East Carolina has a big-time football team. The Pirates, who opened the season by beating Virginia Tech and West Virginia, are ranked 14th.
But the beauty of East Carolina is that it has never acted big-time. Although Greenville, N.C., is not a small town, there has always been an intimate, small-town quality about the program. And I hope that doesn't change.
The Pirates do not play in Charlotte, the Triangle or the ACC. You do not drive past the campus on the way to somewhere else. You need a reason to go there.
In 1983, I had one – a Pirates football team that would lose only three games, each close and each on the road, to Miami, Florida State and Florida.
When I walked into practice to meet coach Ed Emory, he dropped to his knees and bowed. Imagine, he said, a sportswriter driving all the way from Charlotte for the little old Pirates.
You probably already picked up on this, but Ed could be sarcastic.
After practice, he said he would give me 10 minutes. He gave me two days. We went to Parker's barbecue, the second-best barbecue I've ever eaten, and the waitress brought him the usual. The usual filled the table. And it was all his. I had six inches for a notebook, a pen and a plate.
What I liked about East Carolina then, and now, is that: (A) it served the best barbecue I've ever eaten, King's out of Kinston, in the press box; and (B) because it could not depend on regional rivalries to attract fans to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, the Pirates had to become the attraction.
I wasn't in Greenville last week for the West Virginia victory. I watched from San Diego, where I had gone for the Carolina Panthers opener.
But I did see the Pirates beat Virginia Tech in Charlotte two weeks ago, and I saw them beat North Carolina in Greenville last season. If you do not wear Pirates purple to a home game, you're an outsider. The purple is so overwhelming that from a distance, the stadium looks like a giant bruise.
East Carolina athletics director Terry Holland has been in college athletics for 48 years. He's played basketball and coached basketball and been part of the ACC basketball tournament and the NCAA men's Final Four.
“At no time have I ever seen a more direct connection between those on the field and those in the stands than I observed at Saturday's game against West Virginia,” Holland says.
Here's an example. When a misguided fan would, during the game, stand up to start the wave, he would fail. Pirates fans don't go to football games to stand. They go to football games to watch football. It's a great concept.
Holland spoke to the Rotary Club in Wilmington on Wednesday, and a man told him that after the West Virginia victory he walked to the field to thank the players for their hard work. Several, he said, responded by saying, “Thank you, sir.”
With him was his 5-year-old son, Drew. That night Drew put on his Pirates helmet, picked up his Pirates football and walked to his dad.
“Great game,” the dad said.
“Thank you, sir,” Drew said.