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Pirate Notebook Special: Part Two of Three Parts

Pirate Notebook No. 51
Wednesday, February 13, 2002

By Denny O'Brien
Staff Writer and Columnist

Coach's Low-key Confidence Rubs Off on Team


Editor's Note: This edition of Pirate Notebook is Part Two of a three-part feature focusing on East Carolina baseball coach Keith LeClair. Click the following links to view each part in the series:
1. Pirate Notebook No. 50
2. Pirate Notebook No. 51
3. Q&A with Keith LeClair

LeClair's Style Breeds Success at ECU

If Keith LeClair maintains his current pace, he'll have to add a new wing to his Greenville home.

It's not that East Carolina's fifth-year coach is expecting to add another member to his family. He's just running out of room to shelve the numerous awards won in ten years as a Division I head baseball coach.

In addition to today's Pirate Notebook, click here to read Denny O'Brien's Q&A with Keith LeClair...

That goes without mentioning the hardware he brought home as a hard-hitting first basemen at Western Carolina. There, he shattered the WCU record for single-season hits (101) and total bases (179) en route to earning All-Southern Conference honors and taking home the league tournament MVP trophy in 1988.

But impressive as that may be, it is overshadowed by the level of consistency LeClair has maintained as a head coach. That's exactly what the ten-year head coaching veteran says is his greatest achievement on the baseball diamond.

"I take great pride in the fact that in the ten years that I've been a head coach, I think I've had a consistent career," LeClair said. "We've been to seven regionals. I say we, because it's not about me, it's about the players and coaches that have worked together with a common goal to be successful."

"I take great pride that in ten years, we haven't had a lot of valleys. I feel like we've always been pushing forward. I think that knowing that what we do in our program works, and when teams win, a program builds consistency. I think our program has worked over the years."

The evidence is in the results. Twice, the Pirates' skipper has guided teams to within outs of a trip to the College World Series. He first did so as 25-year old rookie coach at his alma mater, before delivering once again as a seasoned veteran last year at East Carolina.

All totaled, LeClair-coached teams have reached the NCAA regionals seven times, while winning seven conference titles. During his championship-filled tenure, LeClair is averaging just under 40 wins per season, and is just two victories shy of the illustrious 400-win club.

Not bad for a guy in his mid-30s.

Part of LeClair's formula for success has been his managerial style. While some prefer a totalitarian approach, LeClair entrusts in his assistants a great deal of authority, giving them the nod to lead with the knowledge that their boss won't be questioning every move.

"Some head coaches can be control freaks, but I've never been like that," LeClair said. "I give coach (Kevin) McMullan control of the hitters. I give coach (Tommy) Eason control of the pitchers. A great deal of the credit to our success goes to our assistant coaches."

Such a philosophy could be damaging without a knowledgeable staff. That's not the case at East Carolina, though, as LeClair carefully hand-picked his assistants from a talented pool of applicants.

McMullan, the Pirates' hitting instructor and recruiting coordinator, played professionally in the New York Yankees organization following a record-breaking career at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Pitching coach Tommy Eason etched his name all over the ECU record books and then climbed his way to the AAA ranks before nagging injuries ended his professional career. Eddie Loesner is also a product of the Pirates' program, while George Whitfield is a member of five different Halls of Fame.

McMullan, who served as an assistant at St. John's prior to landing in Greenville, prefers LeClair's approach, noting that it is a big reason for the Pirates' success.

"He (LeClair) wants his assistants to do the coaching," McMullan said. "That's his style.

"He's very open to information. He's not a guy that says, 'It's this way, or it's that way.' He's a very, very good listener, and I think his style has helped our whole staff, program, and our players better."

LeClair's low-key approach with his players has produced results. Degrading kids has never been his style, he says, as respect is a two-way street.

"Each coach has their own style that they are comfortable with," he said. "You look at Bobby Knight, and he has a certain style that has made him successful.

"But I've never been like that. I've never been one to hoot and holler. I've never been an in-your-face type of coach. My theory is that I like to treat players with the type of respect that I would want if I were a player."

The task now is to ride that mutual respect to even greater success on a national level, where the Pirates are ranked in just one of the three major polls.

Something to Prove

Following three straight seasons in which it earned NCAA number-one seeds, you would expect to find East Carolina listed highly in the national polls. After all, the Pirates have been a fixture in the rankings over the last three seasons, including a lengthy stay in the top 10 last year.

For whatever reason, that's not the case for the 2002 Pirates, who are currently ranked in just one of the polls — 29th in Collegiate Baseball Newspaper.

"As far as pre-season polls are concerned, it really means a lot more to our staff where we are at the end of the year," McMullan said. "But, as we said to our players about a month ago, we're not in any of the top 25 polls.

"We put something on the board that said, 'Where are the Pirates? Where is the respect for our program?' That should be enough right there to really motivate our guys."

Not that they needed the extra motivation.

Despite being overlooked by the pollsters, goals and expectations remain unchanged for the Pirate players, who exude the quiet confidence reflected by their coach.

"Expectations breed expectations," said LeClair, a two-time ABCA East Region Coach of the Year. "This year, we expect to get back there, and we expect to win.

"It certainly helps these players to understand where they're at, what we're trying to do, and how we're going to get there. Our program hasn't changed over the last three years — we've done the same thing. If these kids buy into what we are doing, and I think they do, then we have a great chance of getting back to the Regionals, and the Super Regionals."

A deep NCAA run this year will depend highly on a retooled offense, which lost the heart of its batting order. Chad Tracy, Joseph Hastings, John Williamson, Lee Delfino, and Cliff Godwin provided the Pirates lineup with a lot of pop last season — 63 home runs — and replacing that type of production will be no simple task.

That doesn't seem to be a concern to McMullan, who oversees the Pirates' hitters. The third-year assistant says the offense will have a different personality this season, but that doesn't suggest the Pirates will struggle at the plate.

"I don't think we will be any less of an offense than we were last year," McMullan said. "Will we hit as many home runs? Well, I can tell you this, we hit more home runs this fall than we did last fall. A lot of people don't know that because we don't keep those statistics sports information-wise.

"I think we'll be more of a situational type of hitting team. You can hit .290 and be productive. It all has to do with timing, and I think that all of our guys are very, very good situational hitters, who will occasionally drive the baseball out of the park."

Expected to lead the charge this year is Bryant Ward, who led the Bucs in hitting last season, while playing out of position at second base. Ward will enjoy the comforts of a return to the hot corner this year, the position he played as a sophomore.

Ward, along with fellow seniors Warren Gaspar (CF) and Clayton McCullough (C), will be depended on heavily to spark the Pirates offensively. According to McMullan, it will be a more diverse offense this season, closely resembling the Pirates' outfit in 1999.

"We'll be able to steal bases," McMullan said. "We've got some guys that run and put pressure on people.

"And you know, it's a funny thing, that if you watch baseball over time, you'll notice that the guys that pitch and play defense usually get timely hits. It's amazing how it works together. There's so much more to offensive baseball than being able to hit a home run."

And the mantra surrounding this year's team suggests it will do whatever it takes to get to Omaha, be it a perfectly executed bunt, or a late-inning launch to the wooded area beyond the outfield fence known as "The Jungle."

If You Build It...

Since LeClair's arrival in 1998, numerous records have fallen at East Carolina. Included among those are attendance numbers, which have steadily increased each year.

Vacant seats in ECU's tiny Harrington Field are few and far between, which sends an overflow of fans to the "The Jungle" each game. That support hasn't gone unnoticed by LeClair, who attributes much of the Pirates' on-the-field success to the 10th man in the stands.

"When you look at the programs across the country that year in, year out, are successful," LeClair said, "they all have great fan attendance. I think that has been a big part of our success here. I really think that it has elevated our program to the point where it helps our players on the field."

What LeClair also noticed a couple of years ago is that the Pirates have outgrown their quaint little venue. With limited seating and outmoded facilities, Harrington Field doesn't give East Carolina the flexibility to host post-season tournaments, a facilities shortcoming for which the Pirates have paid dearly in the past.

East Carolina was awarded NCAA tournament number one seeds in both 1999 and 2000, though sub-par facilities forced the Pirates to sail to Louisiana. ECU was unsuccessful in both trips to the bayou, and it became apparent that a new stadium was needed in Greenville.

With a new home in the planning phases, ECU again earned a top seed last year. This time, the Pirates stayed much closer to home, hosting a Regional in Wilson, followed by the Super Regional in Kinston.

Playing at home is invaluable come tournament time, LeClair says, which is evident by last year's Omaha field.

"It will be important this year to host the Regionals, to host the Super Regionals," he said. "Seven of the eight teams last year in the College World Series hosted the Super Regionals. That is important year in and year out."

East Carolina has raised half of what it needs to fund the building of the new stadium, which will reside on the same land occupied by Harrington Field. Overseeing the second-half push for funds are long-time Pirate Club members Walter Williams and Jim Ward, who is the father of the Pirates' third baseman.

But until a facility is in place, LeClair can't fully leverage it as a strategic selling point for the program as he courts blue-chip talent. And with the Pirates' on a mission to elevate their status, meeting financial goals has become crucial to that task.

"You know, we can talk about it all we want, but an 18-year old kid wants to actually see it," LeClair said. "Though I think it has helped spark interest within the program, I don't think any program has really been helped until the facility is in place.

"When that happens, I think that's when you'll see even more improvement in our program. We're halfway there in our financial campaign, but we need to finish the deal."

Doing so will give future Pirates the luxury of playing in one of the nation's finest facilities, a stadium that will likely be known as "The House that Keith Built."

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02/23/2007 01:45:45 AM

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