Pirates look to Lebo to turn program around|Former Tar Heel inks six-year deal with East Carolina

Published 7:02 am Wednesday, March 24, 2010

By By BRIAN HAINES, Sports Writer
GREENVILLE — Jeff Lebo knows that some fans might question his true colors when it comes to basketball, but his response to the question of whether his loyalty is draped in Carolina Blue or East Carolina Purple and Gold was quick, humorous and to the point as he answered, “See what I got on?”
Standing behind a podium at the Murphy Center at the East Carolina University campus it was easy to see the Pirates’ newly hired basketball coach was sporting a purple shirt complimented by a purple and white tie which was tucked underneath his black sport jacket.
Also blatantly transparent was ECU athletic director Terry Holland’s joy surrounding his most recent hire.
Holland failed to land Lebo when he tried to recruit the four-time all-state Pennsylvania prep sensation to play for his Virginia Cavaliers in the mid 1980’s. Instead, Lebo landed with Dean Smith and the Tar Heels where he played from 1986-89 and proceeded to help his team make two Elite Eight appearances and finish with a 115-25 record during his four-year tenure.
On Tuesday Holland finally got his man, as he introduced the 23rd coach in ECU history to the media and room full of Pirates’ supporters.
“Great point guards always make the people around them better,” Holland said. “I can honestly say that Jeff Lebo, as a player and a coach, has made the people around him better in so many different places that it is truly amazing.”
Lebo takes over for Mack McCarthy, who resigned to take over fundraising duties on March 6 after three losing seasons as ECU’s head coach.
Lebo, who was recently let go by Auburn after accumulating a 96-93 record in six years as the Tigers head coach, helped restore the program back to order after it was hit with NCAA sanctions.
Holland gushed about Lebo’s ability to guide teams back on the right path and referred to his new head coach as a “program turner” in a recent press release.
Speaking about the timing of Lebo’s firing and the Pirates need for a new head coach Holland said, “I can honestly say to you that destiny stepped in again in favor of East Carolina University.”
Before he was tabbed the Auburn skipper Lebo spent two seasons at Tennessee-Chattanooga where he went 30-20, which followed four seasons at Tennessee Tech where he finished with a 75-43 record. During his 12-year career Lebo is 211-156 as a head coach.
“I feel like the luckiest guy in the world right now,” Lebo said. “I get to coach at a place that has an incredibly passionate fan base.”
Lebo is well aware of the fact that fan base is tired of losing. East Carolina, which finished this year 10-21, has not had a winning season since 1996-97 when the team was led by Joe Dooley, who turned down the ECU job earlier this month.
“I can’t stand up here and tell you how many wins we are going to have, but I can tell you a couple of things,” Lebo said. “One, you are going to see a team out there that plays awfully hard. The one thing that I don’t coach is effort, I expect that. We are going to play awfully smart … and we are going to play together.”
The 43-year old coach has ties to eastern North Carolina as his wife Melissa Mills is a Williamston native and her father “Dink” Mills is a former ECU football letterman and served as a football coach and athletic director for Williamston High School.
On Tuesday the ECU Board of Trustees approved Lebo’s six-year, $3,375 million deal that includes a $50,000 bonus for each year the team goes .500 or better in Conference USA and a $100,000 bonus for making the NCAA tournament.
In 2008-09 Lebo guided Auburn to its second-most successful season in program history as the Tigers went 24-12 and made it to the quarterfinals of the NIT.
Lebo’s first crack at head coaching was in 1988-89 when he took over a Tennessee Tech team that had a losing record each of the previous four years. Two years later the Golden Eagles scored their first 20-win season since 1947. The next year Lebo guided his team to a school-record 27 wins.
During his four years with the Eagles Lebo was named Ohio Valley Conference Coach of the Year three times.
At UT-Chattanooga Lebo went 21-9 and 19-11 respectively before signing on with Auburn in 2004.
Lebo was optimist about taking over the Pirates and said that he is in a better starting position then his previous destinations.
“I think we are in better shape than a lot of the places I have been,” Lebo said. “Coach Mack has done a good job and put some pieces in place here … I think its in better shape and we are really close. … I have been to some places where they said I was committing coaching suicide by going to those places, and this is certainly not one of those places.”