Pirates building a five-star program

Published 9:36 pm Monday, September 8, 2008

By Staff
Holtz has turned around ECU football
Sports Writer
Four years ago, coach Skip Holtz took over a downtrodden East Carolina program and promised to bring ‘big time college football’ to Greenville.
On Saturday, Holtz delivered on his word.
With its 24-3 thumping of No. 8 West Virginia in front of 43,610 fans at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium - the largest crowd to see a home game in the Skip Holtz era - East Carolina is now on the national radar.
“I told our players, ‘Welcome to big time college football,'” ECU head coach Skip Holtz said after the Pirates defeated their second straight Top-20 program. “This is what we want. This is the arena we desire to be in. This is the stage we want to play on.”
Last week, East Carolina became the first Conference USA team to defeat back-to-back ranked opponents as they defeated No. 17 Virginia Tech in the season opener after tackling No. 22 Boise State 38-35 in the 2007 Sheraton Hawai’i Bowl.
Thanks to a dominant performance in all facets of the game against the Mountaineers Saturday, the Pirates pulled off their third straight upset, holding the high-powered West Virginia offense out of the end zone and manhandling WVU’s defense. The Mountaineers are the highest-ranked team that East Carolina has ever beaten.
"We've come a long way," Holtz said. "There was a time not too long ago when we couldn't win three games in a year."
It was West Virginia’s first loss to a non-conference opponent in more than three years.
"(Our guys) are playing with desire, passion, togetherness," the fourth-year Pirates coach said. "Every facet from the offense to the defense to special teams has been fantastic."
“Hopefully we took a step forward today,” Holtz added. “You’ve heard me say a million times, we’ve learned how to win. Can we learn how to handle winning? I think today was a good step in that direction.”
The Pirates haven’t been ranked in the Top-25 since September 5, 1999, but that changed Sunday when ECU was ranked 14th in the AP poll.
“It’s nice to get the national attention,” Pierre Bell said. “But we’re not too worried about rankings. Our focus is on winning football games and beating our next opponent.”
The three game stretched has capped a spectacular turnaround for ECU since Holtz took over.
Before Holtz took the reigns in 2005, the Pirates had won just two games in a 25-game span.
Since then, East Carolina has gone 22-17 under Holtz’s tutelage. They have been even better as of late, winning nine of their last 11 games.
They’ve also made two straight bowl appearances in Holtz’s first three seasons.
“Coach Holtz is a great leader,” wide receiver Dwayne Harris said. He’s a motivator, and he makes you believe in yourself. He puts us in the best position we can to succeed.”
What might be even more impressive is the players that Holtz has done it with. Holtz has never had a five-star recruit (the nation’s top 100 high school prospects), or for that matter, even a four-star guy (the top 250 prospects).
But somehow, Holtz has found several diamonds in the rough, and has put together a top-tier program.
“We may not have a bunch of five-star guys, but we’ve got a lot of guys who can play football,” running back Jonathan Williams said. “We’re not five-star players, but we’re on our way to being a five-star program.”
ECU ranked No. 14 in AP Poll
Following an impressive 24-3 win over then No. 8 West Virginia Saturday afternoon at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, East Carolina finds itself nationally-ranked for the first time since 1999 after being tabbed No. 14 by the Associated Press and No. 20 by the USA Today Coaches Poll Sunday afternoon.
The Pirates, who are 2-0 for the first time since 1999, have won three consecutive games against nationally-ranked opponents dating back to the 2007 Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl (No. 22 Boise State, 41-38) and have picked up back-to-back wins over defending BCS conference champions in Virginia Tech (No. 17/ACC) and the Mountaineers (No. 8/Big East).
The No. 14 ranking marks the highest position in the AP polls since the Pirates closed out the 1991 season ranked No. 9. ECU also made appearances in the AP polls in 1976 (No. 20/Oct. 19), 1983 (No. 19/Dec. 5 and No. 20/Final Poll), 1991 (ranked for nine weeks /No. 9 Final Poll) and 1999 (ranked 11 weeks/No. 20 on Dec. 5).
ECU becomes the first Conference USA team to be ranked since UTEP was No. 24 on Nov. 14, 2005. The Pirates will open league play this weekend against Tulane on Sept. 13 in New Orleans (Superdome) with a 3 p.m. (EDT) kickoff scheduled.