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Pirate Notebook No. 465
Monday, May 2, 2011

Denny O'Brien

Decade-old decision haunting ECU

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

Was East Carolina short-sighted a decade ago when it accepted an all-sports invitation to join Conference USA?

That’s the question with which I’ve been wrestling since the NCAA Tournament.

Virginia Commonwealth’s Final Four run was the second in five seasons for programs from the Colonial Athletic Association, the league the Pirates fled to join C-USA.

Those two Final Four trips are double the amount earned by C-USA during that time. And if you asked those within the national media who cover the sport religiously, they’d likely tell you that that the CAA has surpassed C-USA in basketball prestige.

But that’s hardly the most compelling argument when examining this issue.

Money is.

When East Carolina bolted the CAA for C-USA, it traded a relatively inexpensive bus pass for a budget-busting supply of commercial airline tickets. Now anytime the ECU baseball, softball, or tennis teams travel to face a conference opponent, the only buses involved are those that carry them 90 miles to the Raleigh-Durham airport.

That’s by far the shortest leg of the journey to any rival C-USA venue.

The result has been a significant strain on ECU’s bottom line and a dramatic increase in missed classes for student-athletes. In other words, it has produced significant strain for East Carolina’s athletics programs, both financially and academically.

In fairness to Mike Hamrick, the AD when the Pirates changed membership to C-USA for all sports, the move was widely embraced by most ECU supporters. At the time it was viewed as an opportunity to finally elevate a struggling basketball program and potentially provide it with some legitimacy in a state dominated by Atlantic Coast Conference hoops headlines.

Instead of visits to William & Mary Hall, the Pirates would be playing in Freedom Hall. Instead of league games against what most pundits considered “low major” competition, ECU would be mixing it up with national powers.

Besides, Hamrick obviously had no indication that C-USA’s membership would get pillaged by the Big East and subsequently go through a less-appealing makeover. So from many angles, at least given what was seemingly obvious at the time, the move seemed like a no-brainer.

Unless you crunched the numbers.

Even before El Paso and Tulsa became far-reaching league outposts, C-USA was already an airport conference. Many of the schools that fled C-USA for the Big East weren’t even in the same time zone as ECU, so the travel burden had to be well-known, and the financial impact had to be understood back when the trigger was pulled.

Was that taken into consideration? If it was, did Hamrick and his advisors believe that increased revenue from C-USA’s multiple NCAA bids and hoops television coverage would compensate for that?

These are interesting questions that are easily asked now.

Regardless of whether you think the criticism is fair, it can easily be argued today that the decision to move all of its programs to C-USA was one on which East Carolina misfired. It was a move that appeared to cater primarily to men’s basketball interests, and it has taken a decade for any fruit to be plucked on the hardwood.

You can’t help but wonder if ECU would have made the same decision had Terry Holland been the Pirates’ AD at the time. Given his penchant for thinking outside the box and his willingness to rock the boat, my guess is he would have thought long and hard before making such a move.

Considering his history with the ACC and his relationships with many of its administrators, he would have had a decent gauge of what his former conference was thinking about the future. Even the slightest rumblings of future shifting would have prompted Holland to hit the pause button.

At least ECU has him in place today to oversee the cleanup for the unquestionable financial fix that Hamrick’s decision has gotten the Pirates into. Holland has had to address it partially with a non-conference football scheduling philosophy that ensures sell-outs but, unfortunately, assures the football team of being underdogs in most non-league games.

Needless to say, East Carolina would be better situated today in all sports had it kept its other programs in the CAA. That applies financially, academically, and competitively.

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05/02/2011 04:38 AM

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