the choicest morsels from the leftovers.

Sometimes it panned out for the Pirates. Sometimes it didn't.

That process has changed.

It has taken the passage of time and a lot of hard work on the field and in the public relations and perceptions wars, but Steve Logan has done something none of his predecessors were both able and willing to do. He has stuck around and built something solid.

Logan's sometimes quirky but always focused perseverance has profoundly influenced the equation in North Carolina and, to an important extent, along the Eastern Seaboard.

These days, the Pirates lose a few prospects. But unlike the old days, they also seize many of the prizes — including their share of the shiniest gems — both inside and outside the state.

And they don't wait until the last minute to do it.

When national signing day (February 6) was almost two weeks away, ECU had already secured commitments from 22 players, avoiding the all-out scramble to plug in the gaps that was typical of Pirate recruiting campaigns of the not-too-distant past.

It's a remarkable statement about the evolution of a program that didn't join the Diviision I-A ranks until 25 years ago — then struggled for attention, financial viability and respect in the long, dark shadows of its deeply-entrenched and sometimes paranoid neighbors, N.C. State and North Carolina.

Perhaps most notable of all is that the core of the Pirates' recruiting class has been in place for months. As has been the trend in recent years, most of the early commitments were direct products of offers extended to players who grabbed the attention of ECU's staff at Logan's extraordinarily successful summer football camps.

As the recruiting season progressed, the remainder of the class gradually came together — not from the leftovers, but from a generally highly-recruited collection of talent in North Carolina and elsewhere.

Other factors have helped the ECU program in its always-straining efforts to meet the ever-growing expectations of a longing-to-be-spoiled fan base that little more than a decade ago hoped for the best — but planned for the worst.

Conference USA membership, a better-than-reasonable amount of success on the field, major investments in facilities, regular exposure on national TV and the campus's unique football culture have combined to make the Pirate program attractive enough to prep prospects to prompt them to open up their living rooms to recruiting visits.

Logan and his staff have clearly taken advantage of the openings.

In addition to the pipeline from the summer camps, another factor in upsetting what used to be the region's recruiting pecking order is the stability on the second floor of the Ward Building. While palace intrigue and coup d'états were taking place in the football offices in Raleigh and Chapel Hill,  Logan and company were further cultivating already-close relationships with high school coaches.

Ironically, according to a source close to the Pirate program, the recruiting rivals that ECU feels most threatened by when it comes to high-priority targets are no longer the schools just across I-95, but the Tennessees and Penn States of the world.

For those of you too young or too senile to remember, that puts East Carolina's present-day football status into perspective.

Send an e-mail message to Danny Whitford.

02/23/2007 01:37:18 AM

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