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Pirate Notebook No. 342
Monday, April 21, 2008

By Denny O'Brien

Memory Lane is worth repaving

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

I often date myself with musical references to one-hit wonders and memories of troubled sitcom stars. It makes for good banter with older colleagues.

But when I now speak of what is likely East Carolina’s most impressive athletics accomplishment, my reminiscing takes a vastly different path:

I was feasting on Enfamil when it occurred. A regimen of regular feedings and mid-afternoon slumbers were the daily protocol.

No alarm clocks. No mortgage. Complete detachment from anything that resembled a keyboard. Totally oblivious to any appendage of East Carolina athletics.

In fact, it was only a month ago that I was approached by a member of East Carolina’s most celebrated collection of student-athletes, a group that top to bottom is likely the most decorated team in ECU’s sports annals. Hall of Fame wrestler Milt Sherman educated me on the Pirates’ memorable run through the 1973 North Carolina Collegiate Championships, an annual tournament that attracted all of the in-state programs for a two-day battle for bragging rights.

E-mail exchanges with Sherman ultimately led to a meeting, and Coach John Welborn and former teammates Bill Hill and Mike Radford joined the huddle. A couple of hours before East Carolina’s annual spring football game, they reminisced while I listened. My contribution was a one-liner about pampers.

They told stories. Lots of them. And their memories were as vivid as my recollection of last night’s dinner.

There were stories about the long treks they made to thoroughly pulverize an opponent, tales underscored by fond chuckles about the extra gas cans that accompanied road trips. It’s a smart practice if you’ve helplessly watched the tank run dry.

There were stories about ECU’s dominance over in-state opponents, to which Welborn’s record against rivals firmly attests. During his decade-long leadership of the program, East Carolina experienced one loss against an in-state program.

Just one.

It was the type of dominance that motivated 0-for Carolina to drop East Carolina from its annual dual meet schedule. But that did little to cease the beatings Welborn habitually administered on the recruiting trail.

In his own words, when a recruit was deciding between North Carolina, N.C. State, and ECU… “I got him.”

Then there was the story of the ’73 N.C. Collegiate Championships, the centerpiece of our conversation and a tale worth repeating. It was a December to remember as East Carolina did what no other college program has done in this type of setting: win every single match.

Though three-plus decades separate them from that memorable weekend, and a few grey hairs have replaced those unruly 70's do’s, Welborn and his charges remember it vividly. If only I told it so well.

“I don’t know of any other tournament that a team has won all ten weight classes,” Sherman said. “It’s just unheard of. You don’t win all ten, particularly with 18 or 19 teams in it.”

“All it would have taken was one off match in a two-day event. Instead, the starters went at least 40-0 for those two days.”

That’s perfection. Undefeated, untied perfection. It was the equivalent of a series sweep in baseball with three no-hitters.

“We weren’t predicting within the team that we were going to win all ten weight classes,” Sherman continued. “Anybody having an off match in the quarterfinals or semifinals would have blown that idea.

“Even in the finals, we were not favored in all ten weights. Our opponents were favored in the first two weights. We got on a roll.”

Truth is, East Carolina wrestling was on a giant roll, and that weekend displayed only a small glimpse of the dominant program that Welborn built. His 94-14-3 record will probably never be matched at ECU in any sport.

Perhaps it could have been surpassed had East Carolina not guillotined its powerhouse wrestling program several years later, and done so for reasons of which Welborn isn’t completely sure. Nor does he like to discuss it.

If the sport were still a part of ECU's athletics portfolio, maybe more would know about the amazing weekend the Pirates spent in Chapel Hill in December 1973.

At least the stories survived. The one about the ’73 run through the North Carolina Collegiate Championships is one of many worth reviving.

Send an e-mail message to Denny O'Brien.

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04/21/2008 01:13:02 AM

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