Politics & Government

Don’t punish ECU for canceling Hurricane Florence game, NC governor says

ECU’s Mike Houston: ‘We are eastern North Carolina’s football program. In time, we will be North Carolina’s football program’

East Carolina football coach Mike Houston speaks about the history and tradition of ECU football after being introduced during a press conference at the Murphy Center at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018.
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East Carolina football coach Mike Houston speaks about the history and tradition of ECU football after being introduced during a press conference at the Murphy Center at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018.

Gov. Roy Cooper has waded into a dispute between East Carolina University and Virginia Tech over a football game that the North Carolina team canceled for safety reasons as Hurricane Florence approached the coast last September.

After ECU backed out of the game in Blacksburg, Va., Virginia Tech canceled games that were scheduled to be played in Greenville later this year, in 2023 and in 2025.

Efforts to reschedule last year’s missed game failed, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported in December. Cooper on Thursday issued a statement saying he has asked Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to encourage the Hokies to resolve the dispute and spare ECU from being unfairly penalized for canceling the game.

“As North Carolina prepared for Hurricane Florence, I urged residents across our state to stay off the roads and prepare for this devastating storm,” Cooper said. “Canceling a major college football game means lost revenue, but the safety of players and fans should come first. ECU made the responsible decision and this dispute should be resolved without making Pirate Nation bear additional costs from Hurricane Florence.”

ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton responded to Cooper’s initiative in an email saying he has spoken to the governor about the issue and is glad Cooper has made it a high priority.

“Greenville was in the bullseye of the projected path of the storm when a decision about the health and safety of our student-athletes and staff had to be made,” Staton said. “Unexpectedly, at the last minute, the storm suddenly veered a bit south as it hit the coast, devastating communities only an hour away.”

ECU closed its campus and encouraged students to find a safe place for the duration of the hurricane; only 19 of the nearly 29,000 students stayed on campus, he said.

As the storm approached, the Pirates had been sent to Florida to prepare for their next game.

“The decision to send our football players to Florida, safely out of the path of the storm and near the next week’s game site, was the right one at the time and a good one with 20-20 hindsight.”

Virginia Tech’s associate athletics director, Pete Morris, said in an emailed response to Cooper’s effort: “We’d politely decline the opportunity to comment.”

At the time, Virginia Tech said it planned to decide whether or not to play based on additional monitoring of weather reports, hoping the game could be salvaged as scheduled. It would have been more responsible to let VT make the call, the university argued.

Virginia Tech’s football Twitter account followed up with a tweet reminding followers that the Hokies’ football team traveled to North Carolina during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and won 34-3. “HOKIES ARE WATERPROOF,” the tweet, which was later deleted, said.

Virginia Tech athletics director Whit Babcock later said he didn’t intend to minimize the dangers posed by the hurricane.

Hurricane Florence caused devastating damage in North Carolina with flooding and closed roads. It caused 43 deaths and an estimated $17 billion in damage.

Follow more of our reporting on Hurricane Florence

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Craig Jarvis is in his seventh year covering politics for The N&O. He has been a reporter and editor here covering crime, legal affairs, general assignment, arts and real estate. Contact him at cjarvis@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4576.

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