- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 2, 2006

There was a time not that long ago when any discussion of the best football programs outside the power conferences included East Carolina.

From 1991 to 2000, the Pirates won at least seven games six times, including an 11-1 mark and top 10 ranking in 1991. Before there was a BCS and prognosticators thought up terms like “BCS-Busters” for teams such as Utah and Fresno State, East Carolina was the dangerous mid-major team that would play any team anywhere.

The program started to slide in coach Steve Logan’s final two years, and he was fired after the 2002 season. Former Florida defensive coordinator John Thompson won three games in two years before resigning.

Athletic director Terry Holland turned to Skip Holtz, the son of a coach who made a career out of rebuilding programs.

“I don’t care if I am Lou Holtz’s son or George Bush’s son, if we don’t win enough games I won’t be here,” said Holtz, who was an assistant under his dad at Notre Dame and South Carolina. “But to be able to work with people like Lou Holtz and Bobby Bowden [with Florida State as a graduate assistant], it helps mold you as a football coach and it can’t help but make you a better coach.”

Holtz has plenty of job security heading into the 2006 season, which the Pirates open today at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium against the Midshipmen. After two horrific seasons with Thompson in charge, Holtz breathed life into the program last year.

“You talk to people around here and everybody has a different reason for [what went wrong],” Holtz said. “The pride was gone. The confidence was gone. It wasn’t the same program people around the country think of when they see ECU.”

East Carolina won five games last fall, and gave West Virginia a scare in Morgantown. Holtz preached a new attitude and stability in Greenville, N.C.

Some of his players are on their third head coach and have had four coordinators.

There were also issues in the classroom. Holtz said the team’s cumulative grade point average was about 2.0, the minimum to remain eligible. One year into the rebuilding plan, the team’s GPA had climbed to 2.5.

A strong finish last year (wins at Marshall and against Alabama-Birmingham) and positive reviews from the recruiting season have helped Holtz start to build momentum in Greenville.

This season’s schedule could pose trouble for the Pirates to take another step forward. East Carolina’s nonconference slate starts with the Mids and includes home dates with West Virginia and Virginia as well as a season-ending trip to N.C. State.

“The bar has been raised,” Holtz said. “I don’t know if we are ready to compete at that level, but it is where we want to be. We could be a lot better this year and not win as many games.”

East Carolina will be young this season as some of Holtz’s recruits from last year earn more playing time. Holtz does have a pair of senior offensive stars to lean on in quarterback James Pinkey and wide receiver Aundrae Allison.

Pinkey’s career numbers could end up surpassing or comparing favorably to past Pirates greats like Jeff Blake and David Garrard. Allison had 83 catches and a school-record 1,024 yards last season.

The duo will be a stern test for the Mids’ pass defense, which was shaky at times last season.

“They have an excellent quarterback with a strong arm and he knows where to go with the ball,” Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green said. “Allison has tremendous speed and great hands. He is one of the best receivers we will play all year long. It will be a great test for us.”

Holtz sees Navy as a model for his program to build toward. Paul Johnson’s group has been to bowl games in three straight seasons, while Holtz was quick to point out the Pirates haven’t defeated a bowl team in three years.

It does appear East Carolina is moving in the right direction in Holtz’s second season, especially considering the Pirates went 2-0 against Army and 1-20 against everyone else in the short-lived Thompson era.

When Holland was looking for a new coach, he had a “wish list” of qualities in mind. They included head coaching experience (Holtz was at Connecticut and faced Johnson’s Georgia Southern squad in the 1-AA playoffs), a knowledge of important East Carolina recruiting areas, an ability to communicate a vision for East Carolina football and contagious enthusiasm and energy.

“We got all that and more,” Holland said.

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