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Notes, Quotes and Slants

Pirate Notebook No. 153
Tuesday, November 4, 2003

By Denny O'Brien
Staff Writer and Columnist

Herrion deserves breakout year


Bill Herrion doesn't own a winning record at East Carolina, but the fifth-year Pirates coach is no less a winner.

That basketball no longer is a casual diversion sandwiched between the football regular season and spring practice is a testament to Herrion's impact in Greenville. Suddenly East Carolina looks less like a basketball wasteland and more like fertile soil from which hoops can blossom.

Rarely is such an assertion made about a program that has yet to win a road contest in its own league, but as long as Herrion patrols the Pirates' sidelines, the potential for significant roundball growth always will exist.

"Typically time goes by quick when things go really well," Herrion told a group of reporters at ECU's preseason media day. "Sometimes it seems like it's been 55 years here.

"We're still in the process here of trying to build a program and put the pieces together. And I'll be honest with you, I still feel really confident about where we're at with this basketball team and program."

And Pirates fans should, too.

On a campus that now is short on sports heroes, Herrion has become the one figure around whom the fan base can rally.

His entrance into Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum has become so dramatic that it might as well be accompanied by the theme from Family Feud. That first appearance in his purple blazer — then the quick removal of it — is a pre-game ceremony with an ovation outdone only by the playing of the National Anthem.

But why such a response for a coach whose four-year record is an unimpressive 48-65?

That's easy. East Carolina overachieved when it hired Herrion, a successful coach who lifted Drexel to the top layer of the mid-major crop. In eight seasons, he won 167 games as his Dragons became a fixture in the postseason.

However, since his arrival in Greenville, Herrion has crossed the path of one black cat after another.

His first season was underscored by the injury to Evaldys Jocys, by far the Pirates' best player. The NCAA cracked its whip in year three, suspending frontcourt stars Gabriel Mikulas and Moussa Badiane for participating in games in which other players were paid. Last season, one of the most talented frontcourt recruits in program history — Jason Herring — suffered a career-threatening injury to his knee in a car accident.

Yet, somehow Herrion was able to coach the Pirates to wins over Richmond, Rutgers, Northwestern, Louisville, Ole Miss, Virginia Tech, and Marquette (twice). Not bad for a program perceived as a basketball black hole.

An evaluation of Herrion's tenure at ECU can't include the normal criteria by which most coaches are measured. If that were the case, the Pirates would be breaking in a new coach this year.

Though not evident in the overall record, the progress East Carolina has made in basketball has been exponential. The level of play and the quality of athletes have drastically improved as a result of Herrion's tireless efforts, despite the large number of obstacles he continues to face.

Basketball never has received top billing at ECU, despite its location in a hoops-crazed state. In fact, the hoops successes at Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest often have thwarted the Pirates' efforts, as the top recruits in the East traditionally leave home.

That goes without mentioning the gigantic leap East Carolina took from the Colonial to Conference USA, which was the equivalent of asking a newborn to run a mile.

Despite those hurdles, the Pirates have, for the most part, won the games they should have — and a few they shouldn't — while keeping scores mostly respectable against heavily favored foes. In the process, East Carolina has become a road trip on the C-USA schedule that no program wants to make.

"Our fans have been great," Herrion said. "Our students have done an unbelievable job of getting behind this basketball team and the Minges Maniacs are starting to develop a reputation. We need people in that building every single night supporting the Pirates, and I believe that winning and winning consistently will help that."

For those who have suffered through years of basketball purgatory at East Carolina, a breakout season would seem a just reward.

But nobody is more deserving of a landmark year than Herrion.

'It's time'

East Carolina has a new battle cry on the hardwood. The Pirates informally have adopted 'It's time' as their slogan for the season.

"We always talk ... in sports and in coaching about, 'OK, let's take the next step,'" Herrion said. "I can't explain to you what the next step is. I can't say it's this many wins.

"We'll take care of business in November and December. We'll win non-conference games. What we have to figure out now is, do we really belong in this league in January and February, night in and night out. Can we step out on the court and be competitive with the teams that are in this league?"

One of the next steps ECU must take is on the road, where it still is searching for a C-USA win.

Forgiving format

The Pirates don't have to worry about home-and-homes with Louisville, Cincinnati, and Marquette anymore. C-USA's new format, which has eliminated divisional play, will provide a much easier slate than what ECU has faced in the previous two seasons.

"I think it is going to help us," Herrion said. "Playing everybody once and then flipping over and playing three teams twice, I think is going to give us a more competitive chance to be successful on the court.

"This is a talented, talented league. Every night you step on the court in this league you're playing against pros. This is a great league for us because it has opened our fans' eyes to big time basketball which we've never had here at East Carolina."

Of course, there also is a downside to the new scheduling system. Annual trips by Cincinnati and Marquette — neither of which must face the tough Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum crowd this year — have boosted attendance significantly.

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02/23/2007 01:53:11 AM


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