Sure, he has put on a few pounds since his playing days at North Carolina. He has lost most of his hair, but that occurred when coaching at Auburn. Still, there are no bags under those sparkling blue eyes, and his laughter often reverberates around his office. Truth be known, there is little physical evidence to show that Jeff Lebo has the toughest job in all of men’s college basketball.
He is the head coach at East Carolina, where up-and-coming coaches go to bury their careers, where neglect for the program has been a decades-long commitment, and where the program’s history is so wretched as to be no history at all. Yet Lebo is expected to win.
“I don’t know about that,” Lebo said – with a hearty laugh – this past week when asked if he, indeed, faces an impossible task of building a winning program at a football school in a basketball state, one where he operates in the extended shadow of Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State.
Lebo smiles and laughs often because he believes ECU already has made progress toward the goal of being a consistent winner, and will continue to take steps in that direction. There are many factors that have Lebo and Jeff Compher, ECU’s athletic director, convinced it can be done, not the least of which was the program’s jump a season ago to the American Athletic Conference.
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“Our story is evolving,” Compher said. “The biggest part of that evolution for us is the American Athletic Conference and what that means for us, and the opportunity it presents to us. Being a member of a conference with schools that have won recent national championships like UConn, perennial powers like Temple and Cincinnati and Memphis, SMU and Houston, to be able to have those schools in your league and opportunity to play those schools is something I see as a huge value to us.”
Jeff Lebo said he heard from coaching friends that ECU was a dead-end job. That he could not possibly win there. That he should study the history of the place before he pursued the position.
The new conference affiliation – and the TV exposure that comes with it – allows Lebo to expand ECU’s recruiting base outside North Carolina, where it always has been impossible to go against the Big Four programs in landing talent. Also, the addition in 2013 of a $17 million practice building and athletics hall of fame represents a significant upgrade in facilities. An improved atmosphere at Minges Coliseum has ECU’s football-leaning fan base slowly coming on board. Finally, having a head coach in his sixth season with a contract that extends to 2020-21 lends leadership stability to a program that historically has been nothing but unstable.
Neither Lebo nor Compher opt to use the word “challenging,” when discussing ECU men’s basketball. They prefer “opportunity,” and that choice of words is best exemplified by the athletics department’s move in 2013 from Conference USA to the Big East Conference, which immediately broke apart and led in 2014 to the Pirates joining the AAC.
The move initially was made for football purposes during the great reshuffling of conferences across the country. Now it could be that basketball benefits most from the jump, most notably in the strength of the new conference. The most recent RPI has the AAC as the sixth-best league, compared to Conference USA’s No. 21 ranking.
As members of its previous conference, ECU’s games were rarely televised. The only ESPN games occurred for ECU when a North Carolina or N.C. State was kind enough to add the Pirates to their home schedules. This season, 25 of ECU’s regular-season games will be televised.
By gaining that kind of national exposure, high school recruits across the country now can recognize that ECU plays in a high-level league. That allows ECU to expand its recruiting base out of the mid-Atlantic region into the northeast and further south into Florida. Two years ago, talented guard Lance Tejada of Pompano Beach, Fla., chose ECU over Florida State, Miami and Connecticut.
That does not mean ECU will abandon its North Carolina roots. In that same recruiting class with Tejada was one of the top guards in the state, B.J. Tyson out of Wadesboro. Then this past recruiting class included forward Kentrell Barkley from Northern Durham High School. He selected ECU over Wichita State, Cincinnati, UNC Wilmington and Charlotte, and has developed into one of the AAC’s top freshmen.
“I felt I could come here and change the culture of the program and do some big things here,” Barkley said minutes after his 3-point play with 1 second remaining Wednesday gave ECU a 64-61 victory over Temple. The Pirates (10-12, 2-7 AAC) lost to Houston Saturday 97-93.
“It’s a building process. We have to keep working hard and try to change the culture.”
That culture has historically been one of great indifference toward men’s basketball. Long ago, likely during the Clarence Stasavich days of the 1960s, ECU made a decision to concentrate its athletic efforts on football. That is where the bulk of the athletic department’s money and resources have been expended ever since, and the reason ECU is largely recognized as a football school.
Although Minges Coliseum was constructed in 1968 and renovated in 1994, that had been the extent of commitment to men’s basketball facilities until 2013. Under athletics director Terry Holland, a much-needed practice facility for the men’s and women’s program was built using private donations only.
“That is a sign for our future and why it is going to continue to get brighter,” Compher said. “We’re not taking a back seat from a facility perspective, whereas in the past that did weigh us down a little bit.”
When Lebo arrived on the scene, his team had a difficult time getting into Minges Coliseum for practice because it shared the court area with women’s basketball and volleyball. Occasionally, the baskets were not lowered for practice. Lebo often took his team five miles away to practice at a gym in the North Campus Crossing apartment complex. During the off-season, Lebo’s players had no place to practice and play pick-up games.
“That tells you basketball is important,” Lebo says of the new facility. “That is the thing we fight in being relevant here. We fought when I first came here, ‘Why would you want to come here? Look at these facilities.’ You’re like, what are you going to say.”
Now Lebo has something to sell recruits, along with an improving atmosphere at home games. In 48 seasons of play at now 7,100-seat Minges Coliseum, ECU has played to a mere 12 sellout crowds.
The most recent of those sellouts was during ECU’s 2013 run to the CollegeInsider.com tournament championship. So excited was Lebo to see a packed arena for ECU’s semifinal game against Evansville, he deviated from his pregame routine to snap pictures for posterity sake. It was an atmosphere Lebo and his players will not soon forget.
Minges is one of the rare college gyms that provide student seating for up to 1,500 “Minges Maniacs” all around the lower bowl. So, it can be an intimidating place for opponents to play. During the under eight-minute timeout in the second half, basketball has carried a football tradition to the court. A “no quarter” is declared, and instead of raising a red flag like at the football stadium, a cheerleader parades a large pirate flag around the court as a video spells out that the Pirates will now call for an unconditional surrender of their opponent.
It is the kind of atmosphere Lebo envisioned when he was hired in 2010 after being fired following six seasons at Auburn. Because his wife, Melissa, hails from nearby Williamston, Lebo was keenly interested in the ECU job. He previously had unsuccessfully pursued the job as a 29-year-old assistant coach at South Carolina.
On both occasions, Lebo said he heard from coaching friends that ECU was a dead-end job. That he could not possibly win there. That he should study the history of the place before he pursued the position.
Meant to Be
The history told Lebo that ECU had managed 13 winning seasons in nearly a half-century of competing at the highest NCAA level before he arrived. ECU’s only tournament championships came in 1972 in the Southern Conference and 1993 in the Colonial Athletic Association, leading to the program’s only NCAA tournament appearances. Both ended with a loss in the first round.
Perhaps the most stunning and telling number is ECU’s meager three wins against ranked opponents in program history against 66 losses. There is a reason ECU has gone through 13 head coaches in 52 seasons of NCAA Division I basketball. That is a new coach every four years on average, and three fewer than Duke, UNC and N.C. State have employed total over the same time period.
By remaining six seasons, Lebo already has given some stability to the program. He is two seasons shy of the longest tenure in program history. With five more wins, he will be the ECU leader in its Division I history.
It helps that Lebo wants to be at ECU. This is not a stepping stone to a position at a major program. When he sits in his office at the new practice facility, he talks about his love for eastern North Carolina and Greenville. He believes he was meant to land at ECU.
On Lebo’s desk sits a wooden skull that he purchased a few years ago at the coast. He says any visitor to his office who does not believe in the future of the program could face the curse of the “pirate” skull.
Truth is, the skull could also represent the heads of many coaches, including the likes of Bill Herrion, Dave Odom, Eddie Payne, Ricky Stokes and Mack McCarthy, who came and failed at ECU.
That is precisely why Lebo has the toughest job in men’s college basketball.