East magazine Fall 2007 edition

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s another football game with N.C. State ominously approaches, Skip Holtz is repeating a refrain voiced by many a Pirate coach: “It’s just another game to us, not even as crucial as our conference match-ups.” And just as predictably, most East Carolina fans are ignoring him.

In their heads, ECU fans know that Holtz is right. Beating the Wolfpack won’t get the Pirates one step closer to a conference championship, the team’s only shot at a BCS bowl game. It’s just a game for regional bragging rights in a series barely 25 years old. Besides, there are other glamour games on the schedule, including ones with Virginia Tech and West Virginia. Carolina also is coming to Dowdy-Ficklen this fall, so the season isn’t riding on just one game.

But reason goes out the window when State comes to town. That’s because this rivalry is a family squabble for thousands of fans, a passion that divides houses by diplomas and Christmas card lists. This isn’t any ordinary game against unknown people from someplace far off. This a family feud with the cousins just 70 miles up the road; their fans are people you see every day. And if ECU loses, you know you’ll run into them time and again at church, at the grocery store, even in your home. And you know they’ll have a twinkle in their eye when they shove an elbow in your ribs and ask, “How about that State game?”

Of course if ECU wins, that would be different, wouldn’t it? Not that we would gloat.

undefined Skip Holtz understands college football fans. He grew up on the sidelines watching his dad coach in some of the most storied rivalries in sports, like Notre Dame-Michigan and Arkansas-Oklahoma. He was about 9 years old when his dad began a successful four-year run as coach at N.C. State, so you could say the ECU coach cut his teeth on Wolfpack sports and its rivalries up and down Tobacco Road. When he arrived in Greenville three years ago, after apprenticing under Lou Holtz at South Carolina, he knew exactly what ECU fans wanted. 

“You hear, ‘If you only win one game, beat State,’” Holtz said. “And that’s the natural fan reaction, because for them it makes life a whole lot easier the next year. Obviously from a fan standpoint, this is our closest rivalry. This is where they’re going to rub elbows from fans from an opposing team more than any other team we play.”

For ECU players and students from the Raleigh area—and ECU draws more students from Wake County than any other in the state—the pressure to prevail against the Pack can be fierce. State leads the all-time series 14- 10, and those games have generated countless highlight films. Is it intense? Just ask Chuck Amato and Mike O’Cain, the two State coaches who were fired after losing to ECU.

“You want to play every game hard, but when we play State, that’s a rivalry game,” said senior tight end Jay Sonnhalter, who grew up in Raleigh and has former high school teammates who play for the Wolfpack. “It’s a big game, and you want to prove that you can win the big games.”

Of course, both teams would have an easier road to a bowl game if the other one wasn’t standing in the way. The General Assembly once debated requiring ECU, State and Carolina to play each other, but there’s no law requiring the teams to continue knocking heads. But it’s a huge fan favorite, a weekend when the gate receipts and the adrenaline are guaranteed to peak, when both coaches know they’ll get the best out of their players.

Holtz will need that and a little luck to amass wins in a schedule that includes nonconference meetings with Virginia Tech, North Carolina, West Virginia, Virginia and, of course, N.C. State. And this June, a five-game series with South Carolina was announced, renewing a rivalry that features 15 prior meetings. “We realize that it is a challenge,” Athletics Director Terry Holland said. “But we think that Pirates respond to a challenge. We’re excited about it, we’re anxious about it, but that’s what athletics is all about.”

The ECU-State rivalry is most visible in families like the Walstons of Raleigh, two brothers with divided loyalties. Robbie Walston is an ECU fan whose son chose to attend State a few years ago. Since then, the Pirate flag that had proudly hung outside the family’s Topsail Beach house has given way to one that’s half red, half purple, signifying “A House Divided.”

But blood is thicker than face paint to the Walstons. Most of their business deals and friendships have survived the sometimes chilly chasm between Raleigh and Greenville. But such “mixed marriages” can be a problem. Chris Kidd ’86 ’92, who wrote a book about the ECU-State football rivalry, believes it would be easier to achieve domestic bliss between a Hatfield and a McCoy.

“I couldn’t imagine being married to someone who went to State,” said Kidd, who wrote Backyard Brawl with fellow Pirate David Singleton ’88. “If you’re a passionate, loyal fan of East Carolina it would be hard to deal with, I think.” Two days before last November’s game against State in Raleigh, the two factions of the Walston family exchanged barbs and reminisced about previous games. “We don’t even need to be playing them,” Robbie Walston said, noting that ECU was poised for a bowl bid while his brother Bobby’s State team had no postseason prospects. “We’re on a different level. They shouldn’t even be on our schedule.”

That game ended with a 21-16 East Carolina victory that propelled the Pirates to the Bowl and sent State coach Chuck Amato into the unemployment line.

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Sorry about those goal posts
The perception by N.C. State folks that ECU fans are a bit on the rowdy side apparently is rooted in goal posts, specifically the four times that they came crashing down at Carter-Finley Stadium after thrilling ECU victories, including this scene from the 1984 game in Raleigh. The assaults on State’s goal posts even happened once when State wasn’t theopponent. ECU’s stadium was damaged during Hurricane Floyd in 1991, and State generously loaned its stadium to the Pirates to host Miami. After the emotional victory over the Hurricanes, ECU fans did what they would have done if actually playing at home. State has a new strategy for protecting its goal posts. At the end of last year’s game at Carter-Finley, as ECU quarterback James Pinkney was about to take a knee to kill the clock and seal a 32-14 win, the game suddenly was halted and the goal posts at both ends of Carter-Finley were slowly lowered on ground-level hinges. Stadium officials later said it was a safety precaution.
No more David and Goliath

The rivalry between ECU and State was born of a time when the physical and academic disparities between them was marked. Persuading State to play East Carolina back then is a credit to legendary ECU football coach Clarence Stasavich, who was determined to give his players the chance to compete against the best in their own back yard.

“I like to think that his credibility and certainly his relationship with (former NCSU coach) Willis Casey was the one thing that brought this all about,” former athletic director Ken Carr said of Stasavich, who scheduled the first game with State but left before it was actually played in 1970.

At that first meeting the Pirates were underdogs in every way. “I can visualize being up there on the field at State, how much bigger everything was up there than it was down here,” Carr said. “Early on, their players were stronger and bigger. We were the little skinny-legged kids.” It would be six years after that 23-6 defeat before the Pirates would beat State, then they made it two in a row.

State’s stronger recruiting showed during the 1970s and early ’80s when the Pack beat the Pirates 10 out of 13 times. But the relative strengths of the programs evened out in the mid ’80s when the Pirates beat the Pack three times in five years, including the controversial 1987 game in Raleigh that ended in a near riot.

East Carolina dominated State throughout that game, and won 32-14. Fans poured onto the field to pull down the goal posts. What followed has been described as a riot, a melee or an exaggeration, but the result was some damage to the stadium, one bruised security guard and one arrest—of an aggressive fan who attended neither school. Citing the melee and damage, State Athletic Director Jim Valvano yanked ECU off State’s schedule and suspended the series. ECU countered that it was suspending the series because State refused to play in Greenville.

Two decades later, conspiracy theories still are whispered. “My feeling, and this is just personal, is that State was kind of looking for an excuse to get out of the series,” said Woody Peele, who covered ECU sports for The Daily Reflector for three decades.

Resuming the feud

The schools didn’t play each other for the next five years and met only by chance in the postseason, at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta on New Years Day 1992. The Pirates were 10-1 and cocky, the Pack 9-3 and determined. Fans of both teams snatched up every ticket and filled every one of the stadium’s 59,300 seats. At the time, that was the largest crowd ever to watch a football game involving two North Carolina teams, breaking the previous record of 58,560, set by the same two teams at their 1986 game.

The game started badly for ECU, and the Pirates trailed 34-17 with just eight minutes left in the game. But the momentum suddenly shifted; quarterback Jeff Blake connected on long bombs and running back Dion Johnson broke tackles for big gains. Two quick scores pulled ECU to within 34-30, and the Pirates then held State on downs to get the ball back. Blake dropped back, evaded a bull rush and heaved a hurried pass downfield to tight end Luke Fisher, who shook off a State tackler and leaped into the end zone.

Now it was 37-34 ECU, but State still had a chance. As the final seconds ticked away, the Wolfpack marched quickly downfield and got into field goal position to tie the game. The snap came, the kick was off and sailing toward the goal posts. And as it veered wide of the target, ECU radio commentator Jeff Charles shouted into the microphone, “You can paint this peach purple!” The Pirates finished the season ranked 9th in the country, and the sparks between purple and red were flying again.

The next scrapbook moment in the renewed rivalry came in 1999 when the Wolfpack— after playing the Pirates at home 19 times— finally came to Greenville. The game drew 50,092 fans to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, shattering the attendance record. The packed stadium gave out a deafening roar throughout the Pirates’ 23-6 domination.

The rivalry subsided a bit for the next few years when both schools were fielding losing teams. But then came last year’s game and the stuff of legend. Riding up to Raleigh, the ECU football players knew the stakes were clear-cut: Beat the Wolfpack on the road and go to a bowl, lose and limp home.

Junior defensive lineman Zach Slate, from Melbourne, Fla., knew nothing about the State rivalry when he first came to Greenville. He caught the bug gradually, but that night he swallowed the full dose. “You can just feel it on the bus ride over there, and it gets worse in a better way when you get to the stadium,” he said. “When the game starts you’re just on fire. I loved every minute of that game.” Carried along by quarterback James Pinkney’s 220 passing yards, the Pirates won 21-16 and went bowling.

Even as he continues insisting that the Oct. 20 contest is “just another game,” ECU fans are hoping that Holtz also will repeat what he said after last year’s game. “It was a huge win.”