By Dave Glenn and staff, ACC Sports Journal
January 6, 2003 GREENVILLE Former East Carolina football coach Steve Logan went to see ECU chancellor William Muse at the chancellor's residence in Greenville on the night of Sunday, Dec. 1, to talk about his job situation. Muse told Logan to go see the athletic director, Mike Hamrick. Logan didn't see Hamrick until the Saturday morning following a season-ending loss to Cincinnati on Friday night, Dec. 6. Hamrick, in sweat clothes in his office, handed Logan a letter from Muse. Logan read the letter, which essentially informed him that after 11 seasons as head coach of the Pirates, he was finished. The meeting took about five minutes.
Logan, 69-58 at ECU with five bowl trips, will receive his base salary of $200,000 a year for the three years remaining on his contract, unless he is otherwise employed during that period. In that case, the school will be responsible for any difference between $200,000 and his new compensation (if less than $200,000) annually.
Players graduated at a decent rate under Logan about 50 percent, according to the NCAA's formula. The coach ran a clean program, one that usually was free of off-field embarrassments. His offense almost always was exciting, interesting and productive. From 1991-2002, the Pirates produced more NFL quarterbacks (Jeff Blake, Dan Gonzalez, David Garrard) than Duke (Dave Brown), UNC (none), NCSU (none) and Wake Forest (none) combined. Logan also tutored Marcus Crandell, who starred in the CFL.
But losing made for short memories of his positive contributions to the Pirates over 14 years, the first three as an assistant to Bill Lewis. ECU was 6-6 in 2001, 4-8 in 2002. Among the eight defeats this season were double-digit losses to West Virginia (37-17), South Florida (46-30), Louisville (44-20), Southern Miss (24-7) and Cincinnati (42-26). Among CUSA members, only 1-11 Army gave up more points than the Pirates' 33.3 per game.
Logan's departure culminated a downturn in the program, in which the Pirates lost 11 of their last 15 games. He was secure as long as he won, but he failed to develop a significant support group that might have prolonged his stay when things went bad.
The coach did no more for the Pirate Club than necessary, according to sources, making the 15 offseason appearances mandated by his contract and often doing so without a great deal of apparent preparation or enthusiasm. Logan didn't develop many friendships with prominent supporters, often belittling boosters with what was perceived as an air of superiority. He eliminated the public-welcome spring game, an opportunity to promote interest in the program during the offseason, two years ago.
On the recruiting trail, meanwhile, Logan had become increasingly dependent on his football camp and rarely managed to sign players (tackle Damane Duckett in 1999, linebacker Vonta Leach in 2000, quarterback Paul Troth in 2001, etc.) who also had firm scholarship offers from major programs in the ACC and other BCS conferences. In recent years, the Pirates seldom even pursued prospects after N.C. State or North Carolina became seriously involved. Instead, ECU usually ended up signing a combination of juco players, second- or third-tier prep prospects, and first-tier talents with marginal academic credentials.
Logan often spoke of glass ceilings in college football and said, correctly, that his program was limited because the Conference USA champion wasn't guaranteed a BCS berth. His offense, cutting-edge when he guided the high-scoring Pirates to an 11-1 season in 1991, had become rather commonplace in college football and predictable to some opponents. Logan left the defensive side of the ball entirely up to the coordinator, who also hired assistants for that unit. That, too, ultimately contributed to the program's demise, as ECU was 106th among 117 Division I-A teams in total defense last season.
Meanwhile, Logan and Hamrick had limited their two-way communication at a much earlier stage of their prickly association, so there was no support for the coach in that corner. The Friday night game with Cincinnati was the issue that drove the final wedge in the relationship, which had deteriorated from the time Logan hired Frank Beamer's agent, Craig Kelly, to renegotiate his contract after a 9-2 regular season in 1999.
A noteworthy point about that 1999 season, which included a 23-6 win over N.C. State in Greenville in the regular-season finale: That game followed a loss in Charlotte to underdog North Carolina for the Wolfpack. When NCSU lost its next game in Greenville, that kept the Pack from being bowl-eligible, and Mike O'Cain was relieved of his duties shortly thereafter. The subsequent arrival of Chuck Amato in Raleigh made recruiting even tougher for ECU.
When John Bunting took over at UNC a year later, he hired two aides defensive assistant James Webster (a UNC alum) and conditioning guru Jeff Connors out from under Logan and several more assistants who had enhanced their reputations as former members of the Pirates staff. The ECU coach, already infamous in Chapel Hill for his many years of bad-mouthing the Tar Heels on the recruiting trail, reportedly burned more personal bridges in the aftermath of those key staff departures. Some free advice for anyone in light blue hoping to see Logan as a coordinator on the home sidelines some day: It'll never, ever, ever happen.
Finally, two losses to Wake Forest and a setback to Duke that ended the Blue Devils' losing streak at 23 games were broadsides for an ECU program that took pride in its elite status among in-state programs in football. Logan often boasted about the large number of North Carolina natives on the Pirates' roster, and he sometimes claimed seriously but inaccurately to have won the state on national signing day in February. In the end, though, the coach alienated yet another portion of his fragile fan base by referring to the Wake, Duke, UNC, NCSU and other non-conference games as scrimmages.
ECU began competing in Conference USA in football in 1997, but six seasons later the Pirates still had not won a league title, never completing conference play with fewer than two losses. Hamrick didn't hire Logan and had no stake in his performance from that aspect.
One high school coach later told Hamrick that Logan had encouraged the coach to feed the conflict with high school interests by publicly protesting the move at ESPN's request of the Cincinnati game from Nov. 2 to Dec. 6. That Friday was the same night as the state semifinals in the high school football playoffs. Logan apparently was thinking that if he could get Hamrick fired, he could possibly save his own job. Earlier, Logan had walked out of a January 2002 meeting with Hamrick and the chancellor when his contract was not extended. The coach reportedly asked for his contract to be bought out at that time.
The ECU board of trustees conferred on Hamrick's status after Logan's departure but presented a choice of extending his contract, which runs through May 2005, or terminating him. According to sources, the voters were deadlocked 5-5, with two board members abstaining. One buyout (Logan's) may have been all ECU could afford, and maybe Hamrick can be a more effective administrator without consistent resistance from the football coach.
There are indications that ECU is progressing toward the broad-based success Hamrick envisioned for what has long been perceived as a football school. The men's basketball team started 10-2 with a win in its CUSA opener over a Marquette team that was ranked No. 9 in the coaches' poll. Women's basketball won a tournament on its home floor by knocking off a previously unbeaten Alabama team. The baseball program has been to the NCAA Tournament the last four years, and $6 million has been raised for a new baseball stadium. Surprisingly, by ECU standards, it's football that's lagging behind at the moment.
The new football coach, John Thompson, is a lot of things Logan wasn't. He has a defensive background, serving most recently as the coordinator at Florida. He possesses an infectious enthusiasm, which should prove valuable in winning back a fan base that had become increasingly apathetic according to ticket sales, actual attendance and every other measurable element under Logan. Thompson clearly appears more capable of civil interaction, pleasant conversation and diplomatic responses than his predecessor. Those qualities won't necessarily help him win, but they certainly will generate fewer enemies.
Thompson also gives indications that he will be an active recruiter. He said he will target, in addition to the state of North Carolina, talent hotbeds such as Tidewater Virginia, Georgia, Florida and Alabama in his search for players.
He hired former Florida and Arena Football League standout Jerry Odom, the Gators' linebackers coach, to be the defensive coordinator for the Pirates. Odom also has coached on the high school level in Florida and is thought to have value as a recruiter in the talent-rich Sunshine State. He had been a full-time assistant on the Gators' staff for only two years, but what he lacks in experience for the coordinator's position may be compensated for by Thompson's extensive and impressive defensive background.
Thompson also announced that he will retain running backs coach Jerry McManus from the previous staff. McManus developed 1,000-yard rushers Leonard Henry and Art Brown over the last two years and has built good relationships in his recruiting area (east of I-95 in North Carolina) during his seven years at ECU.
Thompson was perceived as a darkhorse in the selection process, from the field of six who were brought in for interviews. His defensive credentials are impressive, but he did not have a well-known national name prior to his hiring. He will have to show that, unlike other elevated coordinators (see Wake Forest's Jim Caldwell, Duke's Carl Franks, NCSU's Mike O'Cain, UNC's Carl Torbush, Maryland's Ron Vanderlinden) who took over ACC area programs in recent times, he can successfully supervise an entire program, from recruiting to hiring assistants to other CEO-like duties. Thompson's choice for an offensive coordinator, coming soon, will be particularly crucial for the Pirates.
LSU assistant head coach Kirk Doll, a defensive lineman at ECU in the early 1970s, would have gotten the job had everything been equal. But, according to sources, Doll lacked Thompson's levels of energy and excitement, which Muse and Hamrick considered absolute necessities for the revitalization of the program. N.C. State assistant head coach Doc Holliday also interviewed for the position, but his support was primarily from outside the selection committee, and some insiders reportedly were uncomfortable with his candidacy.
Pitt defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads made a good impression but at age 35 was deemed too young. ECU interviewed two minority candidates: Charlie Strong, then the defensive coordinator at South Carolina, and Tennessee running backs coach Willie McCorvey. Strong later took the defensive coordinator post at Florida, shortly after Thompson accepted the ECU job.
George Koonce, who went on to play for the Green Bay Packers after his career at ECU, was the committee member who pushed for McCorvey to be interviewed. Others who joined Muse and Hamrick on the committee included senior associate athletic director Nick Floyd, who had known Thompson when both were at Southern Miss; Dan Kinlaw, a member of the board of trustees and an adversary of Hamrick's; and Mike Kelly, another board of trustees member.
There was criticism that ECU didn't pursue a proven head coach in the selection process. Hamrick pointed out that Amato at N.C. State, Ralph Friedgen at Maryland and Bob Stoops at Oklahoma had been plucked from the ranks of coordinators. Larry Coker at Miami could have been added to that list.
Thompson got a five-year deal with a base salary of $150,000. His annual total package will approach $400,000, or about $100,000 less than Logan received for his last year. The staff salary pool will remain around $900,000 for nine positions.
Thompson will cut his teeth as head coach against a non-conference schedule that will include Wake Forest and Miami-Florida on the road, with West Virginia and North Carolina in Greenville. That should jump-start season-ticket sales, which sagged below 15,000 for a lackluster home schedule in 2002. It will be the Tar Heels' first trip to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The long-dormant ECU-UNC series was revived in 2001, with the Heels winning 24-21 at Kenan Stadium. There also will be eight Conference USA games, with the Pirates due to get league rivals Louisville and Southern Miss at home.
Thompson will inherit a defense that loses six starters, and even his special abilities may not be enough to immediately revive that side of the ball. West Virginia, Louisville, Houston and Cincinnati set a variety of offensive records against ECU last season.
The outlook is better on offense, where Troth is back at quarterback and Brown returns at running back, after gaining more than 1,000 yards rushing last season despite missing the last two games with a pulled groin. Rising senior offensive tackle Brian Rimpf, All-CUSA the last two years, will lead an experienced offensive line. Terrance Copper appears ready to step up as a big-time receiver in his senior season.
The Pirates will lose two proven special-teams performers, kicker Kevin Miller and punter Jarad Preston, but Logan is thought to have provided adequately in recruiting replacements.
Thompson planned to complete his staff in early January and promised an exciting, innovative style on both sides of the ball that would be tailored to the talent on hand. The players who were on campus during the holiday break for his introductory news conference had a favorable first impression.
He seems like he wants to coach us, one veteran Pirate said, which is something we haven't had.
Thompson's first news conference was open to the public. It was held in the expansive Harvey banquet room of the Murphy Center, the new $12 million strength and conditioning building between the football stadium and Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum. Those who came to get a sense of direction of the program's future left with newfound optimism. Thompson said all the right things.
Asked if he would patch up relationships with the high school community that had eroded with the Friday night conflict, Thompson said, I'm into building relationships, and I'm looking forward to getting into the high schools and meeting the coaches.
That's where the rubber meets the road in the recruiting process. One observer said he had no doubts about the balding, bespectacled Thompson's salesmanship when he looked at his attractive wife, Charleen, a former television sports reporter Thompson met when she came to interview him at Southern Miss. With boys Cabe, seven, and Hays, five, they form the new first family of East Carolina football.
The spring game will be reinstated. Its recent absence and the opportunity to glimpse the style of play in which the Pirates will enter the Thompson era should result in significant interest.
Thompson spoke with the Pirates' recruiting commitments of the eight known, one defected and some others scheduled visits to other schools on the weekend of Dec. 21, before returning to Florida to coach the Gators' defense in the Outback Bowl against Michigan. Hamrick approved Thompson's return, saying exposure for the new ECU coach in the nationally televised bowl game would outweigh his value in the football office during a non-contact period in recruiting. Thompson got plenty of time on camera on the Florida sideline during a 38-30 loss to the Wolverines, as well as some favorable comments from ESPN analysts Bill Curry and Mike Golick. Thompson was on Curry's staff at Alabama in 1987, as linebackers coach.
Thompson also has been on Southeastern Conference staffs at Arkansas and, briefly, at LSU. ECU fancies its devotion to football to be more along SEC lines than the neighboring, more basketball-conscious ACC. Thompson can't help but bring an SEC mentality to the Pirates, and the last coach to have that quality on his resume was Pat Dye, whose .727 winning percentage from 1974-79 is the best in the major college football era at ECU.
Some say Thompson hasn't stayed anywhere very long, although he served under Jeff Bower at Southern Miss for seven seasons (1992-98). Then it was on to Memphis (1999), LSU for about a month in the 1999-2000 offseason, Arkansas (2000-01) and Florida (2002). The ECU job is still a stepping-stone position to some degree, although Logan passed up offers to use it as such. Whether Thompson will emerge as a desirable commodity for higher program consumption remains to be seen. Of particular concern is the job at Arkansas, in the coach's home state, if it ever comes open at a time when Thompson's stock is high. But those worries are for another day.
It's still in the honeymoon stage, said one prominent ECU supporter, of Thompson's new status as Pirates coach.
But the point could be made that there are good honeymoons and bad ones. By most standards, Thompson made a solid start at ECU.