CHAPEL HILL — During his four years at Southern Miss, Larry Fedora and his team never had the kind of opportunity that East Carolina will have on Saturday at North Carolinas Kenan Stadium.
Fedoras Golden Eagles never had a chance to play against Mississippi or Mississippi State, the two in-state Southeastern Conference teams that dominated newspaper headlines, talk radio and public attention.
Why Southern Miss never had that chance, Fedora didnt want to say.
Thats a whole different article, really, he said, smiling. Theres no reason for me to even comment on that.
He understands, though, what it must mean for ECU to have the chance to compete against in-state ACC schools. The Pirates on Saturday will travel to North Carolina for the latest installment of an on-again, off-again series that began in 1972 and went dormant in the 80s and 90s before resuming in 2001.
I think its a great situation for them, Fedora said. To be able to play all the schools in the state, I think thats a big deal a real big deal.
In his third season, ECU coach Ruffin McNeill earlier this week attempted to downplay the significance of his teams trip to Chapel Hill. This game is just another on the schedule, McNeill said.
But McNeill admitted that when he played at ECU from 1976 through 1979, games against in-state ACC competition always carried additional meaning.
I was fortunate enough to play at East Carolina, and play in great games versus North Carolina State and Wake Forest, Duke, UNC, McNeill said in a phone interview. It was always great for that to happen The emotion is going to be there. I dont try to tamper that, or taper it at all.
ECUs games against in-state ACC competition particularly UNC and N.C. State usually have taken on the feel of the have-nots vs. the haves, little brother vs. big brother. ECU has proven to be better team in some years, but still is 13-27-1 combined against UNC and N.C. State (and 7-11 against Duke and Wake Forest).
The Pirates and Tar Heels will compete Saturday, but their programs compete off the field for exposure, resources and recruits. ECU sent out a news release earlier in the week announcing it had sold 3,500 tickets in the visitors section at Kenan Stadium. Pirates fans undoubtedly would love to beat UNC.
Perhaps almost as much as ECU players themselves, many of whom were overlooked by North Carolina when they were in high school.
Of the Pirates 22 starters on offense and defense, nine are North Carolina natives. Of those nine, none was offered a scholarship to play at UNC, according to Rivals
One of those ECU starters whom the Tar Heels didnt recruit is Justin Hardy, a receiver who played alongside UNCs Erik Highsmith at West Craven High in Vanceboro. Hardy, a redshirt sophomore, has become in his second season one of the most consistent playmakers in Conference USA.
Youve kind of got a chip on your shoulder, Hardy said of not being recruited by any in-state program besides ECU and Fayetteville State. [But] Im here at ECU making the most of it.
During his high school years, Hardys teams at West Craven competed against nearby New Bern High, where UNC linebacker Kevin Reddick played. Reddick spurned offers from several schools, including ECU, to play for the Tar Heels.
Reddick understands what this game means down east.
Its going to be pretty big for the hometown, Reddick said. Some of my homeboys already have called me, and [theyre] saying theyve got Beat Carolina stuff all around. But man, were trying not to focus on that.
Bragging rights at the office
The Tar Heels and Pirates will play for the seventh time since 2001. They are scheduled to meet next season in Greenville but, beyond that, the future of the series is in doubt.
McNeill said he hopes it continues, and acknowledged how games against UNC and other in-state ACC schools help his program recruit and build their brand.
I hope it continues, he said. I think its very important for not just East Carolina but I think all the in-state schools to have that interaction and have that competition between one another.
Fedora, meanwhile, now finds himself in a position opposite of where he was at Southern Miss. He might have hoped then for the opportunity to play against Ole Miss or Mississippi State.
Fedora competed against ECU during his days in Conference USA, but he suspects this will be different.
Theyre going to come in here, into our house, he said. And theyre going to want to take something from us.
Saturday might be ECUs last visit for a while. The ACC is talking about moving next season to a nine-game conference schedule, and the addition of Notre Dame will take up a nonconference schedule spot every three years after the Fighting Irish join the ACC in all sports except for football.
But Fedora said he hopes UNC and ECU, which didnt play each other once from 1982 to 1999, continue to compete regularly.
I think its a real good thing, I really do, he said. I think its good for the state. I think the rivalries that you have within the state, the people that hate each other it gives them bragging rights at the office and something to talk about all year
Thats what college football is all about.