GREENVILLE — Joe Dooley doesn’t have to be told how hard a job it is to coach basketball at East Carolina, even though he’s heard it a lot since signing to lead the Pirates back in April.
Dooley has already coached and won at ECU, having gone 57-52 in four seasons from 1995-99 before being fired in one of former athletic director Mike Hamrick’s most mystifying personnel decisions.
He is still the only coach in school history to post a winning career record while with the Pirates, which is why, unlike many in his profession, he’s not intimidated by the challenge that awaits him in his return to Greenville.
“Everybody says it’s a hard job. East Carolina is hard; every job I’ve been as is hard,” said Dooley, who served an apprenticeship under Bill Self at Kansas before going on to a successful run as head coach at Florida Gulf Coast.
“I think the guys are excited about the challenge. Now we have to figure it out.”
Dooley met with the media last Thursday in his first public statements since his hiring and expressed excitement over the progress his players have made both on the court and in the weight room this summer.
He also introduced new assistants Raphael Chillious and Steve Roccaforte, who join a staff that also includes holdover Ken Potosnak.
Chillious and Roccaforte are especially important hires because of their reputations as recruiters.
Chillious comes to ECU from American Athletic Conference rival UConn, where he served as associate head coach and helped Kevin Ollie assemble a top-25 class. Roccaforte, meanwhile, was part of a Virginia Tech staff under Buzz Williams that built the Hokies from the ground up into a team that posted three straight 20-win seasons and back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances.
“For Raphael having been in our league and Rock having been in the ACC, they understand the type of recruiting we need to do and what it takes to be successful at a high level,” Dooley said.
Roccaforte’s contribution could be especially valuable since, according to Dooley, there are a lot of similarities between Blacksburg, Va., and Greenville.
“The blueprint for ours is very similar,” Dooley said. “We’re a little bit off the beaten path, so you have to figure out what type of guy you’re going to recruit, where you’re going to recruit from, who wants to be in a college town. We talk about it all the time.
“People say that Greenville is not a huge town, but you look at some of these other places where college towns are — Blacksburg, Clemson, Lawrence, Kan., Storrs, Conn. — they’re not big cities either, and they’ve done pretty well.”
Rather than trying to defend ECU against some of the negative perceptions that come with it, Dooley has chosen to build his recruiting pitch around the more positive aspects of playing for the Pirates.
Not the least of those is the school’s affiliation with the AAC, which unlike football is considered to be one of the nation’s best.
“It’s not a single-bid league anymore,” Dooley said. “You look at four guys drafted last year. We had two four seeds last year, which means that Cincinnati and Wichita State were top 16 in the country. We can sell that. If you get to the top half of our league you’re in a postseason tournament. We need to get that out a little more.
“We need to sell those things about our league and about our practice facility being great. Our weight room is great, now come be part of something we’re trying to build.”
While the staff’s focus has been on building for the future through the 2019 and 2020 recruiting classes, they’ve also done a good job of stocking the roster with promising young players for the upcoming season.
While the foundation of the 2018-19 Pirates will be guards Isaac Fleming and Shawn Williams — the AAC’s Rookie of the Year — along with long-awaited Virginia Tech transfer Seth LeDay, the bulk of the team will be comprised of freshmen.
That includes highly touted power forward Jayden Gardner and guard DeShaun Wade, who originally decommitted from ECU after interim coach Michael Perry was let go but decided to stick with the Pirates after meeting with Dooley.
It’s an influx of talent Dooley said could help produce a quick turnaround, especially with the nonconference schedule the new coach has put together.
“You come off a rough year, I don’t care if you’re a player or a coach, you’ve got to build some confidence in the preseason,” Dooley said. “We’ve got two good scrimmages before we play, and we’ve got a preseason schedule where we’ll find out who we are. With our guys, we need to win some of those games.
“It is a little bit different when you’ve had a rough year. Where’s your confidence? But there are a whole lot of teams that have turned it around. Look at Philadelphia. The Sixers two years ago won 10 games, then they got some guys. We didn’t draft (Joel) Embiid and (Ben) Simmons, but those are things we can talk about.”