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Dynamics beyond the sidelines

Friday, December 3, 2004
By Ron Cherubini
Staff Feature Writer


Optimism reborn in Purpleville



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Bonesville Magazine

• PAT DYE: Short on Tenure, Long on Impact

• Recruit Profiles
• Rookie Books
• Tracking the Classes
• Florida Pipeline
• NCHSAA & ECU: Smooth Sailing Again


• STEVE BALLARD: New Leader Takes Charge

• SCOTT COWEN: Busting Down the Door

• KEITH LECLAIR on ECU's Field of Dreams

• BETH GRANT: Actress Still a Pirate

Do you smell that in the air around East Carolina? It’s called big-time college football.

Athletics Director Terry Holland is a genius and this week he showed it twice. First, on Tuesday at his press conference, and later on Thursday, seemingly pulling the trigger on the hiring of Skip Holtz, former head coach at Connecticut and assistant head coach at South Carolina.

In a masterstroke, Holland called that first press conference. Think about it, a non-descript, waning, non-BCS football program that has won just three games in its last two years of competition is searching for a coach to replace a guy who was a virtual nobody on the landscape of college football. Yet, Holland – almost appearing naïve – schedules a press conference to give an update on the search process. Naïve, because the press conference seemingly revealed nothing of great substance. Yet, Holland’s approach spoke volumes. It came off like the guy in the bar who just assumes that every lady is interested in him. ECU had some thing to say, so of course a press conference should be called. Of course the nation wants to know.

Then, in the press conference, he doesn’t name a single name, but he goes into elaborate detail to say that he is exploring the options from proven Division I-A coaches (aka Ron Zook and Ty Willingham) to winners at the 1-AA level (aka Jimmye Laycock and Skip Holtz) to legends who have been out of coaching for awhile (aka Danny Ford), and fresh from the NFL coaches (aka Dave Wannstedt and Butch Davis).

In short, he was stating that no coach, no coach was out of ECU's realm and that HE would consider whom ECU would hire. Quite a change from the “What unproven, no-name coach might want to come here?” approach of the last regime.

See, Holland knows a thing or two about big-time program building and name branding. By calling a press conference and hinting ever so subtly at the type of candidates being pursued, Holland created media frenzy – one that got the interest of not only the college football community, but also the national media. National sports media was mentioning the ECU vacancy in the same conversation with the Florida and Notre Dame jobs.


It’s basic Marketing 101… create a buzz.

In a nice second stroke of brilliance, he got the ECU fan base whipped up into a frenzy of discussion about football, the team, and the future. The stink of another horrid football season has barely dissipated and instead of the post-season winter blues setting in, there is joy in Purpleville about football. It might be a little early to proclaim that the fissure in the fan base from the series of Hamrick-Muse power-game debacles has healed, but Holland’s re-ignition of football in a positive light sure appears to be a nice salve for the pained Pirates faithful.

In the 48 hours after that press conference, the fan base rode the emotions of hints that it would be Ron Zook from Florida, then it was Skip Holts – son of the legend – who was the leading candidate, then it was certainly going to be Danny Ford, of former Clemson fame. Heck, he was offered the job, right? No wait, then ECU had approached eastern North Carolina product Tyrone Willingham, who was hosed by Notre Dame and would have made this writer happy to see him in Purple and Gold. If you were brave enough to venture out onto the message boards around the country, you would have also heard rumors it was going to be Dave Wannstedt, Butch Davis, Mike O’Cain, and even that Steve Logan was going to return.

And even though it ultimately turned out to be Holtz – the son – what Holland did was make ECU a positive epicenter of activity focused on the football team.

Onto the second stroke of genius – picking Holtz.

A young, rising star with instant credibility not only in name, but also in ability. His work at UConn and then at USC stand as good evidence of his abilities. While at the University of Connecticut, he nurtured a fledgling program to the point of being ready to jump to Division I-A and the Big East. At South Carolina, when dad let him run the offense, the Gamecocks were explosive.

Consider this. ECU has made no secret about its desire to become a member of a Big East Conference with its BCS tie-in. In Holtz, the Pirates get a coach that is young enough to become a legend. We get a coach who already laid the framework for one program to go into the Big East and has a good relationship with member schools. Once ECU is in a BCS conference, it ceases to become a stepping-stone.

Another point, Holtz can obviously recruit. Any coach who can recruit quality players to UConn certainly would be able to recruit at ECU. Layer on top of that the fact that Holtz also has inroads in South Carolina and in the Midwest via Notre Dame, and recruiting should not be an issue. Moreover, the Holtz name is recognizable to potential recruits. Having dad on the ticket to make a few of those “special” recruiting trips doesn’t hurt either.

At the Tuesday press conference Holland said a lot when he said:

"…We are at a crossroads. I don't think there is any question that this is an important time in our football history. There is no question how important football is to the university and to the athletic department. It is an important hire, a critically important hire.”

Holland, indeed, gets it.

We are, as a fan base, a very dysfunctional group – split down the middle like the red and blue states on election night. While we all debate which coach can unify the Pirate community, quietly, Holland recognized that unification comes at a higher level. He and Nick Floyd – who is obviously being groomed for the position in five years – are on the same page. The chancellor, too, is on the same page. A unified leadership begets success. Right under our noses, while we still debate the merits of this hire, we have been unified. Logan can finally be filed away as the last great coach at ECU. Thompson can be filed away as a necessary sacrifice for the transformation of the program.

Chancellor Ballard hired his man, Terry Holland. Terry Holland has hired his man, Skip Holtz. If you trust in Holland, you trust in this hire. Obviously, noting the compensation package Holtz is likely to get, there is a commitment to repairing the football program. Yes, Pirates, even those pessimists who help balance the everything-is-wonderful crowd should be excited about the state of the program’s future.

It will be interesting to watch how this staff is formed. Not only will there likely be more money for assistants, Holtz’s connections and family tree could lure some serious staffers, guys that will move on to head coaching jobs down the road.

Holland has begun cashing in on the ample capital he has built in the business over the decades and he is doing it for East Carolina, a school that needed this type of leadership. What will he do for an encore? Personally, I’m going to keeping a close eye on scheduling in the coming years, the marketing of the program, and the return of television exposure.

The question now is this: Can we as ECU-focused sportswriters and fans handle the big-time? Are we up for it? If you want to be big time, you have to not only think big time, but you also have to believe you are big time. As a community, there has never been a bigger can-do group of people. We are used to being told, “You can’t,” and then responding by making it happen. But, now, we are being told, “You can.”

Stroke of genius, I tell you.

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02/23/2007 02:05:48 PM

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