GREENVILLE — East Carolina’s search for a new basketball coach was a little like a road trip without a GPS or map to guide the way.
There were a few extra turns and at least one unexpected roadblock that made the journey a bit longer than it should have been. But in the end, the Pirates eventually made it to the destination for which they appeared headed all along.
At a press conference announcing the hiring of Joe Dooley.
“It’s good to be home,” said the 52-year-old New Jersey native, who has led Florida Gulf Coast to 21 or more wins in each of the five seasons he coached there. “It’s been a long journey, but an exciting one.”
Dooley was formally introduced as ECU’s next coach last Wednesday, less than 24 hours after he signed a five-year contract with an annual compensation package of around $900,000.
In reality, though, the press conference was more of a homecoming than an introduction. It marked the triumphant return of a man who led the Pirates from 1995-99, compiling what is still the school’s best winning percentage of its Division I era by going 57-52 before being fired in a move that was as unpopular then as it is head-scratching now.
Adding to the symmetry is the fact that the man who hired Dooley this time, Dave Hart, is the same one that promoted him to the job the first time around.
Hart was athletic director in 1995 when he made the then 29-year-old Dooley the youngest coach in Division I after Eddie Payne left for Oregon State. He is now a special assistant to chancellor Cecil P. Staton, hired to run ECU’s athletic department following the abrupt departure of former AD Jeff Compher.
“I see a lot of familiar faces,” Dooley said. “I think it’s a challenge, and it’s a neat deal when you get to come back to some place where you knew a whole bunch of people, where you had great relationships.”
While Dooley waxed nostalgic about his previous experience with the Pirates and how his return was the right thing at the right time for his family, since his parents already live in Greenville, he emphasized that his return to ECU is not about unfinished business.
Rather, it’s about looking toward the future and using the lessons he’s learned over the past two decades to tackle the tall task of building a consistent winner at a place with no previous tradition of that.
“The thing we need to do is make basketball important here at ECU,” he said. “There have been some periods where we have been good, but we need to be consistently good. We need to find a way to do that and we will.”
In order give the Pirates a chance of becoming relevant in the competitive American Athletic Conference, Dooley is going to need to recruit and retain better players than those brought in by his predecessor Jeff Lebo.
But even before that, the once and current ECU coach has already begun working on a culture change he hopes will translate into motivation for the players already in the program. He did it by telling those current team members to bring their ring sizes when they came to meet him for the first time.
The implication, far-fetched as it might be, is that the Pirates will be playing for a championship sooner than later.
“One of the big things is if you are not in it to win it, don’t play,” Dooley said. “With our guys, it’s a challenge. If you challenge them to do things, they’ll raise their level of expectations, and we need to raise that.”
Dooley is no stranger to high expectations. Or to living up to them.
He was an assistant to Bill Self at Kansas for 10 years, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation’s best recruiters — along with a national championship ring. He then took over the head coaching job at FGCU, where he continued the success started by his predecessor, Andy Enfield, by getting his team to the NCAA tournament twice and the postseason in all five of his seasons at “Dunk City.”
It’s that success, combined with his familiarity with ECU, that made him the frontrunner for the Pirates job almost from the day Lebo resigned on Nov. 29.
“He certainly understands the game of basketball and the grassroots nature of our alumni and fan base,” Staton said. “He’s a great basketball coach, but more importantly, he is a good person. We know that Coach Dooley is the coach who will be able to build a great program at ECU which will compete at the highest levels within the American Athletic Conference and beyond — making Pirate Nation proud and excited about the future of our program.”
As much of a slam dunk as Dooley might have been, it still took three agonizing weeks from the end of the season until he was hired, a process that was complicated when Compher negotiated a contract buyout just as the search was reaching a critical juncture.
Although several other names were mentioned for the job — including NC Central coach LaVelle Moton and ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg — Hart knew he had his man as soon as he talked to Dooley in person.
“Joe Dooley.” Hart said, “checked all the boxes.”