By Steve Tuttle
everal players on those Sonny Randle-coached teams went on to notable pro careers, including ECU hall of famers Crumpler ’82, Summerell ’76 and defensive back Danny “Cap’n Crunch” Kepley, leader of the “Wild Dog” defense. But the majority were overachievers like Jimmy Creech ’73 ’74 who blocked and tackled for the superstars. Many of them also enjoyed success after college as business owners, teachers, military leaders and coaches. Some, like Creech, are still at the center of East Carolina sports.
As the incoming president of the Pirate Club, Creech is shepherding a $15 million fundraising campaign to build a new practice facility for the basketball and volleyball teams. He’s also a member of the Order of the Cupola, the Chancellors’ Society and a member of the ECU Foundation and a former member of the Board of Visitors. He has supported about every ECU fundraising campaign over the past 20 years and endowed a graduate fellow scholarship in the College of Health and Human Performance, which recognized him as a Centennial Leader. He’s lived in Greenville since graduation and owns Industrial & Construction Enterprises, a major supplier of pipe, valves, safety equipment and other industrial parts based in Washington, N.C.
His playing career bridged the old and new in Pirate sports. Recruited out of New Hanover High School by legendary coach Clarence Stasavich, Creech played offense and defense his freshman year, Stasavich’s final year as coach. Creech played for Coach Mike McGee his sophomore year and, after McGee abruptly left for Duke University, his alma mater, Creech and many other players cheered when assistant coach Sonny Randle was given the helm.
“Coach Randle took a bunch of skinny-legged guys and made football players out of us. A lot of us didn’t have much talent but we had some real players and he made winners out of us.” Randle insisted that his players be in top physical shape and his practices could be brutal. In a 2002 interview with Bonesville.net, linebacker Jim Post ’73 recalled that many players wilted under Randle’s exacting regime. “We went from 110 players down to 56 by the last preseason scrimmage,” Post said. But all that hard work paid off.
‘The Big Five is alive’
The 1971 season, the first of Creech’s three years as a football letterman, started off badly, and the Pirates were a disappointing 1-5 when they traveled to Raleigh to play N.C. State for only the second time. Lining up against a bigger and more physical State defender, Creech had the best game of his career and the underdog Pirates pulled off a stunning 31-15 victory in a game that many now point to as the moment when East Carolina’s football program entered the modern era. The next day, “I remember Dr. Leo Jenkins coming out in the paper and saying ‘the Big Four is dead and the Big Five is alive.’ That pulled us up to believing we could compete on the same level with anyone,” Creech says proudly.
From that point through the end of Creech’s senior year and his year as a graduate assistant coach, the Pirates went 21-5 and never lost a conference game; four of those five losses were against ACC teams. Creech was co-captain of the ’72 conference champs and was given the Swindell Memorial award for putting team before self.
Now 58, his eyes flash remembering the 1972 Southern Conference championship game against a heavily favored William and Mary team. “Folks thought we would disappear and not show up but we beat them. I remember coming home on the bus and the Highway Patrol picked us up at the state line and gave us an escort into Greenville. We drove through downtown (and) all the students were out there cheering. I’ll never forget that.”
There were low moments, too, such as the 1970 Marshall game. After that game, “I was in the dorm when Coach McGee came up there that night and told us what happened. It’s something you carry with you all your life.” Perhaps thinking back to plane rides to away games that season in Texas and Illinois, Creech muses that “it could easily have been us.”
Some of his former teammates beg to differ when Creech talks of having just average football skills. “Jimmy was a team captain for a reason,” says Crumpler, who went on to play for the Buffalo Bills and is now an academic coordinator in ECU’s Office of Student Development Athletics. “He was a leader in every respect (who) gave you every ounce of himself every day, every play. When we ran laps during the team warm ups Jimmy was always leading. He took nothing for granted. I have as much respect for him as any player I have had the blessed privilege to play with.”
Building a future
Many entrepreneurs undergo a trial by fire struggling to establish their businesses. In his first years as a business owner, Creech endured a trial by water.
It was 1999, four years after he acquired the local operations of a Wilmington industrial supply company that he had worked for since completing his master’s in education in 1974. From offices in Washington, N.C., his company, Industrial & Construction Enterprises, sold and distributed pipe, valves and other parts to industrial plants across the region. The economy was strong and—even though cash flow was a problem—his business prospects were good.
And then Hurricane Floyd struck. Eastern North Carolina was devastated, roads were impassable and many of Creech’s industrial customers were knocked out of business, throwing thousands of people out of work.
“Just to get to work in the morning I had to leave Greenville, cut through Vanceboro, take a country road down to Aurora, catch a ferry over to Bayview and cut back to Washington. That was a three-hour ordeal just to get to work. And then I would repeat that trip at night.”
It was during those dark nights that his phone often rang with desperate calls from customers seeking replacement parts. “I had just gotten home one night and (the Kitchens of Sara Lee bakery) in Tarboro called, so I reversed course to try to help them. Another night the plant engineer at Catalytica Pharmaceuticals (now DSM) called at midnight saying we need all this and we need it as soon as possible because we’re down. It was amazing some of the things we were able to pull off to keep those plants going. That was a great feeling to be able to help those plants out (because) they need you when they need you.”
From that ordeal a successful business, aided by dedicated employees, took root and grew, with sales soaring from $5 million to $15 million. “We and our employees built the business (on) relationships and service. We have 35 employees and they are our greatest asset; most have been there 20 to 25 years.”
Industrial & Construction Enterprises has expanded again in recent years, opening new locations in Leland near Wilmington and in Apex south of Raleigh. One growth area is in selling and repairing industrial safety equipment, as exemplified by a major new contract the company signed with PCS Phosphate. “It’s a different venue for us, a different direction, but so far so good.”
An ECU family
The Creeches are a family that bleeds purple and gold. He met his wife, Debra Smith Creech ’73, here. Originally from Rosewood near Goldsboro, she was working part-time in the student center when they met. They now have two grown children. Daughter Emily C. Holland ’06 was a Teaching Fellow and graduated summa cum laude in elementary education. She married Brody School of Medicine graduate Ryan Holland ’05 ’09, who is completing his first year of residency in Shreveport, La. They were expecting their first child this summer. Son David A. Creech went to UNC Chapel Hill for his undergraduate work before graduating cum laude from the University of Miami School of Law.
Creech has seen a lot of changes in East Carolina and the way it’s perceived. “I think the respect we get is the biggest change I’ve seen. People know where East Carolina is. I think our athletic success has done a lot to bring that to fruition. We needed the medical school, the dental school, but the sports program brings us national and international recognition. It’s not just a teachers school anymore.”
Even bigger changes lie ahead. “In another three or four years you won’t be able to recognize the athletic fields side of campus. We are trying to position ourselves so that when and if there is a conference realignment, we will be ready. Part of that is getting the basketball program fixed. We need to give those coaches the tools they need to bring the best talent here. Three or four years from now, that program will be very different.”
He’s bringing the same energy and discipline to the Pirate Club that he had as a player. “We’ve just gone through a strategic planning exercise. It’s easy to get complacent and rest on your laurels, but if you don’t grow you die. That’s one thing about being a Pirate; it’s never been easy. You get up every day and go out and prove yourself.”