GREENVILLE — East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill is prone to saying all wins are big, but the truth is some are bigger than others.
The Pirates, preseason favorites to conquer the Conference USA, let one of those extra-large victories slip away two weeks ago against Virginia Tech.
Technically, the nonconference loss wasn’t a setback, but it was a lost opportunity to show the Pirates belong in the same class as the automatic qualifiers.
These are victories newly appointed East Carolina athletic director Jeff Compher is looking to record sooner rather than later.
“We want to win conference championships,” Compher said. “We want to play at the highest level and we want to be considered for the highest level bowl game we can qualify for, whether that’s a college football playoff or one of the higher-ranked bowls that the winner of the other five conferences gets to play.”
Beginning in 2005 the Pirates are 46-20 against C-USA teams and have won two conference championships. However, during that span, they are 7-22 against BCS schools.
ECU therefore enters Saturday’s second-chance game at North Carolina in the NCAA’s version of limbo – clearly in the upper echelon of C-USA, but not quite on par with the big boys.
Compher is familiar with trying to move out of the middle class, which is why East Carolina hired him five months ago to replace popular retiring athletic director Terry Holland.
As the Northern Illinois athletic director, Compher watched his unheralded Huskies advance to the Orange Bowl last season, where Florida State reminded them they were in the wrong neighborhood. NIU finished 12-2 (8-0 MAC) and ranked No. 22.
To Compher and the Pirates, the Huskies’ season was another reminder that the “limbo leap” can be done.
“A lot of people said the MAC was at the bottom of the heap as far as conferences go and we went to the Orange Bowl last year,” Compher said. “I know when things go right what any team is capable of achieving, and I believe that ECU football is capable of achieving a national brand that has a chance to compete for a national championship.”
But East Carolina must not let opportunities against schools like Virginia Tech go to waste.
A win over the Tar Heels not only would swing bragging rights east but also help show that ECU is more than just a “good Conference USA team.”
“I think (a win) legitimizes what we are trying to do as a program and that’s continue to improve and make progress towards our goals,” Compher said. “When you’re capable of beating a team the caliber of a UNC team or an N.C. State team or a Virginia Tech team, you know that you’re making progress. It’s a sign that we’re doing the right things, we’ve got the right coaches in place, the right staff in place and the right student athletes here.”
Good coaches, good times
In an alternate universe, Saturday’s game might have been a chance for the Tar Heels to prove themselves against the Pirates.
Led by coach Bill Lewis and quarterback Jeff Blake, the Pirates – playing as independents – put together an 11-1 season in 1991 that included wins over South Carolina, Syracuse, Pitt and Virginia Tech before topping N.C. State 37-34 in the Peach Bowl to end the year and finish No. 9 in the final AP poll.
“There’s no question (they were the best team in the state),” said Jeff Charles, ECU’s play-by-play announcer for the past 26 years. “There’s no question at all about that.”
Lewis rode that success to Georgia Tech, and ECU turned to offensive coordinator Steve Logan to carry the torch until 2002. He used his pass-happy offense to become the school’s all-time wins leader.
“Steve had really exciting teams,” Charles said. “He was on the cutting edge of the spread offense before a lot of people were. It seems like everybody is throwing the ball all over the ballpark these days, but Logan was really ahead of the curve with that.”
Logan cracked .500 in his third year, finishing 7-5 and reaching the Liberty Bowl. By Logan’s fourth year, ECU was back in the upset business. In 1995, the 9-3 Pirates beat Syracuse and West Virginia, won the Liberty Bowl and finished No. 23 in the USA Today poll.
They haven’t finished a season with a number before their name since.
The Pirates temporarily resurfaced in the rankings under Skip Holtz. In 2008, ECU stunned No. 17 Virginia Tech and No. 8 West Virginia, which propelled them to No. 14 in the AP poll.
But they could not sustain it. The Pirates finished 9-5 and Holtz won the first of two consecutive C-USA titles.
The success again led to the departure of a quality coach. Holtz bolted to South Florida of the Big East Conference after the 2009 season.
“People sit around and say, ‘How come we can’t build a program?’ Charles said. “Well, you’re losing your coach every four or five years. ... It’s OK to hire that hot new coach or the hot new coordinator, but if you hire a guy that’s 40 years old, you have to understand that if he comes to East Carolina, most of those guys are looking at it as a stepping stone job.
“… I’m hoping Ruff can be the Frank Beamer of East Carolina. It will be hard to do that here, but I’m hoping he can be that guy. East Carolina is his dream job, he’s said that a million times, and that’s important when you’re trying to build that program.”
Time will tell. McNeill and the Pirates will begin play in the higher-profile American Athletic Conference next season. They could become the East Coast’s Boise State.
As for McNeill, the former Pirates defensive back begins every morning thinking about ways to do just that.
“I wake up each day with just one thought process. ‘What can I do to make East Carolina better?’” McNeill said. “When I talk about East Carolina, I talk about from three different perspectives – as a student, as a player and now as a coach. … With what we have here, we can be as good as what we want to and I’m looking forward to that challenge.”