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Bonesville The Magazine Teaser
Sunday, August 3, 2008
By Ron Cherubini

Course Correction: Repairing ECU’s Rep with Prep Coaches

In 2004, Coach Harold Robinson was hired to focus on re-opening doors, healing wounds

By Ron Cherubini.
All rights reserved.

Harold Robinson

(File photo from ECU Media Relations)

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It was as bad as it gets for East Carolina football in 2002. Under suspect leadership between an under-board university president and a slick-dealing AD, the program found itself in dire straights in terms of recruiting.

Then-Athletics Director Mike Hamrick’s decision to ink a contract to play football on Friday night – high school football Friday night – without consulting the North Carolina High School Athletics Association (NCHSAA) as he promised he would, was the proverbial kick in the teeth the program could ill-afford at that time.

In short order, Hamrick so angered the North Carolina prep coaches that many shut their doors to ECU recruiting. And, to make matters worse, the only coach who could have succeeded in the wake of it, Steve Logan, was unceremoniously pushed out the door to give way for what historically may prove to be among the worst head coaching hires in the history of college football in John Thompson.

Subsequently, Thompson’s failures on the field piled up so rapidly that all those who saw it coming could do little but cringe and hope that bottom would be hit quickly only. Thompson then, in an effort to deal with the North Carolina recruiting dilemma, opted to bypass the state altogether and head to Florida to recruit. Nice thinking.

In summary: Hamrick engineered the Friday Night Fiasco, ran a proven coach out of the program, hired an unfit coach and then bolted for his promised land in the shadow of the Las Vegas Strip. Thompson then, rather than trying to reach out to the angry N.C. coaches by recruiting their players, headed to Florida for recruiting.

In the wake, ECU took a quantum step backwards as a program.

During that dark time, about the only good thing that happened was the decision to create a new position called the Director of High School Relations. Even better than that decision was to lure Harold Robinson into the role in 2004.

There really was not a better choice for the role. Robinson, a legendary prep coach in North Carolina, was also an ECU ballplayer in the early 1970's and understood the nuances of the program. Moreover, he was highly-respected by his prep coaching peers and he was critical of ECU’s actions in the Friday Night Fiasco.

Fast forward to 2008. The Pirates once again signed a stellar recruiting class. They once again signed pre-dominantly N.C. players. And the Pirates are as welcome in N.C. prep coaches’ offices around the state as ever. Robinson shies away from taking, really, any credit, but what is evident is that there was a full 180 turnaround and it started with Robinson.

“We really did not have a formal strategy,” Robinson said of his initial year in the post. “We wanted to make sure that the high school coaches knew that the door was always open to them at East Carolina University. Coach Holtz wanted to recruit North Carolina and he put his energy into the state. We were going to do this right and prove ourselves again to the high school coaches.

"And, in three years we have 41 in-state kids in the program and that shows the coaches that Skip is doing what he said he would.”

Along with that commitment to ECU’s home base, Robinson says that his job is made much easier because Holtz and his staff are not only good at recruiting, but love to do it.

“What this staff does a great job of is that they enjoy recruiting,” Robinson said. “Some college programs do not have that. These coaches enjoy the recruiting season, love going to the prep coaches, participating in summer clinics, all of it. They really love spending time with the high school coaches and I think the (prep) coaches have picked up on that. The number of coaches who come to our practices shows how much better the relationships are now. It really makes my job a heck of lot easier.

"We have a knack right now for recruiting. Holtz does a great job selling ECU and we have been able to bring good players in and are competing well against the ACC schools for the (top) in-state athletes.”

Perhaps the most important element Robinson brought to the situation back in 2004 was his understanding and involvement in the prep coaching circles in North Carolina. His prep football resume is as elite as it gets, having garnered regional and state coach-of-the-year honors nine times in his 24-year stint. His .711 winning percentage (231-94) is superb and he led his clubs to a pair of NCHSAA state titles, six championship appearances, and seven conference titles.

Robinson's involvement and contributions to the NCHSAA administratively are unparalleled and his dedication and involvement in the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas has no equal, as he initiated and spearheaded several additions to the popular event All-Star clash.

In short, among the state's high school coaches, he has credibility.

“It is a very tight fraternity,” Robinson said of the N.C. prep coaches. “It cannot help you much with recruiting, but can certainly hurt you. You can bet they notice if we are not at clinics or other events. And, there is a trickle down effect from the older high school coaches to the younger coaches. By process, we try to always run the recruiting through the high school coach first… always. The recruiting process can really disrupt the household of a family and the high school coach can set appointments and assist in calming that effect. He is a very important, integral part of the whole process.

“Also, if a high school coach does not recommend his player, we are not going to take the kid… no matter what the video looks like.”

Often times, in the recruiting game, coaches bypass the high school coach altogether, but that is a bad practice, according to Robinson.

“First and foremost, we take the approach to recruit the players we want,” Robinson said. “We don’t lead players on and we don’t (over-scholarship). That simply does not happen here. It is important to us to be fair to everyone involved.”

Primarily, Robinson’s stated mission is to keep the North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina coaches connected to the program. It is also to give motivational, academic and football guidance, which includes helping coaches understand the myriad NCAA recruiting rules and even giving rules talks to prep players.

“We move mass mailings, we encourage our prep coaches to come visit and we make them well aware of our clinics and junior days,” Robinson said of some of the efforts they undertake. “And we are seeing results year over year. Our clinics are getting bigger, our junior days are getting bigger, and we are getting more coaches from further away.

“A lot of it is simply because our coaching staff loves to spend time with these coaches," Robinson said. "Yeah, Coach Holtz and his staff are very busy, but if a high school coach comes here, we are going to spend time with him. That is how important they are and how much our coaches really just like seeing them.”

And Robinson says that those dark days of 2002 and 2003 are long gone.

“Hey, we know all these coaches… we KNOW them,” Robinson said. “And we want to continue to build relationships. We want the players to go where they want to go, but we want to make sure that if they don’t choose East Carolina, it is not because ECU was not a place that would have been good for them.”

So, how well is ECU recruiting being received by prep coaches near and far?

Read the 2008 edition of Bonesville The Magazine to hear what prep coaches from Greenville to Greensboro to Mississippi to Florida and many points in between are saying about the Pirates program, their coaches, and ECU.

Send an e-mail message to Ron Cherubini.

Dig into Ron Cherubini's Bonesville archives.

08/09/2008 02:38:56 AM

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