College Football: ECU gets chance at league title
Published 12:00 am Monday, December 1, 2008
GREENVILLE ó It took three seasons for East Carolina to finally make good on the goal of winning its division and reaching the Conference USA championship game. Fortunately for coach Skip Holtz, his Pirates have already had more than a week to celebrate that accomplishment and move forward.
Instead, they can focus solely on what it would mean to bring home the first league title at the school in more than three decades.
The Pirates (8-4, 6-2) travel to Tulsa this weekend for the C-USA championship game after coming within a victory of getting there in each of the past two seasons. That moved East Carolina within a win of its first league championship since claiming the Southern Conference title in 1976.
East Carolina had already wrapped up the league’s East Division title before its home finale against UTEP on Friday, making the game meaningless in the standings. But the Pirates responded with their best performance of the season in a 53-21 victory, a sign that the team wasn’t satisfied just yet.
“Everybody talked last week that if you win you go to the championship game, if you lose it you go to the championship game,” Holtz said Monday. “But the talk among the team was having the opportunity to win eight regular-season games, having the opportunity to build upon where we were and have the possibility of a nine- or 10-win season.”
In the years since their last league crown, the Pirates have been a successful, stick-it-to-the-big-boys program operating in the shadows of four Atlantic Coast Conference schools in the state. But, after being an independent from 1977-96 before joining Conference USA, the Pirates haven’t won their conference despite producing NFL talents like David Garrard and Chris Johnson.
When East Carolina won its last league title, Holtz was a middle-schooler and ballboy while his father, Lou, coached the NFL’s New York Jets for one season.
This year, his team has gone from talk of the nation after early upsets of Virginia Tech and West Virginia to an afterthought after a three-game midseason losing streak amid a stream of injuries. But East Carolina has won five of six games since for a strong finish.
The Pirates were in no position to make that kind of run in Holtz’s first season in 2005 after losing 22 of its previous 25 games. His next two teams got within a victory of the C-USA championship game only to come up short ó most notably with a last-minute collapse at Rice in 2006. Still, the Pirates have managed to take a clear step forward in each of those seasons, reaching a bowl in ’06 then beating Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl to end last year.
To the Pirates, this is just the latest opportunity to show progress.
“I think they’ll be really dialed in,” Holtz said. “You have a team meeting on Sunday and you’ve got 125 sets of eyes that are burning a hole in you. Everybody’s kind of sitting on the edge of their chair and saying, ‘What do we have to do?’ They’ve worked very hard to get here, but they understand the challenge we have and what we still want to accomplish.”