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Pirate Notebook No. 370
Monday, January 12, 2009

Denny O'Brien

App State presents no-win scenario

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

Terry Holland has pulled off his share of scheduling coups during his tenure as East Carolina’s athletics CEO. Appalachian State doesn’t rank among of them.

In the high stakes sport of college football, facing the cross-state Mountaineers is at best a break-even bet. That, of course, is providing the Pirates soundly throttle Appalachian the way a major college program should when it faces a Football Championship Subdivision (I-AA) foe.

Any other scenario and ECU doesn’t leave the table with even money.

When Holland struck the deal with Appalachian AD Charlie Cobb, many – including me – questioned the decision. Of all schools in the two subdivisions that comprise Division I, the Mountaineers likely ranked among the lowest on the list of opponents fans were clamoring to see in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

Much of that can be attributed to the programs fans have grown accustomed to seeing on ECU’s regular season schedule. During the Skip Holtz era, that has almost exclusively included opponents from conferences that have automatic ties to the Bowl Championship Series.

Navy stands as the lone exception.

There is no denying that there is some logic for scheduling App. With an opening on the schedule – and the need to fill another home slot – the number of available opponents to fill that slot almost exclusively included FCS foes in search of a handsome paycheck.

And with Appalachian’s expressed desire to play major in-state schools, the Mountaineers at the very least had to be considered a candidate to include on the 2009 schedule.

By scheduling the Mountaineers, Holland no doubt scored points with the North Carolina politicos who several years ago assisted the Pirates with their own quest to play in-state rivals. Holland also remained true to his rhetoric that non-conference games between in-state foes make more economic sense than entertaining random outposts from the Sun Belt Conference or other lower-tier leagues.

Had Holland scheduled, say, William & Mary, you can probably imagine the public outcry from Boone. At the very least, Mountaineers faithful would have suggested that East Carolina feared facing what they insist is actually the best program in North Carolina.

Give Holland credit for avoiding that annoying PR spin.

Even so, you have to admit there is a side that makes you wonder if a little negative press would have been a safer bet than playing App. Not that App should win – East Carolina has serious problems if the Mountaineers do – but the Pirates aren’t exactly in a position in which they can afford many high risk-little reward scenarios.

ECU also isn’t quite yet situated where it is ready to help fortify other in-state programs, which is exactly what the season opener will do for Appalachian. It is no stretch to think the ASU administration is using this game as the ultimate litmus test for the Mountaineers’ readiness to make a major jump in classification.

Forget beating Michigan. While winning in the Big House made Appalachian visible on the football map, a game against East Carolina represents even more opportunity with potentially longer range benefits.

Play a competitive game with the Pirates and who’s to say that Appalachian, not too far removed from its FCS three-peat, won’t make the FBS leap and further flood the market of in-state suitors seeking North Carolina’s major college prospects?

Naturally it would be easy to suggest that this is the same argument the North Carolina and N.C. State camps used when debating the pros and cons of playing ECU. While I firmly agree that neither school should be forced to play the Pirates, comparing that debate with a game between ECU and App is like sizing up a left tackle with a kicker.

For starters, neither the Tar Heels nor the Wolfpack has nearly as much to lose in those games as their fans suggest. For most of the past two decades, the Pirates, at worst, have hovered around the same competitive plateau as their western rivals and have done so without the same financial advantages.

The Pirates have been favored in each of the past four games against either State or UNC-Chapel Hill, and have had by far the most to lose in each of the last three outings with State – two of which were upset wins by the Pack that few saw coming.

Even so, had ECU pulled off the clean sweep like it should have, you could argue that the overall impact would have been marginal. It’s highly unlikely that those games alone would have bumped the Pirates up to a BCS conference or detoured throngs of recruits away from Chapel Hill or Raleigh.

When Appalachian rolls into Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium next fall, it will do so with 22 fewer scholarships, considerably less talent, but with full confidence that it will depart Greenville with a victory. If East Carolina doesn’t take the challenge seriously, there are a couple of scenarios in which that could actually happen.

If it pulls off the upset, it would mark one of the brightest days in ASU football history and one of the darkest for ECU. Just imagine the punch line the Pirates could become in the aftermath of such an outcome.

Despite what a thorough evaluation of the pros and cons of scheduling App might reveal, it’s certainly understandable why Holland invited the Mountaineers Down East. It was a neighborly gesture that can’t hurt the ECU AD if he seeks future games with N.C. State and North Carolina.

But there is absolutely no immediate reward awaiting the Pirates when they host Appalachian. Only a mountain-sized risk.

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01/12/2009 12:46:17 AM

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