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Pirate Notebook No. 323
Monday, October 17, 2007

By Denny O'Brien

‘Rivalry’ lacking more than luster

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

Remember when the East Carolina-N.C. State football rivalry was fun?

I surely do.

But you have to rewind to the first day of 1992 to find a game in which the stakes involved were remotely high for both.

That was the memorable Peach Bowl, a New Year’s meeting of two Top 25 clubs on neutral turf. Since then, the two programs have traveled down an endless course of ebb and flow, with almost each match-up highlighting two clubs on opposite ends of the competitive spectrum.

Only the 1997 game in Raleigh featured two teams on seemingly level ground. And that was a game in which both entered 5-5, and neither was getting a serious sniff from a postseason bowl.

Thankfully there have been notable individual performances.

In ’96 it was Scott Harley, who rumbled over Wolfpack defenders and through the Ericsson Stadium swamp en route to an ECU-record 351 yards rushing and a 50-29 blowout win. In ’97 it was Mr. Wolfpack himself — Torry Holt — shredding ECU’s porous defense to rally State past the Pirates in the second half.

It was David Garrard’s turn in ’99, topping the century mark both in passing and rushing while leading the Pirates to an easy 23-6 'W' in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. ECU certainly could have used that in 2004, when a collective effort by the Raleigh Sack Exchange highlighted a thorough 52-14 pounding in Charlotte.

There also has been no shortage of external drama surrounding this series.

Thrice in the past eight years this game has marked the finale for a head coach. State losses were the final straw for Mike O’Cain (’99) and Chuck Amato (’06), while ECU’s John Thompson was the quintessential lame duck in 2004.

In all three cases, rumors of potential successors sparked more banter than the games themselves. It’s all part of the sad evolution of a rivalry that has downgraded itself from one marked by passion to one nearly underscored by relative indifference.

In West Raleigh, many fans would just as soon see the game permanently removed from future schedules. The North Carolina legislature’s insistence years ago that the series be renewed still grates that portion of Wolfpack Nation to the core.

Though the same sentiment doesn’t apply in Greenville, you can hardly deny that overall interest in playing the Pack has somewhat declined. With the non-conference schedules AD Terry Holland has assembled, several other opponents have gotten more focus from fans Down East.

The case can even be made that the buildup leading into Conference USA showdowns with Southern Miss and Central Florida ignited a bigger inferno within the ECU constituency than the one this week. And if the Pirates beat the Wolfpack Saturday, it’ll be difficult for the emotion to top what was experienced in El Paso on Saturday.

Truthfully, it’s tempting to trace the deflating enthusiasm in this series to the late Jim Valvano’s decision to issue it the Death Penalty in 1987. After all, the frequency with which schools appear on each others’ schedules plays a huge factor in defining rivalries.

But that’s just one detail — a pretty big one, mind you — and Jimmy V can’t be blamed for the ultimate demise of this once-intense rivalry.

College rivalries are most fun when both schools are on the competitive upswing and the stakes are important. That typically sets the media ablaze and fans in full-throttle smack mode for at least two weeks leading into the game.

In that scenario, the general sentiment among both is that the outcome can provide the ultimate momentum shift — good or bad — with residual effects that last throughout the season.

It’s been a long time since that sentiment applied to both East Carolina and N.C. State at the same time.

True, the atmosphere inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium will be rocking Saturday, perhaps as much as it was when the Pirates hosted a rare visit from North Carolina. That’s generally the case anytime an in-state or ACC school visits Greenville.

But there’s no denying that the emphasis within the ECU fan base on playing N.C. State isn’t quite what it once was. For many Wolfpack partisans, a permanent cancellation would suit them just fine.

Sadly, this rivalry has lost most of its fun.

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10/18/2007 12:48:51 AM

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