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No. 40

With Ron Cherubini

(Photo: ECU SID)

A Lifetime Pirate Looks Back at 50 Years of East Carolina Football

Dr. Henry VanSant would prefer
you just call him "Coach"

By Ron Cherubini
©2003, 2008

       EDITOR'S NOTE (Feb. 1, 2008): During halftime of a recent home basketball game, the initial class of East Carolina University's VanSant Society was recognized. The late Henry VanSant, a contemporary of East Carolina icons Leo Jenkins and Clarence Stasavich, devoted much of his life to the school.
       When VanSant passed away at age 70 on March 16, 2006, published this obituary by Al Myatt and reflections from some whose paths VanSant crossed by Bethany Bradsher.
       The christening of the VanSant Society makes this an appropriate time for to release from its vaults for general consumption this special Pirate Time Machine published exclusively in the 2003 edition of Bonesville Magazine.

As each day and year becomes history, moments in time become more important. Certain moments are so important in retrospect that it is obvious they were pivotal in the shaping of the future.

To be connected to those time-altering events is to some extent a gateway to immortality - an opportunity to become by association a part of the fabric of history, a fiber so tightly woven into the achievement of milestones that the history cannot be accurately recounted without acknowledgment of the contribution.

To meet those directly involved in momentous, future-defining moments in time can be nearly overwhelming. It's like when you meet and talk to someone who had been, really been, on the beaches of Normandy. Or to see in person Neil Armstrong or Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, knowing that they were the first to behold Earth from the surface of the moon. To hear a first-hand account of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech from a person who was there, at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

To hear, "Yes… I was there… and it really happened. The magic was real."

That moment of undeniable authenticity in the recounting of significant history is tingling… it is inspiring… and in terms of East Carolina, it rekindles the burning desire to "Believe" in such a manner that obstacles are overcome and those who would prefer to ignore, cannot.

It was in the early 1960s when then-chancellor Leo Jenkins expressed his own 'I have a dream' for the future of East Carolina. The dream included a future that saw East Carolina College becoming East Carolina University, the establishment against overwhelming opposing forces of a Medical School, and the achievement of Doctoral Status for the university.

There was also another major element in Leo's vision, one that was dear to his heart and that would inspire a remarkable passion within the campus community and throughout the region the school serves. Leo saw football as a cause around which the faithful would rally - hard-nosed, undeniable, exciting, big-time college football in the heart of Atlantic Coast Conference country.

There was Coach Clarence Stasavich, whom Jenkins knew would build a solid foundation upon which to build a real football program. There were men like Dr. Ray Minges, Ed Rawls, Howard Hodges, and Booger Scales, who shared the dream and passion to will East Carolina into the future through unrelenting commitment to get things done by whatever means necessary.

And, at that watershed moment in time, there was a young coach named Henry VanSant, who had been a player at ECC, a good player. As circumstance would have it, he found himself watching these men and witnessing the school's most pivotal moments unfold.

Dr. VanSant, when asked, will tell you, "…Yes, I was there. And it all happened just like it is told today. The magic was real."

Few Pirates have had the opportunity to give to East Carolina football in quite the way that VanSant has made his contributions. A player, a coach, an educator, and an administrator in the decades since he first stepped on the campus in 1957, Dr. VanSant would just as soon you call him 'Coach.' It is that title that he is most proud of and it is the coaches and players with whom he has had the privilege to share the cause that have meant the most to him.

In 2001, when VanSant retired as Associate Athletic Director at East Carolina University, an era ended. VanSant truly was the last linkage between the dreams of Dr. Jenkins and the realities of the ECU football program as it exists today.

Between his first days as a player that fall in '57 to his retirement ceremony, VanSant experienced three different chancellors, four different athletic directors, a host of coaches and countless players come into Greenville. But it was VanSant that was the constant during those years and he has had a view of ECU and its growth that few have experienced.

"(East Carolina) was a great time for me," VanSant said. "It was a great time for me as a player, a coach, and an administrator. Those were happy times in my life that made my life worthwhile. East Carolina was my livelihood, but it was also my life. I am very proud of East Carolina and I want to see it keep growing. And, it will… as long as people don't forget our history."

VanSant has never forgotten his own modest origins and those people who helped shape him as a man.

A Player of Humble Beginnings

Life was not easy at home for VanSant when he was growing up in the blue-collar town of Hampton, Virginia. Living with his father, who struggled to make ends meet with a small grocery shop, VanSant sought identity and happiness through football. And football delivered.

"To tell you the honest truth, I think football saved my life," he said. "I really feel that way."

In the 1950s, Hampton High School was one of the most successful prep football programs in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The coach at the time, J.M. "Suey" Eason, was a high school legend in the state and he was a man who would have a true impact on VanSant.

"I was fortunate to be associated with some great coaches," VanSant said. "Hampton has great tradition of football that goes back to the 1940s and they were even named mythical national champions a few years back. Coach Eason was probably the winningest coach in the state of Virginia back then and he was coach that I'm not sure if I loved or hate him. Truly, I was blessed to have had him in my life."

Eason - who is in the Virginia High School Hall of Fame - was an old school coach, hard-edged and crotchety. But he was also fair while demanding a young man's very best on and off the field.

"He told me when to go to bed, what to eat, what to drink and I just did it because he told me to," he said. "You just did what he said even though you knew he could never really check on you. He was a great, great man of high character and high morals."

Eason was the first in what would turn out to be a string of powerful, morally rich coaches who would have a huge impact on VanSant.

"I had a father and I had a great deal of respect for him," VanSant said. "I was from a broken home and lived with my father. We didn't have money or anything. Football gave me everything I didn't have. It gave me recognition… it gave me all I needed."

The void that he went home to every day was filled with the whirlwind excitement of Friday nights under the lights.

"Hampton was a crazy, crazy town for football," he recalled. "We played in front of a packed stadium at every game. Maybe 8,000 at every game. It was real, real high speed."

The town was immersed in Hampton football and the program, which at the time was one of about 20 group 1 schools in the state, was big-time.

"My senior year we must have had 10 or 12 banquets from different organizations around town," VanSant said. "We'd leave on Thursday nights on chartered busses and go to Hampton-Sydney College and practice. We'd stay in the dorms and then drive off to the game the next morning. It really was a high-speed environment and Coach Eason, who is now deceased, he just molded my life. I was not a great player, but I did play. I was only 6-feet and 165 pounds, but I did start."

Chancellor Leo Jenkins had a dream for East Carolina (ECU SID)

To play in front of everyone in town was big to VanSant the young man as well as to VanSant the player.

"All the local people came to the games," he said. "You know, the local doctors would come out to help. Football was important (to the people in town). We were called the Crabbers and (opponents) would (insultingly) call you a 'crabber.' But we would say, 'Fight and fight and rip and roar and try and try and try some more, but you can't crush a crab!'"

The local cheer for Hampton was more than words, it was illustrative of the type of players that VanSant's coach molded.

"I played in 1950 and we were 10-0 and in 1951 we were 9-1," VanSant recalled. "I also played on one of the worst teams at Hampton in 1952, when we were 5-3-1. But I also was part of the '53 team that went 9-0 and was considered by a lot of people as the best team in the state of Virginia. That may be a stretch, but it was a great team. And with no playoffs at that time in Virginia, state champions were named on a point system. That '53 team finished second in the state and the '50 team was state champions."

Fortunately for VanSant's ego, Hampton only lost four games in his four years in high school, which meant that, for the most part, he was a football hero among the local population.

"That town took losing very hard," he said. "But if you were a football player, you were something special in Hampton. You were a big man. And everybody knew Coach Eason, which was evidenced by the fact that his son kept getting reelected. (Eason's son Jimmy - who played football at the University of North Carolina - was a long-time Mayor of Hampton.)"

As a player, VanSant made his name as a hard worker. He played center and linebacker.

"I was one of those guy who loved the game and played hard all of the time," VanSant said. "Back then, we didn't do things all year around, but we started in early summer with the recreation program. Anybody could come, but all the players went. We ran the old double-Wing and I had not been a center until my senior year and that summer I learned to snap the ball. I learned from an All-America who used to play (at Hampton) named Sooky Hill, who was playing at VMI. Sooky showed me the ropes and I played center. It didn't matter which position I played. I played whatever position I was told. If I was going to be on the field I had to do what they asked."

While he excelled on the football field, VanSant was not quite the student that would later go on to earn a PhD.

"In high school, I was a pretty bad student," he said. "I joke about it, I say, 'I graduated 360 in a class of 363.' I joke, but it is probably not far from the truth. I only played football, but I always found a way to get out of class to go shoot baskets or something like that."

VanSant did work hard outside of school, working to earn some money to help subsidize the household income.

"I worked as soon as I got 16 years old," VanSant said. "I worked for a building contractor. My dad had a little old neighborhood grocery store which I worked at until I was old enough to get a real job and get paid finally."

And, when football ended, VanSant did what he felt was the most honorable thing to do for a young man.

"I had finished in February and I had enlisted in the Army before I even graduated from high school," he said. "I left on February fourth for the 82nd Airborne where I was a paratrooper for three years. You know, I really loved the Army. I was an active platoon sergeant when I was 19 years old. I made rank real fast and I did love it. I was in charge of 37 guys, you know. I really thought I'd stay in."

Anyone who knows VanSant knows that he is a deeply spiritual man and even as a young man, he always believed that there was a greater power steering his life.

"I got a job when I got out of the Army and was waiting to go to college," VanSant said. "After you got out of the Army, you had 90 days to re-enlist. I was working as an engraver at a shipyard and I remember thinking to myself, 'I'm going back into the Army.'

I went back to Raleigh to re-enlist - right back to Fort Bragg in Fayetteville. It was the 89th day and I was going to re-enlist the next day. Well, I have a strong belief that the Lord runs my life. Something just told me on that 90th day that I needed to do something else. Instead of going to Raleigh that morning, I just went to Greenville. I didn't know anything about East Carolina, but I knew I wanted to play college football."

VanSant had contacted then-East Carolina Coach Jack Boone and after checking up on VanSant's football history, Boone told him to come in and walk on.

"I really loved the Army," VanSant said. "I felt like I got a great education those three years, especially from a leadership standpoint. I served as a battalion drill sergeant and a physical training director. I had a lot of experiences there and they made college… well, college was not hard for me. It was the Army that gave me that education. The service was a good influence on my life. I still love the Army and I am very proud of my youngest son, who is a West Point graduate."

Leo Jenkins and Coach/Athletic Director Clarence Stasavich (ECU SID)

The Becoming of a Pirate

In his stint in the Army, VanSant was fortunate enough to meet his future wife. While stationed at Fort Bragg, the 19-year-old soldier met and was smitten by a beautiful high school senior named Ronny. The two dated for the entirety of his enlistment and, during that time time, VanSant became very close to her family.

It was staying with her that helped fate work in his favor, lest he would have missed his moment to become a Pirate.

"I knew I wanted to play football and I knew that I would have to walk on after I spoke to Coach Boone," VanSant recalled. "Coach Boone was the second coach to have blessed my life. He was one great, great man and a great football coach. Boone was younger than and not crusty like Coach Eason.

"After I talked to him and he told me to come over and walk on, I never heard from him again. I had literally not heard anything about when practice would start or when I was to report. I was at my wife's family's house in Fayetteville and I picked up the paper and looked down at it and there was an article saying that East Carolina was starting practice the next morning. I saw that and I took off."

A fortuitous moment to be sure and aside from leaving tread marks in his future in-laws' drive way, VanSant arrived at East Carolina intact and ready to play ball.

"I got there and reported to the equipment manager, John Stauffer, who had been a player but had gotten hurt and was helping out as a manager. I look and all of the gear is lying all over the floor and John tells me to go in and grab some gear. I grabbed a helmet and it didn't have a facemask - just like our high school helmets, so I put it on and went on out there."

Though in school on a G.I. Bill, VanSant earned a partial scholarship after his first year and he was "grateful for it."

Boone, who had been a standout player at Elon College, coached the Pirates when they were in the old North State League, which was the precursor for the Carolinas Conference. At the time, the North State League was dominated by the likes of Appalachian State, Western Carolina, Newberry College, Catawba, and Lenoir-Rhyne, and the Pirates were looking up at those teams.

"We weren't really that good, though we were 7-3 my senior year," VanSant said. "We did beat the University of Richmond - I think it was 22-7 - and that was a big deal then. Beating them was one of the bigger things we did. We lost to Lenoir-Rhyne and that was one of my biggest disappointments as a player because they beat us 22-21, getting two points at end and Coach Clarence Stasavich was their coach at the time."

Though East Carolina was still evolving as a competitive football team, the never-say-die attitude was already firmly entrenched and VanSant knew it.

"Do you know in the years that I played, I never, ever, not one time entertained the idea of quitting football," he said. "Not even when I was throwing up. It was a blessing to me as was that great bunch of guys."

VanSant was well-liked as a player and he, too, took note of many of his contemporaries.

"You know the guys that really stand out to me…," VanSant thought. "…We had a guard named Dempsey Williams, from Fayetteville. He was killed in Vietnam. And, of course, ahead of me was Alge Faircloth. He was a ruffian. He played tackle and was a nasty, nasty player. I dearly loved him. He died a few years ago. That guy was an absolute renegade and he graduate and coached football and I'll tell you, he did more to help kids in the state of North Carolina than anyone in this world. There was Ed Emory, who was my roommate.

"There also was Henry Kwiatowski. I think the world of Henry. He was a tackle and a kicker. I remember with Henry, it was the last game of the season and he had not missed an extra point all year and I snapped the ball to the 50-yard line. Bill Whichard, who was the Director of House Keeping, came up to me and said, 'You did that on purpose because he got all the credit (for the streak of kicks)'."

For VanSant, it is the content of a man's character that tends to stick in the memory.

"At my age, I think more about what a player has done with his life rather than whether he was an all-America," he said. "I played with Dave Thomas, who is retiring as the Athletic Director in Wayne County. And there was Clayton Palind, who was one of the greatest defensive tackles ever at East Carolina. He was killed in a logging accident
two years ago. He was one of the finest players and he was only 200 pounds. He even made it to a pro camp at that size.

"There were a lot of good players at East Carolina. Of course, James Speight was the running back when I played. He ended up never playing, but the Baltimore Colts signed him out of college so that he could never play with anybody else when he got out of the Air Force. He did play service ball and he was named the world player of the year
for the military. He truly was one of the greatest I ever saw."

Above all, there was Jack Boone.

"After my senior year, he upped my scholarship even though I was no longer of any use to him," VanSant said. "I will never forget that. He was a great, great man and I thought the world of him. You know, when I get together with guys in athletic circles and we talk about influences, most guys name a coach. Not their father, but a coach and that is how it has been with me. Jack Boone was one of those men."

Meanwhile, Another Bond was Forming

"I met my wife, Ronny, while I was in the military," VanSant said.

"I was 19 years old and she was a just a senior in high school when we met. We dated for four or five years before we got married.

Ronny is from Fayetteville, home of Fort Bragg and VanSant's duty station. She sensed from her initial meeting that VanSant was whom she wanted to be with, and to be with him meant a life without a much of a master plan.

"We were meant to be," VanSant said. "In June, it will be 44 years. When we got married, I was a sophomore at East Carolina."

Ronny, who very much values education, knew that if her future husband was going to pursue his dreams, she would have to be very flexible. But one thing she would not budge on was a promise she insisted VanSant give and keep.

"(Life) was always a football first situation for me," VanSant admitted. "I got my doctorate degree because of Ronny. I made a promise to her and she to me. She said I wish you would get your doctor's degree and you can coach all you want. It was her insistence. And she worked and supported me for that, though I did have some income. She helped put me through school and helped support the family just like in my undergraduate years when she worked two years and put me through college. Of course, after that she raised the children until they were in junior high. Then she went back to school and got her undergraduate, master's, and doctor's degree."

With a promise in hand, Ronny strapped in for the wild ride of a life that coaches often live, bouncing from school to school, state to state.

"Life has been a whole lot more fun for me than Ronny," he said. "I shortchanged my family quite a bit and never gave them the attention they deserved. But, I guess I've done something right for 44 years. I'd lose a game and she'd be in tears. She would be like, 'You lost. Are you going to get fired?' I was arrogant and I would say, 'I'll get a better job.'

"She stuck by me all the way. Ronny's a pretty good football fan, but she wouldn't go to the games for years because (the pressure and emotions) bothered her so much."

While Ronny was stressing, VanSant was loving every minute of his great adventure in coaching.

"I haven't done much planning for my entire life," he said. "And I wouldn't change much about it, honestly. One thing I know for sure, when I go to my grave, I'm going with a smile on my face. I couldn't have done anything more enjoyable than what I've done. It has been one big party for me."

The Coaching Carousel

When he finished his eligibility, VanSant know one thing for sure: He wanted to be a football coach. VanSant would find his way back to Greenville fairly quickly to be a coach, but he had to leave first to come home.

"From day one, I loved it in Greenville," he said. "But I wanted to coach and I could have parachuted into West Hell to coach and that would have been alright."

It didn't require a term in hell of any kind for VanSant as he started on his coaching journey directly. He would only be away from Greenville for one year.

"It all happened so quick," VanSant recalled. "I graduated and took a job coaching at Hopewell High School in Hopewell, VA. Ironically, Hopewell was the other (powerhouse) team (and Hampton's rival). Bill Merner - I worked for him - had won 35 straight games in Hopewell, which was a record. Later, that record was broken in the '60s by a good friend who (won) 50 in a row and ironically, I was at Hopewell when
that streak ended. Bill Merner was an East Carolina football player who played on the 1938 team and weighed about 139 pounds.

"Those are all ironies and ironically, I came to East Carolina to be a lawyer. I wasn't highly recruited, not really at all out of high school. I did have a chance to go to the Naval Academy, before they looked at my records. It's ironic because I came here and didn't know anything. The pre-Law lasted about one semester and after that, I wanted to be a football coach."

Hopewell provided that first opportunity for VanSant. As a firstyear assistant, Hopewell went 9-1, including a nine-game streak following an opening game 6-0 loss. As a coach, VanSant was a self-described "wild coach."

"Yeah, I coached the way I played," he said. "With enthusiasm. But you know, it was never for any reason except I loved what I was doing. Loved every day of it. There is nothing more fun that coaching even if I wanted to slit my wrists a few times after some losses.

"Hopewell was football crazy. They filled the stadium on Friday nights and they would take a nickel off the price at the drugstore downtown for each touchdown we would score. It was the kind of place where you would go to town and get blue and gold (team colors) ice cream."

It was a great year for VanSant, but it was his only year at Hopewell.

"I was working there and teaching two classes of senior Civics, two ninth-grade history classes and a PE class. I was an assistant football and track coach. And in the summer, I worked at Allied Chemicals doing shift work."

The year flew by and VanSant truly had no plan to leave, but his alma mater came calling. It was a June telephone call from Clarence Stasavich that changed everything.

"This is how it happened," VanSant explained. "Coach Stasavich was looking for somebody who was an East Carolina graduate with a Master's Degree, which I did, and he was looking for someone who would work for nothing.

"I took a nice pay cut to come back to East Carolina. We had to teach back then (as a collegiate coach). I was the only one on his staff at the time. There was a great guy who recommended me. His name was Odell Welbourne and he was an assistant coach at East Carolina and Stas kept him on staff. Stas hired me, which was again ironic. I hated Clarence Stasavich. We never beat Lenoir-Rhyne (whom Stasavich coached before coming to ECC) and I remember (as a player) when he would walk in and was a cocky, arrogant guy with his hair parted down the middle."

But that would change when their roles changed.

"I talked with him for eight straight hours and I left absolutely loving  him. He was that kind of man… very charismatic. A great, great man. So, I came back as freshman coach in 1962."

It wasn't just Stasavich that brought VanSant home that first time.

"This was East Carolina, it was my school," VanSant said. "There was no question about it. I would have come for half of what he paid me - which was already almost nothing."

VanSant, knowing his wife would very much want to move back home (to North Carolina), had contrived an arrangement with her to let her know how things went by code.

"There was no question about us coming here," VanSant said. "I made a deal with my wife that if I got the job, I would drive back to our home on Ibor Street with a cigar. When she saw that, she was happy."

As thrilled as he was to be heading back to East Carolina, VanSant admits that at the time it probably was not a very smart decision.

"From a career standpoint, I don't know whether it was good or not," he said. "We ran a Single Wing and nobody was hiring coaches in a bastard offense and a bastard defense. There was nothing like it in the football world even though we were winning. I was going back to my school. That's what I did and of course it ended up a great decision."

VanSant coached for Stasavich until 1970, when the old coach stepped off the field and into the AD's role. At the time, VanSant admits he would have loved to have been named the head coach at his beloved school, but acknowledges he probably wasn't ready for the job when the real opportunity existed.

"I spent those eight years at East Carolina as an assistant coach," he said. "Nobody on the staff was going to be named the coach at East Carolina. I would have loved to have been the head coach at the time. At that point, they hired Mike McGee (current athletic director at South Carolina) and he kept me on as an assistant and I stayed there for 90
days and quit. I quit on March 11, 1970. It just wasn't a situation I was going to be able to function in. I still had loyalty to Clarence Stasavich, who was the AD at that time, but I was the only one who still had loyalty. It was an ego thing, no question at all - the new group and I were not on the same page."

So, VanSant moved on… away from his beloved East Carolina. What ensued was the job-jumping carousel that usually goes hand-in-hand with coaching. VanSant spent 1970 at Scotland County High School, taking over a struggling program.

"They hadn't won a game the year before and I was down there one year and we tied for the conference championship and we played in the playoffs," VanSant recalled. "I found the people of Scotland County to be wonderful people and I had a good year there. It was a period of real racial integration and there were problems and disharmony… but not on the football field. I felt like I made a bigger contribution to those young men then I ever have in my whole life. That team stuck together through it all. It was a real, real blessed year.

"It was one of the greatest years of my life and there were real problems. I was taken out of the classroom for five weeks to patrol the halls breaking up fights. There were guns and knives, but it was one of the greatest years of my life. I loved those kids, black and white alike. It was a fight every day, but I look back and I feel like I made a difference. If anything in my life I should have done… maybe it was to stay in that situation for awhile, but I didn't. I stayed for just one year and then went off to Alabama."

As in University of Alabama… as in Bear Bryant's home.

"When I left ECU, I had no animosity toward the university whatsoever," VanSant said. "I did it on the spur of the moment. And that is how it was with Alabama."

It was apropos of VanSant's life pattern.

"I had no real reason for Alabama," he said. "At that point, I thought I would get out of coaching and teach at a college. Providence has taken care of me all my life. I had a great interest in alcohol and drug treatment and rehabilitation and Alabama tailored a curriculum for me in that area. I met Dr. Willis Baughman, who was another great man
who took me under his wing while I was there."

VanSant likes to talk about his mistakes - though what he didn't do at times led him to endeavors of equal significance - and at Alabama, his big mistake was not talking to Bear Bryant, mano-a-mano.

"I did go and talk to (folks) in the football office, but I didn't talk to Coach Bryant," he said. "I should have. I talked to the associate Athletic Director about being a volunteer coach and he wasn't very nice to me so I walked out and said, 'The heck with this!'

"It would probably have shaped my life if I could have talked to Bryant. I could have talked to him through Coach Stasavich who was a good friend of Bear's. But I always wanted to shape my life my own way on my own merits."

The conversation never occurred with the legendary coach and VanSant went on to finish his doctorate in 1973. With doctorate in hand, VanSant didn't find the job search an easy go as it was a time when Affirmative Action was in full swing and jobs were not aplenty in Academia, where the emphasis was on hiring minority and female faculty.

"There wasn't much opportunity out," he said. "It was kind of ironic and I think the Lord stepped in for me. I was at a conference in Jackson, Mississippi, and I talked to a lot of people. On the third night, I get a call from Dr. Herb Appenzeller, who I have great respect for. He was the Athletic Director at Guilford College. He literally offered me
the job at Guilford College. I had been (at the conference) looking for a teaching job and I got a coaching job. It didn't take much convincing and I said sure, it sounds fine to me."

A Year at Guilford College

VanSant, who was considering leaving the game, embarked on another coaching expedition. This time, the team was in the midst of a 25-game losing streak.

"At Guilford, I stayed one year," he said. "It was another one of those reactions that probably did me no good. I went in there and they had 17 bodies involved in their football program AFTER spring ball. I recruited and brought in 63 players from April until the beginning of school. They were mostly freshman and a couple of transfers. I worked 24 hours a day and slept in the office."

And the facilities for those players were just as bad. "I went into the dressing room and feared snakes would come out of the lockers," he said. "We went out, raised the funds and built a new locker room with our own hands."

It was not easy on VanSant, who demanded success and saw it in the form of a 1-8 record.

"I managed to add five more losses to that losing streak," he laughed. "It was really rugged that fall. We had kids quit. But, we worked real hard and even though they only won one game, we all thought that we would be pretty good (the next year)."

VanSant, who generally led life with his chin out front and his principles on his sleeve, would last only one season. He explains: "I got mad," he said. "I had three ballplayers I was recruiting and I brought them to the president's office and he said that these players would be admitted to the school. The second in command at the school turned these boys down. I left on principle."

He had given his word based on his superior's promise of support and when the school denied entrance to these players - to young men whom VanSant had made a promise - it reflected on him.

"(The Athletic Director) begged me not to leave, but I had to. It was my honor," he said. "It was really hard to tell those players. They were good the next year after I left and they had a pretty good run thereafter. You develop a loyalty to those kids and that was a very hard thing for me to do. But, I felt it was my personal integrity, so I had to. Plus, my ego - which gets in the way sometimes - wouldn't let me (stay)."

Again, VanSant was a coach without a team.

"I remember Ronny and I were walking across the (Guilford) campus one day," he said. "I had just lost my third game in a row and she asked me, 'How do you take it… this losing?'

"I said, 'Well, we'll win next week.' And Ronny said, 'No way!' At about that time, a 737 flew over and I turned to her and said, 'I'm going to quit coaching, then, and become a pilot.' She called me crazy and I said, 'Just remember, when you're a pilot, you get just one loss. I'm a coach. I'll get another chance to coach after a loss.'"

VanSant was right. Almost immediately, he became the head coach at 71st High School in Fayetteville, NC.

"I called the principal, Bob Lewis," VanSant said. "He was an ECU graduate and was the greatest principal I ever worked for. If every administrator was like Bob Lewis, it would be a great world. I called him and asked him if he had hired a football coach and he said no. I said, 'I'll take that damn job!'"

He took over a middle-of-the-road 71st program.

"They had not been too bad," VanSant recalled of 71st. "They had moved from 3-A to 4-A and I went on to do the absolutely worst coaching job I have ever done in my life that first year. We were 4-6 and I had more talent than probably any team I ever had. There was no discipline whatsoever and we fought the whole year to establish who the
coach was and who the players were.

"We established that the next year with a third of the talent. We lost the first game to Jacksonville High - who by the way had this little quarterback named Leander Greene (a future Wishbone legend under center at ECU) who was simply the most dominating high school quarterback I have ever seen. Then we won nine games in a row. We were
9-1 and we lost, ironically, to Greenville Rose in the first round of the state playoffs."

VanSant saw a lot of talent on his team and he took pride in their accomplishments.

"I had a junior quarterback named Harry Sydney," he said. "He went on to play fullback for the San Francisco 49ers and got two Super Bowl rings. I had a linebacker that I wanted Pat Dye to take… I begged him to take that kid but he didn't want him. Said he was too small at 200 pounds. His name was James Butler and he went on to play at North Carolina State and, ironically, he stopped Leander Greene on the goal line to beat East Carolina."

Back to his Family

His stay at 71st would be short. When he had taken the reigns at 71st after leaving Guilford, his family had remained in Greensboro and he wanted to get home. The Grimsley High School position came available and VanSant saw an opportunity to get home.

"My family had stayed in Greensboro after the Guilford job," he said. "I literally packed three pair of underwear, a couple pair of pants and went to Fayetteville when Bob Lewis offered me the job. And I should say, Bob was so supportive of me. There were never hard feelings and we are still good friends today. Grimsley offered and I went home to my family."

The Grimsley program had produced just two wins the year before and had won just 12 games in the previous six seasons. It would be another triage job for VanSant.

"We had absolutely no players, but I had one of the greatest groups of assistants," he said. "I have been blessed to have assistants everywhere I've been, but at Grimsley, it was special.

(East Carolina Hall of Fame member) Butch Colson was one of my assistants and said to me, 'Coach, if you make a football team out of this bunch you are not a coach,
you're a magician!'

"Well, we won four games, which was not too bad considering we lost our quarterback in the fourth game. The next two years, we won the conference championship and we played in the state playoffs. I was happy as I could be."

With three good years at Grimsley, VanSant wanted to get back into the collegiate coaching game and he found a spot in Virginia.

"I went to James Madison University for a year as an assistant," he said. "What happened was that… was a job I pursued. They had been Division III and they were going up (in Division) and giving scholarships. With that they added a coach. I really stayed there only seven months. I recruited hard, worked hard, coached hard. A man name Calus McMillan was the head coach and I've told you how blessed I've been in my life… Calus was as honorable a man as has ever worked in athletics. He was really the salt of the earth. James Madison was a good place and I liked that place but I got a call from Lenoir Rhyne and they were offering a head coaching job."

Lenoir Rhyne had not been very good of late when VanSant strolled into town.

"They were in an absolute state of chaos," he said. "Behavior, class attendance, drug use and drug dealing. I fought a nice battle there for a while. They had four or five players flunk out and no one graduate. In my last year, my fourth year, we had 17 of 17 seniors graduate."

While the systemic discipline problems disappeared and the graduation rates went up, the wins didn't come for VanSant.

"My win-loss record was just under .500," he said. "That was very difficult and I actually quit there. Ironically, I have never been fired as a coach. I did resign at Lenoir Rhyne. We had an interim president who I didn't really like too good. It was probably a mistake I made. We were 4-6 and had won our last three games. I got into a situation there where I had six kids get in trouble with drugs and four were starters who I dismissed from the team, which made it pretty tough on us. We were pretty good the year before with a 7-3 team. I just resigned.

"To be honest, I got out of athletics for a year after that and I was going into the insurance business. Guys had told me that I could make a million dollars. They were wrong and I was wrong. I got the chance to come back to East Carolina during that time and I came back this time for the rest of my life."

A Pirate Again, Once and For All

To be back at his beloved alma mater was just what VanSant needed to lift him from a year he refers to as "the only time in my entire life that I was miserable."

Being back in Greenville was where he had always wanted to be anyway.

"East Carolina is quite a place, it really is," he said. "From day one, I loved it and it has been great for me ever since. I have never been miserable in all of my years in athletics."

Then-Athletic Director Ken Karr hired VanSant into the administration as the liaison between the AD and the football program.

"I worked in football," VanSant said. "I worked in football… helped on recruiting weekends and took care of football travel and so forth. Then, I guess it was '87 maybe, and Dr. Karr promoted me to Associate Athletic Director. And then, of course, Dr. Karr resigned or whatever in December of 1987."

Following Karr's departure, Dave Hart became the AD and VanSant assumed the role of the number two person in the department, responsible for everything in the department except for football and basketball.

"I stayed with Dave until his departure in 1995 when he left for Florida State," he said. "Then I served as the acting AD from March to the first of June in 1995."

The seat was very comfortable for VanSant and many believed it should be his permanently. But that would never happen as the administration had other plans.

"When I was named acting AD, I was told by Dr. (Richard) Eakin that he wanted to name me, with one caveat, for the (temporary) job. He did not want me to apply for the position. I confronted him and said, 'You are telling me I am not a viable candidate.' "I would have liked to have been the Athletic Director, I really would have. I did not have any support from the administration. They said they were looking for someone who could get us into a conference and negotiate television contracts. Honestly, it was probably the biggest disappointment in my career. I would have liked to have been the AD at that time, but I stayed on without animosity. I had a good tenure and I did what I could. I had been a coach and had a good idea of what coaches needed to be successful and the coaches that were there, were."

VanSant, in his tenure, was especially pivotal in the upgrade of many of the women's programs and he managed the process for capital projects for the department.

"I was the AD liaison for all of the capital projects; I was in on bidding and design. It was some of the most fun when we redid Minges Coliseum and we worked on a very short timeframe. There were maybe two or three days that I was not in the arena back then. J.H. Hudson finished that job in nine months on an 18-month project. I was in on the upper deck and the resurfacing (of) the track and lighting of the baseball field. It was those types of things that I really enjoyed. Deep down inside, I should have been in construction I think."

Another role VanSant carried out was in the hiring of some coaches, in particular Keith LeClair.

"I didn't miss too many events and became fond of baseball," he recalled "I got to know Keith LeClair and the baseball program and baseball became a real joy for me."

The capital projects and people, like LeClair, were the real loves of VanSant's tenure within the athletic administration.

Handwriting on the Wall

When Dr. Eakin had dissuaded VanSant to apply for the AD job after Hart's departure, VanSant began to think in terms of retirement. It was clear he would never be the AD and he had much catching up to do with his now-grown family.

"When (Mike) Hamrick came in," VanSant said, "I was removed from those capital projects and that was one of the biggest disappointments in my (ECU) career. The head coaching job? I know this sounds like an absolute provocation, but I have never, ever really given much thought to (not ever being considered). But, I really would have loved to have had a shot at the Athletic Director's job, just to see what would have happened.

"I have absolutely no animosity toward East Carolina for anything. They gave me my livelihood and it will always be a place I'm proud of and feel indebted to."

Coach Henry VanSant, PhD

Reflections on a Dream

For VanSant, East Carolina University will forever be framed in its humble beginnings. And though he always looks ahead with an eye toward the program's growth, he knows deep inside that the growth of the university is being driven not only by today's fans, alums and friends, but also by a congregation of spirits from the past whose persistence to make ECU a big-time university echo well beyond their years traversing the streets and sidewalks of Greenville. To VanSant, being a Pirate is a special privilege and only those who have made the complete commitment… who know from whence we came as a university… can truly take ECU to the next level.

"I don't want to say anything negative here," he pondered. "But you know, I don't think you should ever forget your past, where you came from, who helped get you there, those players who have moved the program along. I don't believe you can ever be great if you are not aware of your history. If you look around the country in most places, you will find a significant number of the big programs - the outstanding programs - you will find that their own people have a big hand in running their programs. Yes, I'd like to see more East Carolina people coaching and in the administration than we have."

And VanSant does not equate time at ECU as the measure of a true Pirate. True Pirates can be born in a day, as long as they are willing to make good on the promissory note that those men under the guidance of Dr. Jenkins wrote so deftly nearly five decades ago.

"East Carolina is at the point it is today not because of tremendous amounts of money or outstanding facilities," VanSant said. "No, it's because they had people who ran hard. We did that with our football team in the early days. We didn't have the scholarships and pedigree thoroughbred players, but we had some great football teams in the early years built with guys who would absolutely lay their intestines on the line. A lot of those guys were players that nobody else wanted, but they were better players than the ones that were sought after.

"Leo Jenkins… Everything that is Greenville and ECU today can be traced back to the leadership and energy of Leo Jenkins. He didn't accept anything short of winning. He is one of the most dynamic leaders I've ever met in my entire life. He served in the Marine Corps and was a Major and I can't figure out why he wasn't a general. He gave the leadership, got out and raised the money and he was the one responsible for building the original Ficklen Stadium. He brought Clarence Stasavich in to build a program. Those seeds were planted by Leo Jenkins. He was an absolute visionary who didn't think there was a ceiling on anything.

"He had a dream for ECU and made it my dream. He made it everyone's dream. As long as there are determined, East Carolina people working toward that dream, it'll happen."

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Henry VanSant Bio Box

Dr. Henry VanSant



Years Played at East Carolina:



Center & Linebacker, No. 49


Hampton, VA


Retired University Administrator, Teacher & Coach




• Chuck

• John

• 5 grandchildren





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04/15/2009 03:26:33 AM

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