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Pirate Notebook No. 316
Monday, August 20, 2007

By Denny O'Brien

Schedule presents rare opportunity

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

East Carolina’s 2007 schedule ranks as one of the most difficult in its 75-year gridiron history. That much won’t be debated.

But while many outside the program focus on the arduous undertaking the Pirates’ 12-game gauntlet presents, what is overlooked is the much-anticipated opportunity that awaits ECU.

If ever a season existed in which the Pirates could shed their ‘no-respect’ stigma, look no further than this one. With two national title contenders and the two most hated in-state rivals on the docket, the chance to make significant headway with both the national and state media has never been greater.

It’s actually the latter that has presented the most titanic burden for East Carolina. With the Pirates’ rich history of both challenging and defeating opponents from the self-labeled power conferences, one could argue that ECU’s acceptance within national football circles far exceeds those locally.

For better or worse, the Pirates years ago carved their niche within the national media as a ‘Giant Killer’. Though many view the label as a backhanded compliment, the root of it was drenched with respect, and the resulting reputation placed ECU on a short list of programs that many refuse to schedule.

That perception took a powerful body blow during John Thompson’s erroneous tenure, but Skip Holtz has quickly polished that tarnish from ECU’s image. In just two seasons he’s already posted three victories over Atlantic Coast Conference schools and twice given West Virginia everything it could handle.

With the possible exception of the 2005 meeting at West Virginia, these weren’t cases where East Carolina snuck up on its opponents. Nor were smoke and mirrors required for success.

An upgraded talent pool and astute coaching staff is the more accurate explanation. Anyone who witnessed the Pirates’ impressive victories last season over Virginia and N.C. State will attest to that.

What 2007 offers is the chance to build on the in-state momentum that was generated last season. It’s rare enough to have either North Carolina or N.C. State on the schedule in a given year, but to play them both at home in the same season just doesn’t occur.

It’s almost as rare for East Carolina to face an in-state rival without at least one lame-duck coach stealing the storyline. That won’t be the case this year, as hope and enthusiasm now exist within all three programs.

That should serve to legitimize the stakes – and the winner – in each game.

In the short term, the importance of ECU’s home opener against North Carolina can’t be overstated. While the historical significance of a victory no doubt would resonate within the ECU constituency, the overall impact of that game on the 2007 season is borderline immeasurable.

That’s because North Carolina represents the easiest opponent on ECU’s September schedule. Lose, and entering October winless is a very distinct possibility.

Even so, it’s the long-range effects presented by the outcomes against both UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State that are most intriguing.

Close to home, wins over both could convince fans to unload that ‘chip-on-the-shoulder’ battle cry that has evolved into a sometimes unhealthy complex. Though viewed by most as a motivating rally call – and at one time it was – what it actually suggests today is a sense of not belonging.

And if that is the core belief within, you can certainly rationalize why it would exist among outsiders.

Perhaps the most fruitful impact of winning would be harvested along the recruiting front. The Pirates have certainly experienced major gains since Holtz and his staff arrived, but many have questioned to what extent the coaching transitions within rival programs assisted those efforts.

Win or lose, that won’t be debated next Signing Day.

Perhaps what will is which program sits atop the state pecking order. Along with Wake Forest, that’s an argument in which ECU currently belongs, and victories over both the Tar Heels and Wolfpack would only solidify the Pirates’ claim.

Make no mistake, neither North Carolina nor N.C. State represents ECU’s biggest game this fall. The Pirates face Virginia Tech, West Virginia, and at least two Conference USA opponents that are better than both the Heels and Pack.

But in 2007, the ‘What Ifs?’ with ECU and its in-state rivals won’t be pondered in newspaper columns, during radio call-ins, or in message board posts. Finally, the Pirates have the opportunity to settle those debates on the field.

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08/20/2007 02:45:17 AM

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