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Pirate Notebook No. 372
Monday, January 26, 2009

Denny O'Brien

McCarthy facing imposing tasks

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

Mack McCarthy’s greatest challenge isn’t selling East Carolina’s modest basketball credentials to potential prospects. Closing the deal with fans is far more imposing.

Though there is a small core of Pirate hoops enthusiasts, the number of true diehards is substandard for a school of ECU’s size and location. There simply should be enough alumni and Pitt County residents to keep a steady flow of bodies passing through the turnstiles.

But on most nights, Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum appears more half-empty than half-full.

To some degree, McCarthy’s task is akin to dealing fur coats in the Amazon jungle. Though some will buy regardless of the climate, many remain skeptical about McCarthy's or anyone’s ability to end the Pirates’ long suffering on the hardwood.

That wait-and-see approach isn’t being embraced by McCarthy, nor should it. It’s clear from his recurring rhetoric that he is passionate about awakening ECU’s program, a process that includes energizing its fans.

On more than one occasion this season, McCarthy has praised the environments inside opponents’ gyms. He clearly understands the significant impact a packed arena can have on the outcome of a game, and would like to see that on a regular basis in Greenville.

Of course, McCarthy isn’t the first to experience this type of relative indifference to ECU hoops. Several others – including one who enjoyed moderate success – felt the frustration of the Pirates’ mostly obscure basketball existence.

Joe Dooley worked tirelessly during his tenure, embracing intense 80-hour weeks. And that counts only the time he was in the gym or office. It doesn’t account for the entire 24-hour schedule during which hoops was more vital to his well-being than food, water, and oxygen.

East Carolina was rewarded for his efforts with one of its greatest periods of hoops prosperity, back-to-back 17-win seasons in his first two seasons. Dooley was eventually removed after only four seasons – one of the first signs of then-AD Mike Hamrick’s shortcomings – and ECU has suffered since.

Even during Dooley’s success, crowd support inside Williams Arena was modest at best.

Bill Herrion literally sweated profusely for the program – he embodied ring around the collar, armpit, etc. – often taking recruiting risks to compete in what at the time was a power league. His strategy ultimately backfired and he was dismissed as ECU’s program suffered because of academic shortcomings.

Where Herrion succeeded most was at the box office as East Carolina regularly drew respectable crowds. Almost all of that can be attributed to the Pirates’ membership in what then was one of the nation’s premiere basketball conferences, one that included programs with which fans could actually identify.

Truthfully, most were interested in seeing who the Pirates were playing.

Where McCarthy is different than those who preceded him is in his understanding of the process of altering a program’s course. That goes far beyond a focus on the W’s and L’s, X’s and O’s, and Jimmy’s and Joe’s.

A program’s culture also involves what occurs in the stands and what is said in print and on the air. McCarthy is leaving no stone unturned to improve the Pirates’ profile in each area.

East Carolina has never had a more fan-friendly or media-friendly basketball coach in its history, Herrion included. McCarthy has proven himself as comfortable speaking at grassroots gatherings and press conferences as he is in barking instructions from the ECU bench.

And that says a lot considering his basketball credentials.

McCarthy has proven himself as both a program architect and stabilizer who understands the challenges of operating in the shadows of more celebrated programs. So far, there is no evidence to suggest that he can’t triplicate his previous success in Greenville.

Pulling off such a feat could be the greatest accomplishment of McCarthy’s illustrious career. Few would question that. But filling the building could prove an even tougher task than filling the win column at ECU.

It’s time ECU’s fans helped their coach by taking their share of ownership in changing the school's basketball culture.

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01/26/2009 12:48:37 AM

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