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Pirate Notebook No. 72
Monday, June 24, 2002

By Denny O'Brien
Staff Writer and Columnist

Coaching search should focus on family ties


By the Numbers:

Keith LeClair's relatively brief tenure was arguably the best of any coach at East Carolina, regardless of sport.  Since arriving in Greenville, he guided the Pirates to the national forefront, building one of college baseball's top programs.

Career record:  441-231-2

Regional Appearances: 8 ('92, '93, '94, '97, '99, '00, '01, '02)

Super Regional Appearances: 2001

Conference Championships:  8 
- Southern Conference ('92, '93, '94, '97)
- CAA ('99, '00, '01)
- C-USA (2002)

Coach-of-the-Year Honors: 
- Southern Conference ( '92, '94, '97)
- CAA ('99, '01 )
- ABCA East Region ('99, '01)

NCAA No. 1 Seeds: 3 ('99, '00, '01)

NCAA National Seeds: 2001 (No. 7)

LeClair established benchmark

Mike Hamrick isn't facing the easiest of decisions these days.  In fact, finding a suitable replacement for Keith LeClair is probably his toughest task in seven years as East Carolina's athletics director.

But what shouldn't be difficult is identifying the qualities needed to skipper the Pirates' baseball program.  Those should closely emulate the ideals of LeClair, who through hard work and determination, transformed the Pirates from a once-in-a-while contender into a prominent power on the national scene.

With LeClair, it wasn't so much what he won, nor that he won big.  Rather, it was the way that his teams won, and the manner in which he handled himself both in the dugout and out.

Hard work was the hallmark of LeClair-coached teams, which was a carryover from his blue-collar ways as a player at Western Carolina during the 80s.

"He came in and worked extremely hard," said Clemson head coach Jack Leggett, who coached LeClair at Western.  "He was  just one of those self-made players.  He worked hard on his bunting game, worked hard in the weight room.

"He's one of those kids that never gave up during his time at Western.  Nothing was ever guaranteed to him as a baseball player."

It's that mentality which fostered a dogged Omaha-or-bust drive in LeClair when he took over the ECU program in 1998.  And it's that type of mindset which must be embraced by the Pirates' next diamond boss.

From the outset, LeClair envisioned ECU reaching college baseball nirvana.  Every move he made, every recruit he signed was fueled by the purpose of reaching Rosenblatt Stadium.

With East Carolina now among the nation's elite, anything else should be deemed unacceptable by the administration.

"You look around our office, and on my computer screen, it's Omaha," said ECU assistant Kevin McMullan.  "In our locker room, we talk about going to Omaha. That is our goal."

Yet, behind that aggressive, no-holds-barred approach there was a gentle-natured soul, one that valued family and formed close bonds with his team.  "Condo" knew just when to go nose-to-nose with a player, and when to take one aside for consolation and encouragement.

Conversations with his team extended much further than balls and strikes, as LeClair often used his position as a platform for transforming his players into men.   

"One thing we took from that program up at Western Carolina is that it was a family," said Georgia Southern coach Rodney Hennon, who played for LeClair at Western.  "It was really a family type of atmosphere.  We always were a close knit group as a team.  It's not always like that everywhere."

McMullan, Hennon deserve serious looks

One way to assure that atmosphere remains unchanged in Greenville is by targeting one of LeClair's proteges, namely McMullan or Hennon.  Both embrace the bold goals of their mentor and possess the same school of thought on the field.

McMullan, some would say, lacks the experience and seasoning to take over the helm, despite the pinch-hit job he did for LeClair this season.  But Coach Mac has already been endorsed by his former boss, and has received substantial support from the players.

While player opinion, by rule, shouldn't carry significant weight, this — considering the circumstances — must be viewed as an exception.  McMullan had quite a knack for regrouping his troops following brief slumps throughout the season, and only the players and coaches can relate to or understand the methodology behind that resilient coaching touch.

As the season progressed, Coach Mac underwent a noticeable maturation process, the kind you might expect from a first-year head coach.  After tinkering with the batting order for much of the season, McMullan finally settled on a consistent one-through-nine lineup, just in time for the Bucs' C-USA championship run.

Lacking the offensive firepower of years past, he pursued other avenues to  pressure opponents.  McMullan didn't flinch at calling a bunt, steal, or hit-and-run, regardless of the man he had at the plate.

And in the sport considered the ultimate chess match, Coach Mac liked keeping the upper hand, often creating lefty versus righty and righty versus lefty matchups at the plate.  When the Pirates carried a narrow lead into the late innings, you could rest assured that the best nine defenders were on the field.

True, there are probably dozens, if not hundreds of viable candidates who meet such criteria.  That's why character, integrity, and substance are an important part of the coaching search.

McMullan meets everything ECU needs in those categories, too, displaying each admirably during an emotionally taxing campaign.

Perhaps no coach outside of LeClair could have pulled off 43 victories with a group that was missing 70 percent of its offense, but McMullan did it under the most adverse circumstances imaginable.  Never did he use LeClair's illness as an excuse for a Pirate loss, and never did he dwell on graduation and early departures for periodic offensive woes.

Nonetheless, Hamrick may seek experience for the opening, which would be understandable considering the program's elite stature.  If that's the case and McMullan isn't offered the job, Hennon should be the first candidate interviewed under that set of requirements.

Hennon is a rising star in the coaching community, one that is rising in record fashion.  Though he's been at Georgia Southern for just three seasons, he's the fastest to reach the 100-win plateau in Southern Conference history.

That's quite an accomplishment when you consider LeClair and Clemson's Jack Leggett both cut their teeth in that underrated league.

Hennon played two years for Leggett, then two for LeClair at Western as a hard-hitting, sure-handed second baseman for the Catamounts.  On the field, he applied the hard work and hustle taught by his mentors, and now lives by that philosophy as a coach.

The formula proven by both Leggett and LeClair has worked well for Hennon, too.  In all three of his seasons in Statesboro, the Eagles have landed NCAA regional appearances, earning Hennon conference coach-of-the-year honors twice during that time.

Almost every time a job opens at a university, the alumni and boosters chime in who their AD should pinpoint for the position.  More often than not, fans proclaim the job should stay within the family, giving the opportunity to an individual true to the school's colors.

That theory is partly true in East Carolina's situation.  Yes, the head baseball coach should definitely stay within the family — the LeClair family.

Send an e-mail message to Denny O'Brien.

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02/23/2007 01:46:09 AM

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