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College Sports in the Realm of Bonesville

Friday, October 29, 2004

By Danny Whitford
Publisher & Editor

East Carolina football at crossroads

Bonesville Magazine

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John Thompson deserved a mulligan for East Carolina’s miserable 2003 season. This season, however, is a different story.

Larger issues are so pressing that ECU cannot afford the luxury of assuming for another year that the pieces are in place to heal its gravely wounded football program.

When Thompson arrived in Greenville two years ago, he inherited the reigns of a shell-shocked team — one that had endured unpleasantness to an extreme, beginning with an uphill journey through a rare losing season in 2002 in the shadow of media accounts of the school’s administration sullying the program’s reputation with its dubious handling of the Friday Night Fiasco.

That challenging situation was transformed into a full-fledged crisis by the abrupt dismissal of Steve Logan, a coach destined for the East Carolina Hall of Fame, for reasons that appeared to be mainly related to then-athletic director Mike Hamrick’s frustration with his years-long effort to goad Logan into leaving on his own.

Under those chaotic circumstances, it was unrealistic to expect Thompson to stabilize overnight a Pirate ship that had been sabotaged below the waterline from within.

Regardless of the state of affairs when he came aboard, Thompson has now had a season and a half to rekindle at least a spark of the fire that fed a culture of success in the program prior to his arrival. But instead of evidence of a drive towards regaining their swagger, the Pirates have shown no obvious progress from their 1-11 freefall of a year ago.

Thompson's ability as a head coach is fair game for criticism at this point, especially in light of the strikingly shallow field of candidates he was a part of that had been brave enough to apply for the job during that highly-visible period of dysfunction in ECU's campus and athletics administrations.

In retrospect, it appears that Thompson was handed a task much more complex than he envisioned. On the other hand, it may simply be that his demonstrated track record as a successful defensive coordinator doesn't necessarily translate into proficiency as the top man.

The indications that the program is reeling are hard to ignore: a record of 2-16 during J.T.’s stint on the job; the cancellation of ECU’s engagement with Virginia Tech in this year’s BCA game; the snubbing of the Pirates by the Big East Conference; and the complete elimination of ECU from the national television mix.

After many years of frequent appearances on ESPN and ESPN2, that last item is particularly damaging to the program’s recruiting efforts and its hopes for recovery.

Without national TV in his arsenal, Thompson’s peculiar obsession with out-of-state prospects is likely to perpetuate unacceptable on-the-field results unless talent accompanied by off-the-field question marks is imported into the program — a particularly unfortunate scenario considering the untimely budgetary stresses of an out-of-state recruiting focus.

With last Saturday’s shellacking at Southern Mississippi added to the team’s growing litany of poor outings, ECU’s new athletics boss, Terry Holland, will by necessity be on the lookout for indications that a turnaround is imminent.

Thompson's propensity for making strange coaching decisions — such as last Saturday's botched fake punt less than 20 yards from ECU's own goal line — won't help his case for more time to rebuild the program.

Holland, of course, won’t be the only one observing closely with a stake in the matter as the rest of the season plays out. The program’s backers, many of whom were caught off guard by some of the bizarre actions of Hamrick in recent years — and by the inexplicable neglect of deposed former chancellor William Muse and other higher-ups to intervene — are likely to be more assertive than in the past about the path they wish for ECU to follow.

One course those underwriters of Pirate athletics wouldn’t be prone to take lightly would be to accept the depressing status quo for a program which is accustomed to sharing top billing with the Med School in terms of ECU’s institutional pride and public profile.

Thompson still has five games to influence those inside the university to whom he reports and those outside the campus who fund the cause. In addition to the scoreboard, his barometers will include the turnstiles.

ECU’s attendance for the Cincinnati game (29,332) was the lowest in more than 15 years for the Pirates’ second home game of a season. The turnout for the subsequent home game against Tulane (29,584) was also abysmal, considering that it was Homecoming on a picture-perfect autumn day.

A Saturday home win over Army would seem to be a mandatory first step for Thompson to begin to build a case for keeping his job beyond this season. Win or lose, the attendance number for the Black Knights' biennial visit — which has never dipped below 38,000 over the years — will be a focus of attention.

With dwindling ticket revenues, faltering Pirate Club donations and increasingly-elusive opportunities for national TV exposures at stake — and perhaps a final shot at membership in the Big East on the horizon — the assumption here is that Holland is already pondering the options in the event that unmistakable signs that the program is on the mend don’t materialize quickly.

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02/23/2007 01:37:42 AM

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