In the process of underscoring the importance of football to N.C. State and ECU fans, Wolfpack Tom O'Brien said this week he is looking forward to Saturday's trip to Greenville.
"It's a great place to play, and it's just always a great atmosphere there," O'Brien said.
He went on to say that NCSU and ECU are the two schools in the state that love football the most.
Such cordial talk is a big change from the days when coaches at State and UNC complained almost annually about the prospect of having to face the Pirates, and that was long before either of the ACC teams had to make the trip to Greenville.
Former ECU coach Pat Dye once fired back, saying he couldn't imagine why any rational coach would complain about getting a home game, a big audience, all sorts of in-state recruiting attention, the right to determine the officiating crew and never having to return the game.
"Hell, they ought to be tickled to death," Dye said.
Thanks to some political arm-twisting, the playing locales are more balanced these days. The game Saturday will be State's third trip to ECU since the end of the 1998 season. Next season, North Carolina goes back to Greenville for the third time since the end of 2002.
O'Brien likes the present rotation.
"You can only have so many rival games [each season]," he said. "I think we have it worked out in a way that works well for all three of us, where every year one of us [State or UNC] will play them there or at home."
O'Brien is 2-0 against the Pirates and 3-0 against UNC since leaving Boston College, and will enter this week's game as a 7-point favorite.
Those five wins are among the reasons why State fans stayed so firmly in O'Brien's corner even after his first three Wolfpack teams went 16-21 overall.
Much of that success is due to the fact that having spent many years as a Virginia assistant, O'Brien had first-hand knowledge of ECU's competitiveness.
A 61-10 Pirates win at Virginia in 1975 figured prominently in a Cavaliers coaching change from Sonny Randle to Dick Bestwick.
The final game for Chuck Amato at State was a 21-16 loss to the Pirates in Carter-Finley Stadium. A 23-6 loss to the Pirates in 1999 was the final game for Mike O'Cain at State.
"When I came here, I knew it was a huge game for East Carolina," O'Brien said. "I know the history of East Carolina and its neighboring schools."
Other than an isolated game against Wake Forest in 1963 (Pirates 20, Deacons 10), State was the first of the in-state teams to really give ECU a chance.
At the time, 1970, State needed the big gates to help pay off its investment in what was then just Carter Stadium.
It took almost no time at all for the series to evolve into an opening-night tradition that created an explosion of summer football interest and season-ticket sales.
Much has changed, but State-ECU is still an important game to build statewide interest in a sport that regularly trails basketball in fan interest.
Victories are cherished on both sides of the rivalry. O'Brien is smart to state the obvious, rather than complaining about having to play the game.
"We put emphasis on it," he said. "It should be important."
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