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Pirate Notebook No. 462
Monday, January 24, 2011

Denny O'Brien

Battle-tested 'drill sergeant' back in town

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

Part of me is happy my name isn’t listed on the East Carolina football roster. Part of me isn’t.

On one hand, I’m glad I won’t be a participant in those early morning drills, that my morning wake-up call won’t be a series of tongue-dragging sprints. On the other, I’m bummed that I won’t experience the mental and physical results that Pirate players are certain to attain throughout the remainder of their ECU careers.

Because that’s what ECU’s new strength and conditioning coordinator, Jeff Connors, will deliver starting today. He proved that during his first stint with East Carolina, a decade during which the program made the transition from a regional afterthought to one that is nationally respected.

It occurred with quarterbacks who were lightly recruited for their position, running backs who were overlooked by big-time suitors, and receivers who didn’t rank too highly on many recruiting wish lists. From top to bottom, the ECU roster was filled with athletes once perceived too small or too slow, a perception that Connors used as a motivational spark to maximize their development.

“A lot of the athletes we have at East Carolina, and this is no secret, are not four and five-star recruits,” Connors said after AD Terry Holland's announcement of his hiring. “If you want to compete with teams that frequently recruit and successfully recruit those types of athletes, then you have to somehow find an edge.

“The edge that we found during the time when I was there with Bill Lewis and Steve Logan was that I felt we outworked the teams we played against. We were in superior condition. We were mentally tougher. The players realized that the hard work we put in was the difference, and they appreciated it.”

Probably because they saw the difference in both their physiques and on the scoreboard. In 1996 alone, the Pirates blew out South Carolina and Miami on the road and N.C State in Charlotte.

They didn’t do it with trickery, either. Smoke and mirrors? Not part of the equation. The program that previously was recognized mostly for its razzle and dazzle in the early 1990s had evolved into one also capable of beating opponents with brute force.

But that isn’t exactly front page news. At least it shouldn’t be. Anyone who knows anything about the fabric of East Carolina football should understand that the edge the Pirates had over their opponents then wasn’t isolated between the ears.

There simply weren’t many programs that could push the Pirates around anymore, and most who opposed them spent the better part of the fourth quarter sucking wind. To say that superior conditioning became a recognized trademark for the ECU program would be an understatement.

Just like it will be moving forward. Because it is clear that Connors’ decade away from Greenville has served only to fuel his passion for East Carolina and a town that he considers home.

“There are some very close parallels to where I grew up and the town of Greenville,” Connors said. “It is a football town with people who have a hunger for winning football games, and they understand the work that needs to be done in relationship to being successful.

“For me, I understand it because I grew up in it. I relate to Greenville because it reminds me of exactly the place I grew up. I always felt so at home there, because everything I learned growing up fit in very well with what we needed to do to be successful at East Carolina.”

Perhaps that explains Connors’ unique ability to connect with the caliber of athletes ECU generally attracts, and how to motivate them to exceed personal expectations. And perhaps that’s also the reason that, despite his departure for North Carolina in 2001, he never lost his affinity for the Pirates.

How else do you explain the fact that many of his closest friends are former ECU players? And why else would Connors decide to make a significant financial contribution to the major renovation to the Pirates’ locker room a few years ago?

Unabridged passion and devotion for East Carolina are the only explanations. The Pirates certainly have that on the sidelines with head coach Ruffin McNeill, and they again have it in the weight room with Connors.

That creates an intriguing combination for ECU, one that should serve well towards the development of its players. McNeill provides the Pirates with that father figure presence who embraces his “Ruff love” principles, while Connors presents them with a commanding drill sergeant.

To the latter, life just got tougher for the Pirates. A lot tougher.

But my guess is that will make them appreciate the results even more.

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01/24/2011 02:53 AM

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