08/22/05 — ECU preview -- Holtz likes what he sees

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ECU preview -- Holtz likes what he sees

By Wire
Published in Sports on August 22, 2005 2:04 PM

GREENVILLE -- First came a canceled flight, followed by a 90-mile drive to another airport for a backup flight that would get Skip Holtz to Memphis several hours later than planned.

The return trip wasn't any smoother. There was another canceled flight, followed by a second diverted flight and a 90-mile drive home.

And while airports have an uncanny ability to frustrate even the most laid-back of personalities, East Carolina's new coach remained unfazed all the way back to North Carolina.

"He was still upbeat and happy," senior linebacker Richard Koonce said. "It didn't matter to him at all."

And that, perhaps more than anything else, illustrates the vibe around Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium these days. Holtz has brought boundless enthusiasm and unrepentant optimism to a broken-down East Carolina program, which has had as many coaches as victories since the end of 2002.

For now, at least, the 41-year-old Holtz said he likes what he's seen since taking the job in December after six seasons as an assistant to his father, Lou, at South Carolina.

"I think the one thing that's excited me more than anything since I've been here has been their attitude of 'We want to turn this thing around. We're tired of losing,"' Holtz said. "They've taken a very proactive approach like 'Help us, we're all in this together. Tell us what to do to turn this around."'

That will be a demanding task. East Carolina's once-proud program -- which boasted a top-10 ranking in 1991 and 12 bowl appearances -- has been in a steady decline ever since blowing a 30-point halftime lead in a 64-61 double-overtime loss to Marshall in the 2001 GMAC Bowl.

By the end of a 4-8 season in 2002, Steve Logan was out, leaving as the school's winningest coach with 69 wins in 11 seasons. Things got worse, with John Thompson winning just three games in two seasons before resigning.

Going back to the final two games of '02, East Carolina has lost 22 of 25 games. Nineteen losses have come by double-digit margins, with seven by at least 33 points. And even Holtz admits the staff will have to work on morale alongside Xs and Os.

"A lot of players after a couple of years, they need somebody to believe in them," Koonce said.

Holtz seems well-suited for this rebuilding job. He compiled a 34-23 record in five seasons at Connecticut, taking the Huskies to the NCAA Division I-AA quarterfinals and a 10-win season while poising them for a successful transition to Division I-A.

He'll work with a roster in Greenville that has 19 returning starters, including junior quarterback James Pinkney, sophomore tailback Chris Johnson and senior linebacker Chris Moore.

No player epitomizes the Pirates' slide better than Pinkney, who went from starting every game last year to busing tables at a local restaurant through the spring after becoming academically ineligible. Pinkney worked through the summer to restore his eligibility and returned to the team as the only quarterback on the roster who has taken a snap in a college game.

Pinkney threw for 2,195 yards with 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions last year, while Johnson showed flashes of potential, starting six games and running for 561 yards with five scores -- including a 158-yard day in a win against Tulane.

But the offense couldn't do nearly enough to keep up as opponents marched all over East Carolina's beleaguered defense. The Pirates ranked near the bottom of Conference USA in several defensive categories, allowing 456.8 yards and a league-worst 40 points per game.

Things will have to get better quickly if the Pirates are to win more in 2005 -- and for Holtz to keep the fresh-start goodwill that comes with the arrival of any new coach.

Holtz said he doesn't know how patient the rabid fans here will be and cautions against expecting too much.

His idea of a successful season?

"To be as good as we can be," he said. "I don't know how good that is. I don't think this year is just about numbers for us. We may be much improved than we've been the last two years and not win a game."

He says it with a smile, delivering tough-to-hear news so casually that it almost slips by unnoticed.

His players aren't buying it.

"We just know in our head it's about time for us to win," Johnson said. "A lot of coaches have been through here. It's on the players. We've got to win."