Giglio: UNC big game for ECU, but not exactly a rival

jgiglio@newsobserver.comSeptember 27, 2013 

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East Carolina’s Luke Fisher scores the game winning touchdown in the 1992 Peach Bowl.

CHRIS SEWARD — 1996 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

  • Pirates vs. Tar Heels, Wolfpack

    ECU has gone 4-9 against UNC and N.C. State since the two ACC teams started playing the Pirates regularly:

    Year Location Result
    1999GreenvilleEast Carolina 23, N.C. State 6
    2001Chapel HillNorth Carolina 24, East Carolina 21
    2003GreenvilleNorth Carolina 28, East Carolina 17
    2004CharlotteN.C. State 52, East Carolina 14
    2006RaleighEast Carolina 21, N.C. State 16
    2007GreenvilleEast Carolina 34, North Carolina 31
    2007GreenvilleN.C. State 34, East Carolina 20
    2008RaleighN.C. State 30, East Carolina 24 (OT)
    2009Chapel HillNorth Carolina 31, East Carolina 17
    2010Chapel HillNorth Carolina 42, East Carolina 17
    2010GreenvilleEast Carolina 33, N.C. State 27 (OT)
    2011GreenvilleNorth Carolina 35, East Carolina 20
    2012Chapel HillNorth Carolina 27, East Carolina 6

Ohio State-Michigan, Auburn-Alabama, East Carolina and … ?

ECU has a strong history in football and a passionate fan base, but what the Pirates don’t have is a true rival, at least not one by any conventional definition.

The Pirates have been in conference isolation in this state for so long, they’ve never had the chance to develop a true rivalry. ECU faces North Carolina on Saturday for just the 16th time, and the Pirates will face N.C. State in November for the 28th time. (By comparison, UNC and State have played 102 times.)

Luke Fisher, who 21 years ago scored the most famous touchdown in ECU history for the best team in ECU history, said there’s still one common factor when the Pirates get a shot at UNC or N.C. State.

“Those schools have always looked down on ECU as the redheaded stepchild,” said Fisher, a former tight end for the Pirates whose 22-yard touchdown catch in the 1992 Peach Bowl gave them a 37-34 win against N.C. State.

“You always felt like you had something to prove in those games.”

The Pirates just haven’t had that many chances against UNC or State. Since Fisher’s epic bowl performance (12 catches, 144 yards) against the Wolfpack to cap an 11-1 season, the Pirates have faced State only eight times in 20 years.

UNC and ECU are meeting at Kenan Stadium for the fifth consecutive year but the sister schools went 20 years without so much as passing each other on the highway.

With such infrequency, you can’t really label State or UNC as ECU’s rival. The term “Super Bowl” (meaning it’s all ECU has to play for) has been applied, but that’s not necessarily accurate, either.

“I know people call it our ‘Super Bowl,’ but it’s good for their group, too,” ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said.

No doubt, the way the two series have been constructed since 1999 – ECU has played State or Carolina in 11 of the past 14 years – has been good for all parties involved. It still not enough to constitute a rivalry, though.

The Pirates did have a genuine configuration of deep-seeded discontent with N.C. State, meeting every year from 1970 until 1987. The last, a 32-14 ECU win, set off either a post-game celebration (from the ECU view) or a riot (from the N.C. State view).

The fallout from that incident subsequently reduced what was a full-blooded boil between the two schools to an unpleasant simmer. So where exactly does that leave ECU on the rivalry front?

“Virginia Tech and South Carolina were huge games for us,” said Fisher, 44, who now lives in West Palm Beach, Fla. and works as a general contractor for an insurance company.

“Any time we played a school that was near us and there was a matter of pride on the line, it was easy to get pumped up.”

Actually, the team ECU has played the most is Southern Miss (38 times) and it is the longest running series for the Pirates. The two have met every year since 1983.

But the Pirates are going to the American Athletic Conference in 2014, leaving the Golden Eagles and Conference USA behind, meaning that series will go the way of the Justin Timberlake’s denim suit.

In-state, the team ECU has played the most is Appalachian State. The two were once in the Southern Conference together and they’ve crossed paths 31 times. Given App State’s pending move to the Division I-A level, perhaps that’s a series that can be renewed regularly.

As it is, the Pirates get the Tar Heels today and visit N.C. State on Nov. 23. It’s only the third time since 1982, the Pirates face both in the same season. Currently, ECU is scheduled to meet UNC two more times, and N.C. State once, over the next five years.

Given the geographic expanse of the American Athletic Conference (Navy, perhaps when it joins in 2015?), it looks like ECU’s pursuit of interesting geographic rivalry will continue into the future.

Giglio: 919-829-8938

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