By Dave Glenn and staff, ACC Sports Journal
December 16, 2002 GREENVILLE Bill Herrion is battling a history of failure as he tries to build the basketball program at East Carolina. The Pirates job even made Dave Odom throw in the towel, and Odom later was a three-time ACC coach of the year at Wake Forest. But Herrion has a tool Odom and other ECU coaches haven't had, which is membership in a power conference. That enhances recruiting as well as fan interest and could help the hard-working Herrion overcome the program's long tradition of losing. In theory, at least, Conference USA could do for ECU in basketball what joining the Big East did for Virginia Tech in football.
When Odom became head coach at East Carolina in 1979, he was energized and optimistic about building the Pirates' program. He started well, going 16-11 in 1979-80. But he was unable to build on the momentum of that first season, as the Pirates slipped to 12-14 and 10-17 the next two seasons.
Clearly, competing in the ACC region at a school that thinks football-first is an arduous task.
One thing we were lacking, said Odom, now in his second season as the head coach at South Carolina, was a conference affiliation.
The Pirates joined the East Coast Athletic Conference in basketball for Odom's third and final season at ECU, going 2-8 in the alignment that was the forerunner of the current Colonial Athletic Association. But Odom was seeing that his position with the Pirates was a career dead end. The son of the former Cadillac dealer in Goldsboro was ready for a trade-in after three seasons and a 38-42 overall record. An assistant coach at Wake Forest before jumping to Greenville, Odom resigned at ECU to become an assistant again in the ACC, this time at Virginia.
The ECAC-South became the Colonial in 1985-86. It wasn't until 1996-97 three coaches after Odom's departure that ECU had a winning record in the CAA. The Pirates did make a run to the league tournament championship under Eddie Payne in 1992-93 but finished the regular season 14-16 overall (4-10 CAA), with an 85-65 loss to eventual national champion North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament.
Payne was a good fit at ECU. He played tennis with then-football coach Steve Logan and was able to recruit effectively, considering the circumstances. But Payne was wooed away by Oregon State after his 1994-95 ECU team went 18-11 overall and 7-7 in the CAA.
Interim athletic director Henry VanSant promoted young assistant coach Joe Dooley to be Payne's replacement. Dooley had winning records in his first two seasons, including 17-10 in 1996-97 and 9-7 in the CAA. That remains ECU's only winning record in conference play, going back to an 11-3 mark in 1974-75 in the Southern Conference, which ECU departed from the following season.
But Dooley wasn't Mike Hamrick's hire, and the athletic director dismissed him after two subsequent losing seasons. Dooley was 57-52 in four seasons at ECU, the only coach since Earl Smith, whose last season in Greenville was 1962-63, to surrender the Pirates' helm with a winning record.
Hamrick lured Herrion from Drexel, where he was 121-31, a .791 winning percentage, with three NCAA Tournament appearances in eight seasons. Herrion was hired to coach the Pirates in the CAA, but the geography changed significantly when ECU joined Conference USA in all sports months after his arrival.
The Pirates made the move to CUSA in basketball for the 2001-02 season, going 12-18 overall and 5-11 in the league. They posted high-profile wins at home over Louisville and Marquette, which was ranked No. 9 in the nation at the time. It was ECU's first-ever cage win over a top-10 team. ECU was 10-5 at home but a dismal 0-11 on opponents' floors.
Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum was renovated prior to the 1994-95 season, and its capacity is listed at 8,000. It's a nice, comfortable, mid-sized arena, and Pirates fans can make it very loud. CUSA is a highly visible league with a television contract with ESPN. Coaches such as Rick Pitino at Louisville, Bob Huggins at Cincinnati and John Calipari at Memphis are household names. CUSA produces a good volume of NBA players.
Overall, CUSA means tough competition for the Pirates and is demanding in terms of travel, but there are some major benefits, too.
It allows you to get involved with better players, because we play in a major college basketball conference, Herrion said after this season's home win over Ole Miss, which has four starters returning from an NCAA Tournament team. We've got the best of both worlds in building this program. We're in a great conference, a power conference, but kids can also come here and play.
Junior power forward Erroyl Bing, who led the team in scoring (12.6) and rebounding (8.7) last season, said playing in Conference USA was one of the main factors that brought him to ECU from Largo, Fla.
You've got to win games like this (Ole Miss), Herrion said. Now you can get on the phone, and now you can mail things out. We beat a quality SEC opponent. When people see that score on the ticker on ESPN, it's going to be a ëwow.' It's a great win, not only for us, but for Conference USA to beat a major conference like the SEC.
Herrion and his staff have spanned the globe to upgrade the talent level. Frontliners Gabriel Mikulas, who had 11 points against the Rebels, and Moussa Badiane, who blocked five shots, are international players. Mikulas is from Argentina. Badiane, from Senegal originally, arrived at ECU via France.
Herrion, in his fourth season, finally is playing exclusively with players he recruited. His all-out personality didn't mesh with some of the players from the era of Dooley, who was more laid-back. Senior point guard Travis Holcomb-Faye, Herrion's first recruit with the Pirates, became ECU's career assists leader earlier this season.
The Pirates have added athleticism on the perimeter with freshman guard Belton Rivers, who averaged 32 points as a senior at Atlanta Douglass High, and junior college transfer Derrick Wiley, who averaged 27.3 points for four games in the national junior college tournament for Moberly (Mo.) Community College.
I wanted to play in Conference USA, Wiley said. I like the style of play. It was fun to put Mississippi away, because it lets people know we're for real. We're trying to win. We can take it as far as we want, as long as everybody keeps playing hard and there are no egos, no letdowns. If there's no one player above the program, we'll be all right.
Wiley is from Durham and played at Mount Zion Academy before finishing his prep career at Bonner Academy in Raleigh. He played juco ball at Montgomery County (Md.) Community College as a freshman.
Herrion has found players in various other locales. Jamaican forward Garth Grindley and Australian guard Luke MacKay were among those added to the team since last season.
We've had to piece it together a little bit differently with our recruiting because right now we haven't won enough to just go get the top-50 or top-100 kid in the country, Herrion said. We have to win more just so we can earn more respect right here in the state of North Carolina amongst high school coaches and players, because you're in the shadow of the ACC. But I think we're heading in the right direction.
ECU already has signed forward Keith Foster of Winston-Salem Reynolds, the three-time NCHSAA 4A champion, for next year's incoming class. The Pirates did miss on Kinston point guard Jeremy Ingram, who opted for Wake Forest.
On the way to an impressive 7-0 start, the Pirates ended a 17-game road losing streak by beating Middle Tennessee State 65-63 to open the season. ECU started 2-0 last year with wins over Rutgers and Northwestern on a neutral floor in Raleigh, then went on a six-game losing streak without Badiane and Mikulas. The pair was missing thanks to NCAA sanctions handed down because they had played in foreign leagues with pros.
Travel can be tiring in CUSA, and Herrion knows he needs to establish a deep rotation. Beginning Jan. 29, the Pirates go to Marquette, Tulane, Memphis, Saint Louis, Cincinnati and Louisville in a span of 32 days. ECU usually flies commercially, which means a two-hour bus ride to Raleigh-Durham, two hours at the airport to allow for security checks and often a connecting flight en route to the game site.
If we leave on Monday for a game in say, Birmingham, on Tuesday night and get the first flight back on Wednesday, it's three or four o'clock on Wednesday afternoon when we get back to campus, Herrion said. That's three days of travel for a two-hour game. Our kids probably missed 20 days of classes last year.
The Pirates can play physical and appear to have grasped Herrion's demand for defensive effort. But the road will be a grind.
Still, CUSA is a big chip for ECU, as basketball tries to give the Pirates more balance in its overall athletic program. Competitiveness in a wider range of sports always has been one of Hamrick's foremost goals.
We've got good coaches, and we've got everything we need in place, Hamrick said. We can be a factor in college basketball at East Carolina. We've got fan support. We've got facilities. We've got the resources and, in my mind, we've got the coach.
And Conference USA, too.