East magazine Winter 2009

Mr. Holland's Opus

By Bethany Bradsher

any East Carolina fans were shocked when Terry Holland, in one of his first major moves after being named East Carolina’s director of athletics four years ago, announced an ambitious football schedule that included multiple games against North Carolina, Virginia Tech and other big-name opponents. It seemed a daunting challenge for a team that had finished the prior year with a 1-11 record and had won a grand total of 11 games in three years. There’s nary a Doubting Thomas in the Pirate Nation now.

These days, Holland, who is six feet seven inches tall, literally and figuratively towers over the sports landscape in Greenville. He is widely respected for restoring the region’s pride in East Carolina sports and for his folksy, down-home approach to the job. The football program has regained much of its former luster and most other sports teams have improved, both academically and in the win-loss column.

But if you’re looking for some grand, complicated scheme behind Holland’s philosophy, you won’t find it. For example, he says he added powerhouse schools to the football schedule because, “I didn’t know that we could beat them, but I knew we couldn’t beat them unless we played them.”
Now, some fans worry that East Carolina can’t continue winning without Terry Holland in charge. They fear that Holland, who turned 66 in April, will retire when his five-year contract expires next September and take his winning ways with him. But others are confident that he has set East Carolina on a firm footing that will survive for many years to come regardless of who holds the athletic director’s job.

Why come to Greenville?

Since Terry Holland arrived. . .

    Women’s basketball rebounded, winning the 2007 Conference USA Tournament championship and playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1982.

    Men’s basketball, never one of ECU’s strong sports, recorded its first-ever victory over an ACC opponent last season and tied the school record for most conference wins. Still a work in progress, the team posted the highest GPA in the conference.

    The women’s soccer team tied the school record for wins, 11, in 2006.

    The volleyball team recorded back-to-back winning seasons in 2005 and ’06 for the first time since the late 1970s.

    The women’s golf team won the conference championship in 2006, and boasted player of the year and coach of the year honors this year when the squad finished the season nationally ranked for the first time in school history.

•    The baseball team earned three NCAA appearances; three players earned All-America honors.

    The softball team received its first at-large bid to the NCAA tournament this year and recorded its first-ever victory over a Top-10 team.

    The women’s tennis team won 19 matches in 2007, equaling the school record number of victories set in 2006.

Terry Holland didn’t have a grand career plan in mind that prescribed his move to Greenville at the age of 62. But some aspects of his 2004 transition to East Carolina did seem to be pre-ordained. He had never had any desire to live in a large city, having spent most of his career in Davidson, with a population of around 10,000, and Charlottesville, Va., which has around 40,000 residents. Both he and his wife, Ann, had family in eastern North Carolina. And after years of watching the intercollegiate athletic landscape tilt toward big money and prominent conferences, he felt drawn to mid-major colleges stuck in the inequities of a Bowl Championship Series-driven world.

“I felt that the BCS and other things had distracted a lot of good programs and actually hampered them from accomplishing their objectives,” said Holland.

Through the 1980s and the early ’90s, ECU athletics had constructed a reputation as a plucky underdog that exceeded expectations on a regular basis. But the program Holland inherited, stung by turnover in administration and coaching and the rise of the BCS, seemed more like the insecure child waiting to be the last one picked at recess.

“We had allowed other people to define our potential rather than defining our potential for ourselves, and that is not consistent with the way East Carolina has operated in the past. Somehow we lost our focus, and it’s imperative that we get it back.

“We can’t have people saying we can’t compete. We can’t have people saying, ‘You can’t have a medical school, or you can’t be a university. We’ve never done those things before but somehow, around 2000 we started to back off a little bit, to believe what people were saying about East Carolina University.”

Holland first experienced the joy of surprising the powerhouses nearly half a century ago when he was recruited out of Clinton, in Sampson County, to play basketball for Davidson College. During his senior year Holland led the nation in field-goal percentage and served as captain of a Wildcat squad that finished the season ranked 10th in the nation. It was the first nationally ranked Davidson team in school history.

He spent the decade after his graduation coaching at his alma mater, as an assistant for five years and the head coach for five. He was named Southern Conference coach of the year three times. Then it was on to a seminal 16 years at the University of Virginia, where he became the winningest coach in school history, took teams to two Final Fours and won Virginia’s only ACC Tournament title in 1976.

In 1990 he went back to the college that had first courted him, Davidson, as the athletic director. He kept that job for five years before Virginia lured him back to Charlottesville as its own athletic director. In 2001 he resigned as Virginia’s AD to become a special assistant to the college president. He led the fund raising for an $86 million expansion of the university’s football stadium and supervised construction of the new $130 million John Paul Jones basketball arena.

Ready for another challenge

After three years of helping Virginia meet the onrushing challenges of the college athletics juggernaut, Holland was ready for one more task. Much to the Pirate Nation’s surprise, he took on ECU’s cause with gusto. Within a few months of his arrival in September 2004, he orchestrated the mid-season resignation of football coach John Thompson and the hiring of Skip Holtz. In June 2005 he announced an aggressive new football schedule football that includes several games against big-name opponents.

Three universities, twice as coach and thrice as AD, and Holland was facing challenges that grew ever more complicated. But Holland thrives in the diversity and richness of a university atmosphere, and he says he is thankful that he has never had to spend one working day away from a campus.
“None of us want to leave college, and I’ve been fortunate that I’ve never had to leave,” he said. “This is 48 years from when I was recruited to play basketball at Davidson, and I have to say that just like everything else it has its ups and downs, but it is a tremendous environment. It helps keep you young, because you’re dealing with young people. You’re dealing with future leaders.”

Despite his decades-long affiliations with Davidson and Virginia, Holland has gone out of his way to make it clear to Pirate boosters that his loyalty lies east of I-95. It’s part of the unwavering commitment to the team that he tries to model to every member of the Pirate Nation, the “team” for whom he considers himself the “head coach.” It was that devotion that prompted Holland to refuse offers to go to Raleigh last spring to watch Davidson compete in the NCAA basketball tournament, even though he was certainly pulling for them from afar.

“I’ve tried to be sensitive to the fact that this is my mission right now, and there’s no question as to where my loyalty lies,” he said. “My total focus is on what’s good for East Carolina. Everybody here should think that way, and let’s not get distracted to the things that are around us.”

When he was introduced to ECU, Holland signed a five-year contract starting at $276,000 a year, and it was generally understood that he wasn’t settling in for an extra-long tenure. He doesn’t give any hints about personal timetable for closing the door on his East Carolina chapter, but he makes it clear that an important part of his assignment in shoring up Pirate fans’ self-esteem. He is intent on creating a confidence that is not dependent on the identity of any coach or athletic director.

“I would give credit for everything that has happened to the ability of the Pirate Nation to regain its focus, to regain its passion, its pride in what it was doing, and not allow other circumstances to dictate our future potential,” he says. “As important as we would like to think chancellors and ADs and coaches are, this has been a rejuvenation of the Pirate Nation.

“We can’t tie our future to individuals. We have to tie it to a collective base, and that base is the Pirate Nation as a whole. None is truly more important than the other. I know that’s not the way we operate in today’s society, or the way we think, but we’ve got to change our thinking.”

Despite his self-effacing attitude, many believe much of the credit for the turnaround in ECU sports should go to Holland. “I think he honestly saved ECU’s athletic program to a large degree,” said Caulton Tudor, the veteran sports writer and columnist for the Raleigh News & Observer. Tudor said that Holland’s greatest challenge may come at the end of this football season. “It’s not going to be easy to keep Skip Holtz in the job. He’s a quality coach, and programs all over the country know it. I don’t think he’ll turn down too many more offers.”

Remaining challenges

Terry Holland already has achieved several important goals by constructing a self-sustaining sports program with the confidence to excel regardless of NCAA or BCS constraints. But challenges remain, especially in the area of facilities. When Holland arrived the tight ends were holding their position meetings in a broom closet. East Carolina remains still one of the few Division I programs that relies on one gymnasium for its volleyball, men’s basketball and women’s basketball teams. A $30 million plan to shore up the Olympic sports practice and competition venues is in the development stages now.

In brick-and-mortar terms, “We are way, way behind our competition,” he says.

Another bit of unfinished business for Holland, at least in the minds of many who follow the Pirates, is the question of conference affiliation. Membership in Conference USA has given ECU teams some tough competition and exposed athletes to multiple regions of the country, but the conference also has its downsides. Because C-USA schools are so spread out—only two other league members are in the same time zone as ECU—travel costs today far exceed what they were when ECU played in a more regional league. But above that drawback is the fact that C-USA isn’t a member of the BCS and thus denied access to the major bowl games.

Holland has consistently kept the BCS in his sights, but he believes that there are two ways to get there. C-USA can work to become more competitive and angle for inclusion in the BCS, or ECU can try to be in the right place at the right time if conference realignment occurs. Either way, Holland is determined to keep the Pirates at the forefront of any new developments.

“Right now I don’t see any reshuffling,” he says. “But the waterfront was very quiet when the ACC announced its expansion plans. So we know that things can go on behind the scenes. What we’ve tried to do is make sure that we know what’s going on, and that at least we’re part of the process. Let’s face it, we’ve attracted attention. If somebody is looking to improve the football in their league, certainly they would have to consider East Carolina University.”