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More Than a Game
Sunday, July 29, 2007
By Ron Cherubini

Ex-Pirate coach applauds state of program

Art Baker reflects on ECU, Greenville and his former players

By Ron Cherubini
All rights reserved.


Art Baker, pictured, is the focus of Ron Cherubini's "Pirate Time Machine" feature in the 2007 edition of Bonesville The Magazine. During his tenure as East Carolina's head football coach (1985-88), Baker brought several future NFL stars into the program, including quarterback Jeff Blake and linebacker Robert Jones. (Photo: ECU)
Bradsher: Pirates Searching for Pirates
Cherubini: Ex-Pirate coach applauds state of program
Myatt: Giving an East Carolina legend his due
Whitford: Don't take the 'chip' lightly

On Sale Now: The 2007
Bonesville The Magazine



Art Baker doesn’t pause for a moment before he responds to questions about his time at East Carolina.

“Oh we loved it there in Greenville,” he said. “Still love Greenville and East Carolina University. The people there are just good, good people and there is nothing but good things to say about our life in there.”

Though his record on the field as the Pirates head football coach from 1985-88 was only 13-31, his impact on the program at a time when it was most needed was pretty remarkable. He upgraded ECU's recruiting sights (most of the 1992 Peach Bowl stars were his recruits) and presided over a much-needed overhaul of the program's academic reputation.

Along his journey with East Carolina, Baker ushered in the types of schedules that allowed the the program to flourish in the 1990's and establish a reputation of being willing to challenge any opponent willing to take on the Pirates.

And, every time he returns to Greenville, he is more and more impressed across the board.

“Obviously the administration has supported the improvements in the facilities, which are wonderful,” Baker said. “Every time I go there, I am always amazed… their facilities really and truly are as good as anybody’s in the country. You know, we’ve got new facilities here (at USC) and ECU is right on par with it and the ACC schools.

“The big plus for ECU came when they hired Terry Holland. He is doing a tremendous job and will do a tremendous job as long as he is there.”

Of course, being so embedded in South Carolina athletics, Baker was more than thrilled when Holland selected former Gamecocks offensive coordinator Skip Holtz to be the Pirates head coach.

“The choice to hire Skip Holtz was a great choice,” Baker said. “I will say this, you know, openly and honestly, Skip was kind of kept — his daddy kept him under the covers when he was here. Skip didn’t have a lot of freedom to run the offense. He had great ideas and he was a fantastic organizer. He did, really, most of the administrative work for his father when they were here.

"I don’t know that Lou could have been nearly as successful as (he) was here at South Carolina without Skip because he depended on Skip a great deal to do so many things as well as be the offensive coordinator.”

Seeing ECU in its current state does conjure up “what ifs” for Baker in regards to his stint steering the Pirate ship. He always knew that he signed up for four years of what was truly a six-year job in Greenville, but it might have been closer to four had some other items been in place.

“I think one of the things that was a detriment when I was there was not being in a conference,” he said. “I think they are in a realistic conference now and they can compete in that conference and it seems they are doing a great job now.”

And being a fan of USC and ECU, Baker is thrilled about the rekindling of the football series between the schools.

“I understand that the USC-ECU series deal is done and I hope it works out better for South Carolina this time around,” he said. “Last time, East Carolina — when Steve Logan was there — pretty much wore us out down here. I am glad if they renew that schedule. Love to see South Carolina playing East Carolina again. It is a great game to see.”

Baker’s time at ECU was all too brief in his mind as he and wife Edie fell in love with the community — instantly. It is why Baker finds the time to get back to Greenville almost yearly to take part in the Hall of Fame weekends and catch up with some of his old friends and former players.

Pirates that made an impact

On his former players, Baker took a moment to reflect on some of the athletes who defined his years in the program:

Norwood Vann — “Norwood Vann was a great player who was a tight end for us on that ’83 team but went on to be a very good linebacker who played for about 12 years in the pros.”

Vinson Smith — “Vinson was one of my favorites. You know, Vinson had a daughter – it was not as common as it is now for players to have families already – she was so cute and we all kind of helped raise her. Today, she is a beautiful woman and I think she is an actress or dancer or something like that. It was great having her around the program.”

Jeff Blake — “I spent a lot of time recruiting Jeff and I am thrilled, obviously, how it worked out for Jeff and for East Carolina having him in the program. I think he got a little bent with me at my last game at Cincinnati, though. I had already resigned and Jeff and two other starters – he didn’t start in ‘88 – but they were all late coming in from curfew. So I decided they were going to go to a meeting room and work out for an hour and if they did, they could dress and if they did not, then we weren’t going to let them dress for the game. There was a clear understanding that you are going to do this and not run your mouth about it. But he and another player who I am very good friends with now, Brian McPhatter, both started talking so we did not dress them. It was really tough on Jeff because we ended up beating Cincinnati 55-10 and he would have gotten a lot of playing time. Brian and I laugh about that now, but at the time, I think Jeff was very upset with me about it.”

Terry Long — “I always liked Terry Long, though he was definitely a different kind of guy, but I liked him. He had a great pro career and I just wish things had not ended the way they did (on Long’s death).”

Henry Williams — “Henry Williams…now he was a jokester along with Vann, who was his straight man. Everywhere I ever coached, everything was always very serious and I remember when I was with Ed Emory for 1983, we were down at Florida State and here is Henry and Norwood telling all these jokes all the way out to the stadium and I thought to myself, ‘Lord, we are going to get killed. These guys are laughing and rolling on the floor.’ Henry would have them all in stitches. And man we went out there the next day and just wore Florida State out. Henry and Norwood kept them all loose and worked for that team. They were truly Mutt and Jeff (of early 20th century comic book fame).

Kevin Ingram — “We called him ‘Sweet Pea,’ and he had absolutely the best feet of any quarterback I ever coached. He came in from Villanova when they folded the program up there. You know, Kevin wasn’t the sharpest guy reading defenses and coverage, but he was a very proactive QB. He could see a hole and like that, he was in there. Of course, he was a great option quarterback though he would rather keep the ball every time. He pitched it enough. He was not a great passer, but he was an effective one because we had such a great running game.”

Ernest Byner — “Ernest is one of the greatest guys I have ever had the privilege to coach and be around. Like Vinson Smith, he had a daughter at that time and had a very tough time trying to make ends meet. Somehow he was able to get on the field and focus on football and of course, made a nice career in the pros for himself and his family. The great things about Ernest is that he is still working in the NFL as a pro coach after 10-12 years as a player.

Tony Baker — “Tony is another one of those great running backs that came through East Carolina. He was also a great, great guy who I was very close to. A pleasure to coach.”

Steve Patton — “Steve didn’t play a lot but he was a great leader and players really gravitated to him. He served as the Head of FCA and later Campus Crusade nationally. He always showed great leadership qualities and he made a difference in the program.”

Stefon Adams — “All of the Adams brothers were very good players, but Stefon…when I think of Stefon, I think of ‘talent.’ He was such a talented player who also had a good career in the pros, with the Raiders.”

Anthony Simpson — “Anthony was a very, very good fullback who I think many might not have realized how good he was because of the record (wins and losses). But he was very talented and was as good as any other (starting) fullbacks out there at that time.”

Travis Hunter and Charlie Libretto — “Travis was a good option quarterback and Charlie was a good passer. It was a time were I was the most frustrated I ever have been. I would put Travis in and people would boo and then I would put Charlie Libretto in and the others would boo. Both of the young men were good quarterbacks and had some success at East Carolina, but the fans were right down the middle on the two.”

One thing Coach Baker knew then and, looking back, still takes pride in was that his Pirates were as good as anyone they played when it came to the first 22 on offense and defense. It was late in the game, when depth becomes a key factor, that East Carolina would falter.

Baker's teams battled the likes of Florida State, Miami, Penn State, Auburn, LSU, Illinois, Syracuse, West Virginia and Virginia Tech to tight games through the first two quarter only to wear down and break after halftime, going down to defeat to their deep opponents.

Following Baker's tenure, the program adopted a mantra that no team would vanquish it in the fourth quarter. Subsequently, the Pirates became a serious and consistent Division I-A foe.

“We were as good as most of our opponents when it came to our starters,” he recalled. “But, you have to have that talent two-deep to compete with those schedules and we just didn’t have that at the time. We were recruiting well and working toward that, but we just weren’t quite there.”

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07/31/2007 03:30:11 AM

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