Bouncing BackFew would argue that Ricky Stokes faces a big challenge trying to rebuild East Carolina University’s basketball program. Eight straight losing seasons is a hard sell for anybody. But Stokes has faced similar tests before. Like when, as a 5-foot-9 guard, he was deemed too small to compete in the Atlantic Coast Conference, yet worked his way up a crowded Virginia depth chart against long odds, eventually playing in two Final Fours and a school-record 134 games for the Cavaliers.
By David Droschak
Photos by Forrest Croce
Perhaps the most useful quality Stokes brings to the job is his ability to focus on the job at hand without worrying about things he can’t control. Case in point: He was informed in the middle of his first year as a head coach at Virginia Tech that the program would be switching from the Atlantic 10 Conference to the powerful Big East. He recruited hard and successfully, coached with grit and flair but was fired in 2003 after just four seasons.
In other words, few things basketball-related can ruffle the feathers of one of the coolest customers in college coaching.
“Ricky doesn’t concern himself with things he can’t control,” says South Carolina basketball coach Dave Odom, who gave Stokes, 42, his first big break in coaching when he hired him as an assistant on his first Wake Forest staff in 1989. “He doesn’t get stressed out on those types of things like a lot of us do. (Many coaches) spend all of our time trying to change things we can’t change. Ricky says, ‘OK, that’s the situation, we’ll work through it.”’
The situation for East Carolina men’s basketball has been disappointing for close to a decade. The Pirates haven’t finished higher than 11th in Conference USA since 2001 and haven’t won 20 games in a season since 1954.
Still, Stokes jumped at the opportunity to replace Bill Herrion when his old college coach and friend—ECU Director of Athletics Terry Holland—came calling this past March.
Why? “The No. 1 thing for me here is the leadership at the top,” says Stokes. “With Chancellor Steve Ballard and Terry Holland you know things are going to be done the right way and there is vision. As a head coach, that’s all you can ask for, to be given things to be successful. And the fan support is great here. We have super loyal fans.”
Odom, who was East Carolina’s head basketball coach from 1979-82, understands why Stokes was drawn to Greenville. “Terry Holland and Ricky Stokes have been friends for a long time, longer than Ricky and I have been friends,” says Odom, who was an assistant to Holland at Virginia and helped tutor Strokes as a player. “They have an extraordinary relationship. Terry is going to do everything in the world he can to help Ricky and Ricky in return will do everything he can to be loyal and reward Terry for his confidence in him.”
Holland’s search for a coach who would give the struggling program some direction was extensive and lasted several months. As he scoured the country for the right man, he kept coming back to Stokes.
“We said, ‘Look, we know this guy, we know he understands what we’re trying to accomplish here, we know his track record as an assistant coach is as good as there is, why would we take someone else who we didn’t know?”’ Holland recalls.
Stokes had another selling point, according to Holland. If hired, he could bring in former Chattanooga and Virginia Commonwealth head coach Mack McCarthy to be his top assistant.
“The ultimate compliment for any head coach is who is willing to work for that person,” Holland says. “Mack is a very savvy basketball guy and he’s not going to hitch himself to someone whose star is fading. Ricky said, ‘Hey, we’ll come to the press conference together.’ That pretty much won me over. So I guess Ricky’s first recruiting trip was to see Mack McCarthy.”
Recruiting enough good players to compete in the tough Conference USA has been a stumbling block for the program since switching from the Colonial Athletic Association in 2001.
Strokes, who grew up outside of Richmond, Va., plans to build the program with mostly North Carolina-based players and others from nearby states. “Recruiting is the lifeblood of a program,” Stokes says. “I enjoy it.” The personable Stokes likes recruiting because he’s good at it. While at Wake Forest under Odom, Stokes helped recruit such stars as Tim Duncan and Rodney Rogers.
He believes being in ACC country actually is a positive for the ECU program. “ACC schools go national and we encourage them to do that,” Stokes says. “That’s great for us because we have tremendous high school basketball talent in North Carolina. The more the ACC schools go out of state, it continues to leave players available for East Carolina.”
“Listen, kids want to play in the ACC, that’s a given fact. But not all of them can. We can’t get upset by that or get impatient. The ACC will string kids along a little bit, but at a certain time we’ve got to go as hard as we can at them and let them see the difference in who really wants them. Who really wants you is the place you need to go.”
Holland said Stokes understands how important it is not to just bring in so-called “mercenaries” for a quick fix. “We need to bring in kids that our fans can identify with if we’re going to build a fan base,” Holland says. “We need people to have a very personal interest in our program and part of that is recruiting kids from the general area, whose families will come to see them play, who will bring their friends to see them play and who our fans can feel good about supporting.”
Next year’s recruiting class already includes 6-8 Gabe Blair of Kings Mountain, 6-9 John Fields of Fayetteville, Hillary Haley of Fort Washington, Md., and 6-11 Chad Wynn of Marietta, Ga.
“We need to get our name out there,” Stokes says. “We’ve got to bring enough guys in who believe and want to work to turn this thing around and have a vision with me.”
Lighting Up the Room
One thing is certain; Stokes is believable. He lights up a room with his personality and energy. He naturally makes people feel comfortable.
“People gravitate to Ricky,” says George Lancaster, who coached Stokes at Highland Springs High School in Richmond, Va. “Ricky’s personality is such that people want to be close to him. He has always had people root for him, even as a player. People identified with the little guy because the little guy is the average guy. Like David and Goliath, and you and I know that David was the hero and not Goliath.”
Lancaster first saw Stokes as a 10-year-old and instantly thought he would be a great baseball player. “He had those quick hands and speed. He would have been a natural shortstop of second baseman.” But Stokes gravitated toward basketball, a sport his older brother Bobby also played.
“We played one-on-one growing up every day,” says Stokes, whose brother was the captain of Virginia’s 1976 ACC title team. “He literally beat me every day until I got to college and he was in medical school. I finally beat him and we never played one-on-one again.”
Academics were an important part of the Stokes household when Ricky was growing up, considering his father was a principal and his mother was a teacher. Still, the two Stokes boys would find time after homework for hoops, lots and lots of hoops.
“We played from sunrise to sunset,” Stokes said. “We laugh when we look back because my dad actually bought a playground hoop, so we had the nicest one around. Maybe he had some connection at school and got five baskets for the price of four.”
While Bobby Stokes was a hot-shot scorer in high school, averaging 40 points a game, Ricky was a quick point guard who made his mark on defense. Ricky Stokes was realistic about his college choices, and figured he would end up playing at Virginia Commonwealth or Richmond. But Virginia was stocked with big guards at the time and began a national search for more quickness. Stokes’ name surfaced.
“We spent the summer months on the camp circuit,” recalls former Virginia assistant coach Craig Littlepage, who is now the school’s athletic director. “It was sort of an ironic exercise because the guy we eventually felt could do even more than some of the higher ranked players with bigger reputations was Ricky. He was recruited because he could handle the ball and nobody was going to take it away from him and he could defend any ballhandler. His speed and quickness could be disruptive at either end of the floor.
“He was a very heady player, a very pesky player and a guy who seemed to get under the skin of opposing ballhandlers.”Almost Quitting
While Stokes’ college career was filled with many great moments, he came close to leaving Virginia the first few weeks of basketball practice. He remembers calling his father and Lancaster and telling them he was behind about six or seven other guards and was considering transferring.
“The only thing I said to him was that if you want to prove to yourself you are the best then you need to be among the best and play against the best and compete against the best and the best will always come out of you,” Lancaster says.Right: Ricky Stokes scores against an Ohio State defender during the 1980-81 season when Virginia went to the Final Four. Photo by Ann Holland
Stokes ended up staying at Virginia and settled into a role as a sixth man, a guy who came off the bench to team with other small guard Othell Wilson to form the now famous “Blitz Brothers.”
“We would throw both of them in there and say, ‘Change this game, we don’t like the way it’s going,”’ Holland remembers. “And they would blitz the other team’s guards.
They literally chased one of our conference opponents—and I won’t name him so I won’t embarrass him—to where it looked like on film that he just gave up and said, ‘OK, take the ball if you want it that badly.”’
Seeing Stokes’ inner drive to success, despite his lack of size, has always stuck with Holland and Littlepage.
“Ricky has that competitive nature, how to figure out how to use your strengths, whatever they may be,” Holland said. “He was always able to turn a weakness into strength, a challenge into an opportunity. That is something that I can pretty much count on Ricky doing.”
“Ricky could understand his role, accept his role and then effectively execute his role day to day,” Littlepage says. “He kept working and working and never allowed himself to get frustrated. He won the hearts of the Virginia fans and to this day he is still one of the most popular players among the Virginia faithful.”
If Stokes had left Virginia early he would not have met his wife, Karen, who was introduced to him by star center Ralph Sampson. “He said he knew a girl that liked me and I said, ‘No thanks,”’ Stokes remembers. “Then he said he hadn’t dated her and I said, ‘OK.’ I saw her in the fall and it took me until the spring to ask her out.”
The Stokes have one daughter, 9-year-old Sydney, who loves soccer, basketball and swimming. “She loves the gym,” Stokes says. “Kind of reminds me of myself.”
Planning for the Long Run
Stokes has time to think about the East Carolina program on his daily runs around the Greenville campus. He began running with Odom and the rest of the Wake Forest assistants 15 years ago and has run in the Richmond Marathon. He recently had knee surgery, so his runs have been shorter than normal, but Stokes would one day like to run in the Boston Marathon.
“Running is a great stress reliever and it’s great for your mental health,” Stokes says. “There is nothing like running a marathon. It just goes to show you that if you train and discipline yourself you can do anything.”
Building the East Carolina program could be more like a marathon than a short sprint, but Stokes has dug in for the long haul. “Ricky is as good a judge of people and as good a judge of basketball talent as I’ve been around,” Littlepage says. “Ricky has an uncanny ability to understand a player’s skills and how those skills are going to be developed into a college environment.”
“I want guys playing for me here who have a vision with me,” Stokes says. “But more importantly, winning solves everything. I have learned patience and humility. We have to come up with a strategy to give your team that best available chance to win and we’ll do that here.”Return to magazine index