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Read Denny O'Brien's feature on Scott Cowen's confrontation with the Bowl Championship Series in Bonesville Magazine.

Pirate Notebook No. 215
Tuesday, November 9, 2004

By Denny O'Brien
Staff Writer and Columnist

Herrion elevates stature of hoops at ECU


Bonesville Magazine

• PAT DYE: Short on Tenure, Long on Impact

• Recruit Profiles
• Rookie Books
• Tracking the Classes
• Florida Pipeline
• NCHSAA & ECU: Smooth Sailing Again


• STEVE BALLARD: New Leader Takes Charge

• SCOTT COWEN: Busting Down the Door

• KEITH LECLAIR on ECU's Field of Dreams

• BETH GRANT: Actress Still a Pirate




Under normal circumstances, I might fidget if my name was Bill Herrion. After five seasons and a 61-79 record, most coaches would.

Given the big business nature of college sports, coaching tenures typically are determined by the bottom line — the margin that separates wins and losses. When the gap annually grows in the wrong direction, ADs rarely respond with a resounding endorsement.

But not every coach has faced the daunting task of surviving in East Carolina's unforgiving hoops climate. Amid the mystique of Tobacco Road, the towering shadow of ECU's football culture, and the sudden thrust into one of the nation's power conferences, Herrion's situation has been far from usual.

Take it from the beginning, where his arrival in Greenville was relatively unobtrusive. Considering basketball's backburner position within the community, there was little hoopla over Herrion's hiring despite his reputation as one of the nation's top up-and-coming coaches.

What experts labeled a hiring coup, many Pirates fans dismissed as a casual diversion while biding time until football season. That Herrion fled the successful hoops machine he built at Drexel for the historically dormant program at ECU raised eyebrows abroad, but received little reaction at home.

Such is the scenario that no longer exists at East Carolina. In its place is a mindset that basketball now has an important niche in the culture of Pirates athletics.

Thanks to Herrion.

Sure, the case can be made that membership in Conference USA and regular dates with heavyweights Louisville, Cincinnati, and Memphis are largely responsible for ECU's enhanced appeal. No doubt, escaping the hardwood purgatory of a run-of-the-mill league like the CAA has greatly polished the Pirates' image.

It also can be argued that football's fall from grace in Greenville has attributed to roundball's increased importance. To a certain degree, it has become a salve for the bruised pride that exists within the pigskin-tormented fan base.

But what is most attractive about this improved product is its architect. From the program's perception to the caliber of player it now attracts, Herrion has given East Carolina an extreme makeover fit for reality TV.

Most significant is the transformation of what goes on inside Williams Arena, where fans now have an intense passion for Billyball.

"It's been a lot of hard work, believe me," Herrion said. "I think what's happened is, when I came here going on six years ago, we were in the Colonial Athletic Association. And I think when you are playing in the shadow of the ACC — with the ACC schools being right up the road — I don't know if our fans really respected the CAA.

"I've said this many times. I really think the CAA conference is probably one of the most underrated mid-major Division I basketball conferences in the country. I think until we made the jump into Conference USA with all of our sports, particularly with our basketball program three years ago, I think that kind of opened our fans' eyes to 'big-time' basketball."

And to the revelation of another fact — East Carolina had itself a 'big-time' coach.

That much became evident in Herrion's first game against a C-USA opponent. Without the services of Gabriel Mikulas, the Pirates' best player, ECU took a Cincinnati club that ended the regular season ranked among the Top 5 down to the wire.

That Pirates team lacked competitive talent by major-college standards. Yet, Herrion devised a plan that notch five conference wins, including victories at home over Louisville and No. 9 Marquette.

If the mark of a good coach is the ability to maximize talent and mask a team's shortcomings, Herrion should be considered a gem. Week in, week out, the Pirates have been overmatched by superior personnel in C-USA, but have been in contention late in games save for only a handful of outings.

By changing defenses and slowing the pace, Herrion has been able to compensate for the talent gap that has existed during the Pirates' run in C-USA. Though inconsistent behind the arc, East Carolina has been efficient on offense with solid ball-handling and patience.

In short, Herrion has made the Pirates competitive in the sport that is most dictated by talent without having an abundance of it.

But now the trend is shifting.

"I kind of like the direction that we are going in right now with our team defensively," Herrion said. "I think what has happened is that we have definitely closed the gap here at East Carolina with our basketball program in this league athletically and talent-wise."

Moussa Badiane and Mike Cook are prime examples of that. No doubt, both will find work on the hardwood once their college careers are complete.

As rare an occurrence as that may be for ECU hoops, chances are the talented duo won't be the last. Herrion's past two recruiting classes are loaded with enough potential that, with a little polish, more could follow.

That's a strong testament to the level to which Herrion has elevated the program over the past five years. But it isn't most telling fact.

More than anything, Herrion's greatest feat is something his predecessors failed to accomplish. Under his supervision, basketball has become a sport that truly matters at ECU.

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02/23/2007 01:57:13 AM

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