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Woody Peele

Woody's Ramblings
Tuesday, August 27, 2013

By Woody Peele

History still unfolding at Dowdy-Ficklen

Ghosts of Pirates past are hovering in the background of the revered old stadium's 50th anniversary season

By Woody Peele
All Rights Reserved.

September 21, 1963. I was there. And I was pulling for East Carolina, although I’d never seen a Pirate sporting event at that point of my life.

I was a reporter for the Goldsboro News Argus, my first job after graduating from Wake Forest in 1960. Yes, that Wake Forest, the very team the Pirates were playing that night in Ficklen Stadium's dedication game.

I had won two tickets to the game at a meeting of the Goldsboro Jaycees a few weeks before. My boss at the News Argus, Henry Belk, then a member of the East Carolina College board of trustees, learned about my good fortune and “suggested” that I give him and his wife a ride to the game.

Not only did we go to the game, we went along to a reception at the Ficklen home in Greenville, then to another for which I can’t remember the host. Finally we made our way to one at the home of then-ECC president Dr. Leo Jenkins. All of these social calls were prior to the football game.

Now, why would I, a Wake Forest grad, be pulling for East Carolina? While at Wake, several of my friends were members of the Demon Deacon football team and had expressed their disgust with their coach. “I sure wish they’d get rid of him and hire (assistant coach) Billy Hildebrand,” they told me.

They got their wish.

Not long afterwards, the players told me they regretted it. The new coach wasn’t what they thought he would be. “It’s going to be a long season,” they predicted.

Sure enough, it was.

By the time East Carolina hosted the Deacs, I was hoping that Wake would have a disastrous year and get a new coach. So I wanted the Pirates to win. And that’s what they did.

Little did I know that night that come January of 1964, I would take over the sports editor’s job at The Daily Reflector in Greenville, thus attaching myself to the Pirates for the next 49 years.

Since that first game in Ficklen Stadium (now Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium), I have seen nearly every game played there, even after I retired from The Daily Reflector in 2004 — at least, until last season, when back surgery prevented me from attending a single game, thus snapping my long record.

I’ve seen the stadium grow from its original form, seating some 17,000, to what we have today, seating over 50,000. And I’ve seen the crowds grow with it.

I heard people say, “Why expand when you don’t fill up what we have now?” My reply was always “Don’t worry, they’ll attract more than the capacity they’re changing,” and they did.

Dowdy-Ficklen’s 1963 stadium can be seen somewhat in the current stadium. On the South (press box) side, there are two small walls that run up from bottom to top. The seating between those two walls mark the original size. The North side was made up of wooden bleachers.

Those were later replaced with the concrete stands and the North side was expanded to its current width. The upper deck came next and the end-zone seating came just a few years ago, bringing the stadium to its present size.

Plans call for another upper deck on the South side in the future, along with a new press box and skyboxes.

The original press box was also replaced. The old one could seat only about a dozen or so reporters, and at first this was thought to be sufficient. But as the Pirate program grew, so did the coverage. Eventually, some of the media were seated just under the press box on the back row of the stands. Quite a few of those “unlucky” ones didn’t like it one bit.

The current box, three levels high, still holds the press, radio booths, a TV booth, a room for the scoreboard operators, and a box for the home athletics director and for the visiting AD.

I was recently asked to pick from a list of games, choosing the top game from each decade of those played in Dowdy-Ficklen. For the most part, it was a simple chore, with only a few that I had to compare harder than others.

There’s no question that there have been some great games — and victories — for the Pirates on their home field.

Expanding the once-in-a-decade list, here’s what I think are the most important wins for ECU during each of those decades:

• 1960s: There’s no question about the ECC-Wake Forest game. It has to be a standout for no other reason than it was the first home meeting between the Pirates and an Atlantic Coast Conference member. That it turned into a victory ignited a firestorm among the Pirate faithful and was the rock on which the future of the program would be built. It has to be one of the most important wins in the school’s history — home or away.

It’s difficult to pick another game from the 60s, however. There were no history-makers the rest of that decade. But a 49-8 victory over Presbyterian in 1964 locked up an 8-1 season for Clarence Stasavich’s Pirates and earned them a Tangerine Bowl berth against a strong Massachusetts team. The Pirates won that one 14-13 in a hard-fought contest, scoring the game-winning PAT late in the contest down in Orlando, FL.

• 1970s: My, my, it’s hard to come up with just two. There were so many during that era which saw both Sonny Randle and Pat Dye heading the Pirate program.

Oddly enough, however, my two choices came back-to-back in the 1973 season.

Up first was a game against William & Mary. The previous year, East Carolina had traveled to Williamsburg, VA, for a game that would decide the Southern Conference championship. The Tribe was the favorite in the game, and just about everyone believed they would win to set up a battle with Richmond the following week to decide the title. East Carolina had already beaten the Spiders, but even so, the Virginia press was ready to hand the title to William & Mary.

The Pirates, however, pulled off the surprise, taking a 21-15 victory to win the 1972 title.

As the 1973 drew to an end, East Carolina had to face both the Tribe and Spiders in consecutive games in Dowdy-Ficklen. Both the Tribe and the Spiders believed they would gain revenge and once again face off in the season’s finale to decide the title.

But the Pirates ended up dominating both games, proving that their wins the previous season were no flukes. The Tribe bowed by a 34-3 score and the Spiders went down 44-14 the next weekend.

The “Cinderella” ECU title that the Virginia media know-it-alls proclaimed would turn into a pumpkin turned into a glass slipper instead.

Of course, there was also the Marshall game of Nov. 14, 1970. The Pirates squeezed out a 17-14 victory over the Thundering Herd, which in itself wasn’t that memorable in the long history of either program.

It was what happened just a few hours later. The plane carrying the Marshall players back to Huntington, WV, crashed on approach to the airport, killing all aboard. It was the worst accident in NCAA football history and left a scar on the ECU fans, one that has never fully gone away. A memorial plaque now stands outside the visitor’s dressing room at the stadium.

• 1980s: It’s almost impossible to find a “key” game in the 1980s, probably the worst string of seasons for the Pirates. There were only two winning seasons during that span, along with one break-even year.

The Pirates left the Southern Conference in the 70s and didn’t affiliate with Conference USA until the 90s. While they did join the Colonial Athletic Association, the conference did not have a football league at that time, adding it after the Pirates left.

Perhaps one big 80s victory in Ficklen came in the 1981 season when East Carolina slipped past Toledo 28-24. But the home wins were few and far between in the era, which recorded a 44-66-1 mark overall. The home field, however, provided many of the wins as the Pirates held a 26-21 margin over their visitors.

The decade's biggest win in Ficklen came on Oct. 21, 1989, when Bill Lewis’s first team recorded a 14-10 victory over Virginia Tech, one of a number of highly-regarded teams to visit Greenville during the 80s. Teams like Miami, Temple, South Carolina, Tulsa, West Virginia, Cincinnati, Florida State and Syracuse were all on that field and all went home with victories.

• 1990s: The victories over “name” teams bunched up during the 90s. South Carolina, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Duke and N.C. State all bowed before the Pirates during the decade of Bill Lewis and Steve Logan.

The most important one, however, came in the second year of the 90s when Pittsburgh came to Dowdy-Ficklen on Oct. 26, 1991. East Carolina was rolling, having won five straight after a controversial season-opening loss at Illinois. Even so, the Panthers were a heavy favorite in the game.

It went right down to the wire before quarterback Jeff Blake scored a two-point conversion to make it 24-23 for his Pirates. East Carolina then held off a final drive by Pitt to sew up the win.

From there, the Pirates cleared the table, winning their final home game and four straight road contests before beating N.C. State in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta, posting the best record in modern ECU history, 11-1. That earned them a ninth place finish in the Associated Press poll, the Pirates’ highest ever.

Then, finally, in the last home game of the 90s, North Carolina State came to Dowdy-Ficklen. It marked the first time in the 22-game series that the Wolfpack had ventured out of Raleigh to face the Pirates.

A jubilant crowd of over 50,000 fans packed the stadium and watched the Pirates roll up a 23-6 victory over the Pack. It was a great way to close out the millenium.

2000s: As the Steve Logan era came to an end at East Carolina, the Pirates turned to John Thompson — a miscalculation on the part of ECU officials. Thompson was fired after two seasons, going 1-11 and 2-9.

Replacing him was Skip Holtz, the son of highly successful coach Lou Holtz. Although Holtz’s first year was only 5-6, the opening game gave the Pirate faithful hope of better things to come.

The Pirates started the season playing host to Duke from the ACC. Now, certainly, the Blue Devils didn’t have the reputation that the rest of its league did, but a win over an ACC team was something that meant something to the fans. In that contest, on Sept. 3, 2005, the Pirates squeezed out a 24-21 victory. From there they went on to a 3-2 record that season in Dowdy-Ficklen.

The Pirates played host to North Carolina on Sept. 8, 2007, a week after losing 17-7 at Virginia Tech. Again, no one gave ECU much of a chance against the Tar Heels, who had lost to ECU only once in the series, at Chapel Hill in 1975. The Heels had also beaten the Pirates, 28-17, in their first trip to Dowdy-Ficklen, back in 2003.

This time, however, the tables were turned. It went down to the wire, but for only the second time, ECU pulled out the win, 34-31 on the final play on a field goal.

ECU went on to go 8-5 that year, including a victory over nationally-ranked Boise State, 41-38, in the Sheraton Hawai’i Bowl.

Another big victory came early in the 2008 season, when West Virginia came to town. ECU had opened the season at Charlotte with a 27-22 upset of Virginia Tech before hosting the favored Mountaineers.

But the Pirates dominated that game, roaring to a 24-3 victory that set the stage for a 7-4 regular season and a meeting at Tulsa for the Conference USA championship. ECU won that game, 27-24, and advanced to the Liberty Bowl.

The next season, ECU went 8-4, and hosted the C-USA championship game, nipping Houston 38-32 to once again head to the Liberty Bowl.

2010s: This decade is still in its infancy, so it seems acceptable to believe that many big victories still lie ahead before the 20s come along. Former Pirate player Ruffin McNeill came along to replace Holtz, who left for South Florida after the 2009 season.

The big win for that season came when N.C. State visited, drawing over 50,000 to Dowdy-Ficklen. The two teams battled back and forth and were deadlocked when the final horn blew, sending the game into overtime.

East Carolina got the victory, 33-27, holding off the Wolfpack in the extra period.

The last game of the 2012 season was one of the most exciting every played in Dowdy-Ficklen, a double-overtime win over Marshall. When it was over, there was a huge exhaling of the breath from over 46,000 fans.

ECU rolled up a big 35-14 lead before halftime but Marshall roared back and grabbed a 52-45 lead with less than two minutes remaining. But the Pirates drove 76 yards, including overcoming a fourth-and-ten situation, to score with four seconds remaining, knotting it up.

After both teams scored in the first overtime, the Pirates recovered a Marshall fumble and scored to take the win.

There have been many top players to go through Dowdy-Ficklen, both on the Pirate side of the field and on the visitors’ side.

Pirate fans who have been around for a long time remember tailbacks Dave Alexander and Butch Colson, quarterback Carl Summerell, defensive back Jim Bolding, and many, many more.

More modern era stars were Jeff Blake, Junior Smith, Chris Johnson, David Garrard, Dwayne Harris, and dozens of others.

Among opponents who showed off their talents were Terry Bradshaw, Mercury Morris and Vinnie Testaverte.

Quite a history for the old girl as she starts another 50 years.

Send a message to Woody Peele.

PAGE UPDATED 08/27/13 02:00 AM.

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