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Pirate Notebook No. 118
Friday, March 28, 2003

By Denny O'Brien
Staff Writer and Columnist

Direction of hoops program deserves vote of confidence


In most cases, a 12-15 season wouldn't result in a contract extension, but Bill Herrion — despite a modest 48-65 record in four years — should be the exception to that rule.

True, industry standards would argue against such a move. After all, East Carolina failed to improve on last year's win total and ended the season in an all-out tailspin, losing 15 of its final 20 games, not to mention each of its last six.

What's more, when you compare Herrion to his predecessor — Joe Dooley — a one-year rollover would be tough to justify. Dooley compiled a respectable 57-52 mark in four seasons, but was dismissed after not meeting the administration's expectations.

In Herrion's case, though, traditional measures can't be used as a barometer for determining job tenure.

Hired in '99 to take over a traditionally mediocre program from a middle-tier conference, few were banking on the Pirates gaining inclusion in Conference USA. That's exactly what happened, though, and it forced Herrion to downshift his rebuilding campaign and start again from the ground up.

Considering those circumstances, four years isn't nearly enough to steer a program to success in one of the nation's premier leagues, let alone a school like East Carolina, which lacks a strong thread of hardwood heritage.

"I don't think anybody knew what to expect going into Conference USA," Herrion has said. "I think I even used the term we've got to figure out how wide is the 'gap'?"

After two full seasons of C-USA play, the gap is now clearly defined. To become more competitive, East Carolina must stockpile its roster with better talent, and to do so, there needs to be a firm statement that Herrion remains the future of Pirates basketball.

Even though Herrion's job is ultimately secure, a four-year contract can be the difference between inking a blue-chipper and losing a crucial recruiting tug-of-war. Herrion's current deal runs through the 2005-06 season, meaning that without an extension, the Pirates coach can't promise incoming recruits he'll be there for their entire career.

Evidence to support an extension lies in the numbers, as in the scores of fans that are filling Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum on a fairly regular basis. Over the past two seasons the Pirates have shattered attendance marks and overflow crowds are no longer a rare occasion.

Without question, C-USA membership has much to do with the heightened interest in Pirates basketball, which during its CAA days lacked drama and excitement. Matchups with Louisville, Marquette, and Cincinnati have far greater appeal than dates with James Madison, Old Dominion, and Virginia Commonwealth.

Yet, you can't overlook the tireless efforts of Herrion, who through speaking engagements across campus and on the Pirate Club trail, has spread an epidemic of enthusiasm as infectious as bubonic plague.

"I get a little bit confused at times when I go out and do the Pirate Club circuit and go out to the alumni, people thought we had a great year last year," Herrion said last summer. "Sometimes I sit back and say, 'You know what? We only won 12 games.'"

High standards for success, along with a previous track record of postseason glory at Drexel, are clear indicators of Herrion's ability to lead a striving program. All he needs now is better talent — and that doesn't occur overnight.

Whether or not Herrion can eventually lead East Carolina from purgatory to the penthouse remains to be seen, but at the very least, his ability to sell Pirates basketball deserves a nod of approval from his superiors.

Herrion has clearly articulated where he wants to lead ECU hoops and has expressed confidence that the program is on the right path.

"Our ultimate goal with East Carolina basketball is we want to get to postseason play," he said. "The NIT or the NCAA, that's our ultimate goal. And we want to get there quick.

"Again, I go back to if we're doing the things we're supposed to do, our kids are playing and competing really hard, and we're bringing good players in — I really like where we're going."

The administration should, too.

And that should be worth a one-year extension.

Recruiting needs

Paramount to the Pirates' future success is the bagging of a dynamic point guard. From the get-go, Herrion has proclaimed it No. 1 on his agenda.

But with Jason Herring's knee still in question and signee Keith Foster's academic situation up in the air, Herrion recognizes the frontcourt is another area of great concern.

"Where I think we're at with our program right now as we put it together and we build it and we move forward, probably the biggest thing that we face, particularly with our frontcourt — our big guys — is depth," he said. "I think with Moussa, Gabriel Mikulas, and Erroyl Bing, we've got three solid frontcourt players that have gotten great experience and a lot of playing time and are going to be good players in this conference, but we need depth."

Talented big men are in short order, Herrion says, which makes it especially tough to lure blue chip horses Down East.

Though there have been a few exceptions — ie. David West (Xavier) and Chris Marcus (Western Kentucky) — the traditional powers have formed a monopoly over skilled post players.

"When we go out and recruit in the summer and we go to these all-star camps and these AAU national tournaments," Herrion noted, "the hardest position to recruit for us where we're at right now (is post players) because everybody wants good big guys."

United league

Combining C-USA's American and National divisions next season could do wonders for the Pirates' win-loss record. East Carolina played in the the tougher of the two divisions, the American, which produced three NCAA tournament teams this season.

According to Herrion, though, the move won't come without consequence, as Pirates fans are no longer guaranteed an appearance by the league's biggest draws.

"I think for East Carolina, it's good-bad," Herrion said. "I think a lot of our fans were really waiting for Cincinnati to come into this arena; to see a nationally-ranked program; to see a Bob Huggins; to see a basketball team that, for years, has played at a very high level.

"I think for us at East Carolina, with the two divisions, I think our side is pretty tough. Now, I'm not saying that we could go on the other side and just win basketball games. That's not what I'm saying. But now when you go to one conference, I think maybe for East Carolina, you might not be bringing in the marquee programs and coaches so to say, but now I think it gives everybody a fair chance."

Scheduling upgrade needed

C-USA membership has significantly bolstered the Pirates' strength of schedule, which ranked 78 out of 327 teams this season.

Improving the non-conference slate should be next on the agenda.

When asked about scheduling last summer, Herrion didn't have a strong opinion, but did note that winning out of conference was crucial due to the lineup of heavyweights the Pirates face in league play.

"Right now, I don't really have a view," he said. "I think the bottom line right now is we've got to win.

"Teams that we think we should be able to beat, right now, I don't know how much better we are than those teams. We're improving, we're getting better, and we're building this thing. But I think right now, the philosophy is in the non-conference schedule, we've just got to win. We've got to take every game one game at a time and we've got to try to win that game."

A quick breakdown of the Pirates' non-conference lineup isn't pretty. Only two opponents played in leagues that received more than one NCAA bid. Two more were from the Division II ranks.

Perhaps the most puzzling game was a December 23 date with Coastal Carolina — in Conway, SC. Kind of tough to create a big-time feel when you make appearances in high school gyms, isn't it?

That isn't to suggest East Carolina needs to frontload its schedule with Florida, Kentucky, and Texas. However, adding a few of the nation's premier mid-majors would be a significant upgrade from the usual cast of non-conference characters.

UNC-Wilmington would be a good start.

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02/23/2007 01:53:01 AM

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