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Pirate Notebook No. 391
Monday, Aug. 3, 2009

Denny O'Brien

Holtz facing biggest challenge yet

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

When East Carolina reports to camp this week, Skip Holtz will welcome the most experienced bunch heís coached during his five years in Greenville.

It also will be among the most experienced teams that anyone will coach in college football this season.

Such a luxury would spark a fury of tweeting by the nationís most celebrated coaches, not to mention an ensuing firestorm of re-tweets from the thousands of fans who follow them on twitter.

For Holtz it also presents an undeniable challenge. Make that an enormous one for a coach who has tangibly advanced the ECU program each of the four seasons heís commanded its sideline.

Just consider the preseason hype. The Pirates have been mentioned as potential BCS busters by some, and almost unanimously to take the Conference USA East division and again play for the league title.

The expectations for 2009 make the media buzz prior to 2001 seem like an understated marketing campaign. Truthfully, the Pirates would face higher expectations only if David Garrard were under center, Chris Johnson and Vonta Leach occupied the backfield, and Aundrae Allison was split wide to the right.

For the first time since he arrived at ECU, Holtz finds himself in a scenario in which he could face a little fan scrutiny should the Pirates not meet a certain quota of wins and milestones this season.

Just for starters, many who attend ECUís opener against Appalachian State will be satisfied only if third- and fourth-teamers are mopping up after a very convincing victory. The mentality is a complete 180 from when Holtz opened his tenure at home against Duke ó a time when a close victory over any opponent was cause for celebration.

You can also expect a little unrest if the Pirates donít display tangible improvement offensively. There was no shortage of grumbling when the Pirates struggled last season, even though much of ECUís offensive weaponry was either suspended or on the mend.

Though the Piratesí fan base is an overwhelming asset ó by far the best in Conference USA ó it isnít immune to its share of fans who will turn if their expectations arenít met. There are more than a handful of fans who put the fickle in Ficklen, and you donít have to look too far back in ECU history for examples.

Holtz himself once stated that changing the programís culture was the easy part, and that learning how to deal with and improve on success is the greater challenge. Thatís where he now finds himself as East Carolina aims to defend its C-USA title and elevate itself in college footballís pecking order.

Neither task would be a gimme if Vince Lombardi were the coach.

Even so, if you had to compile a list of five rising stars in the college coaching industry, there is no way you could complete it without including Holtz. That includes all sports.

His accomplished rťsumť, coupled with his charisma and marketability make him the ideal fit for any program seeking both wins and sellouts. He is a true Jedi master in the locker room and a regular Bob Hope on the booster club trail.

If Holtz has a fault itís that perhaps heís accomplished too much too quickly while at ECU. He took a program that won three times in the two years prior to his arrival and beat three consecutive Top 25 teams just four years later.

Such success generates addictions among fans, and they can get quite ornery when they arenít given their desired dose.

With a conference title to defend and a non-conference schedule that includes three BCS opponents ó each of which ECU has beaten during Holtzís tenure ó you can be sure that some will expect an encore. Thatís easier said than done, especially when there are plenty of realistic scenarios in which ECU could finish 7-5.

Given the parity in C-USA, the outlook of the Piratesí non-conference opponents, and the overall unpredictability of college football, nothing can be taken for granted by this ECU bunch.

Barring another round of widespread injuries and off-the-field distractions, there is no question that this group should be plenty good. It has the potential to be as good as any East Carolina team since that storybook squad in 1991.

When Holtz rejected Syracuseís offer to become its next head coach, much of his reasoning must have been tied to that potential. At the same time, he had to recognize the challenge awaiting him.

His return should signify heís more than up for it.

E-mail Denny O'Brien.

Denny O'Brien's Archives

08/03/2009 01:09:18 AM

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