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Pirate Notebook No. 429
Monday, May 10, 2010

Denny O'Brien

ECU better prepared for next shakeup

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

There is no shortage of conference expansion theories floating around, with everyone from Hartford to Honolulu giving their two cents.

As you navigate through the discourse, it's important to differentiate opinion from fact. At this stage, the majority of what has been written about conference expansion has been strictly the subjective thoughts and theories of those writing them.

About the only thing of which we can be nearly certain is that something is going to happen, something potentially cataclysmic as far as conference shakeups go. And this time the Big Ten will be the catalyst in shaping the new landscape for college athletics.

Exactly who moves and where they move to is still a bit of a mystery.

The good news for East Carolina is that it is in far better shape than it was the last time there was major upheaval. ECU is a much more attractive product and has far better leadership than it did before.

Even so, the Pirates are hardly a slam dunk to land in a BCS Automatic Qualifier conference — potentially the Big East — when the dust finally settles. Here is a look at what East Carolina brings to the expansion table, along with potential pitfalls.

What East Carolina offers

FOOTBALL SUCCESS: With four consecutive bowl appearances and two straight Conference USA titles, East Carolina is the most attractive option for the Big East competitively. Historically the Pirates have been much better than both Central Florida and Memphis, owning a convincing edge in both head-to-head series.

If you think expansion, you also have to look far beyond how teams perform in their current conference settings, and study how much they have succeeded when crossing outside of their league boundaries. With recent victories over Boise State, North Carolina, N.C. State, Virginia, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia, ECU simply has no close rival among non-AQ schools thought to be in contention of a possible Big east berth.

FAN FOLLOWING: From day one, athletics directory Terry Holland has touted East Carolina's fans as its greatest selling point. There is no comparison between the Pirates and UCF and Memphis in football attendance numbers.

The Pirates fill Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium to capacity with regularity, something the Knights and Tigers rarely do. ECU also has a reputation for traveling well to non-conference games and to postseason bowls.

FACILITIES: While many schools discuss the possibility of expanding facilities, East Carolina is actually doing it. With 7,000 new seats being added to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, capacity is moving to an even 50K. And by wisely making the new end zone addition student seating, it opens premium seats as season ticket options for generous donors. As a result, the Pirates are on pace to shatter season ticket numbers.

As nice as the new football addition is, the expansion doesn't end there for ECU. A sprawling new athletics campus that includes new facilities for softball, soccer and track and field, among other sports, means the Pirates will have attractive venues for all sports starting next season.

If the Pirates don't land in an AQ conference, facilities won't be the issue.

SCHEDULING: East Carolina might be the only non-AQ school that hasn't endured a scheduling hardship since the inception of the BCS. If anything, the Pirates have flourished. In addition to playing N.C. State and North Carolina regularly, the Pirates just completed an annual home-and-home series with West Virginia and are currently in the middle of one with Virginia Tech.

ECU has also enjoyed recent partnerships with Navy and Virginia, and also has an upcoming series with South Carolina on the docket.

MEDIA ATTENTION: East Carolina attracts more media attention than its C-USA counterparts, and it isn’t even close. The Dowdy-Ficklen press box is the only one in the league that approaches capacity, and it also attracts media members from out of town.

Though technically Greenville isn’t considered a major media market, several big-market outlets make their way Down East for gameday.

TELEVISION APPEAL: The Pirates have traditionally made for good TV, dating back to the 1991-92 season when ESPN aired a pair of thrillers — the opener against Illinois and the Peach Bowl victory over N.C. State. Exciting offense, an attractive schedule, and a highly competitive program are largely to thank for that.

You will be hard-pressed to find another non-AQ program that has secured more spotlight nationally-televised appearances in recent years than ECU. Even Boise State often gets relegated to Friday night.

Potential obstacles

THE BIG EAST FOLDS: This is the absolute worst-case scenario for East Carolina. Should the Big Ten take three or more Big East members and another league, such as the ACC, scoops up a few more, the Pirates would likely find themselves without an AQ option.

Sure, there is the optimistic view that perhaps, should a certain far-south destination freeze over, the ACC might take the Pirates should it get heavily pillaged by the SEC. But you'll have a hard time convincing me that there is a scenario in which the ACC would consider ECU.

As far as BCS AQ conferences are concerned, it's Big East or bust for the Pirates. And that's assuming that the Big East would keep its AQ status, which is hardly a given. Even if it doesn't, it would clearly be a geographic and competitive step up for the Pirates.

TELEVISION MARKET: I know, I know. When considering the Pirates' television market, you have to look beyond Pitt and its neighboring counties. I get that. And yes, there are huge alumni populations in the Triangle, Triad, Charlotte, and Tidewater Virginia. You don't have to convince me on that one, either.

But someway, somehow, Holland will have to convince someone that television market sizes are both misleading and overrated. It's not a stretch to suggest that the Pirates have more eyeballs focused on them in Raleigh than UCF does in its own hometown. Even so, conference administrators must listen to TV suits who are fixated on Nielsen rankings.

BASKETBALL: If East Carolina doesn't secure AQ status, perhaps hoops will be its ultimate undoing. To say the Pirates have been historically bad on the hardwood would be an understatement. ECU hasn't reached the postseason since 1993 and is on its sixth head coach since that appearance. Even the presence of Holland hasn't helped much on the hoops front.

On the bright side, Holland could always point to a brief period of moderate success during the mid-90s. The fact that a practice facility is in the works certainly doesn't hurt. But that likely isn't enough to convince the Big East brass of the Pirates' potential in hoops.


O'Brien: ECU better prepared for next shakeup
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BVL Box Score: Southern Miss 8, East Carolina 2
BVL Box Score: Southern Miss 14, East Carolina 4
Bailey: Holland's Mulligan
BVL: Weekly college baseball polls
O'Brien: Leach protégé Riley now the mastermind
BVL Audio: Heather Macy Press Conference
Myatt: McNeill taps into Pirate generations
Bradsher: Moore plots course for "next level"
Bailey: Holland hits home run with Moore hiring
BVL: Weekly college baseball polls

GEOGRAPHY: Unless you charter a plane, Greenville isn't the easiest place to get to. And considering the Big East is an airport conference, that could be a sticking point. It's not an issue for football, and in some cases not for basketball, but the other sports are forced to fly commercially, which means a 90-mile bus ride from Raleigh-Durham.

Football recruiting could also be a concern. North Carolina annually produces about 40 Division I FBS signees and has five FBS schools. On top of that, the state's top blue chippers traditionally leave the state for programs like Florida, Penn State, and Tennessee. It's just hard to envision Big East schools seeing North Carolina as a football recruiting draw.

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05/10/2010 02:09 AM

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