Baseball coach Cliff Godwin
Photography by Jay Clark and Cliff Hollis
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Alumni coaches have a bond - to their players and their university
By Doug Boyd
ECU News Services
Coaching legend Paul “Bear” Bryant put it succinctly in 1958 when he explained why he left Texas A&M to coach at his alma mater, Alabama.
“Mama called,” the football coach said. “And when Mama calls, you come running.”
Three current East Carolina University head coaches have answered that call, the most recent being head baseball coach Cliff Godwin '00 '02. He joins football coach Ruffin McNeill '80 and women’s golf coach Kevin Williams '85 as head coaches who also hold ECU degrees. Several assistant coaches are also ECU alumni.
“To be able to go out and coach third base and look up and say, ‘I’m coaching at my alma mater,’ it will be surreal,” Godwin says in his office at Clark-LeClair Stadium. But that’s not why he came to Greenville after assistant coaching stops at the University of Mississippi, Louisiana State University and others.
ECU Director of Athletics Jeff Compher said having a coach of Godwin’s caliber—alumnus or not—want to work at ECU shows how far the program has come.
Godwin has his eyes set on the College World Series. "I owe it to coach LeClair."
“To have a nationally recognized coach such as coach Godwin want to come back to his alma mater says a lot about the commitment the university has made to the baseball program or any program,” Compher says.
In the American Athletic Conference, Connecticut baseball coach Jim Penders, Houston baseball coach Todd Whitting and Tulsa football coach Bill Blankenship are also coaching at their alma maters.
Building on a legacy
Godwin, a four-year Pirate letterman at catcher from 1998-2001, has been a part of seven NCAA Regional and two College World Series appearances coaching at the Division I level, including this year’s run by Ole Miss to the College World Series, held each year in Omaha, Nebraska. He became ECU’s 16th head baseball coach in June.
“It’s not like I needed to come home. It is East Carolina’s commitment to aiming at the highest level,” Godwin says. “I took this job because I want to get East Carolina to Omaha. I owe it to coach LeClair and the guys I played with. It’s going to be phenomenal.”
Raised in Snow Hill, Godwin played three sports at Greene Central High School. His father, Lewis, coached him on the boys basketball team. His mother, Kathy ’76, an ECU nursing graduate, was the school nurse.
The coach says his status as an alumnus will help on the recruiting trail.
“When I say that teams I played on built this stadium, I think you’re able to see the passion I have when I talk about it,” he says. And recruiting top players is a priority. “I’m a good coach, but I’m a much better coach when I have good players,” he adds.
Former ECU teammate and University of Michigan head baseball coach Erik Bakich calls Godwin “the perfect person” to coach the Pirates.
“He will attack the recruiting trail and develop his players to their maximum potential as students, as athletes and as men,” Bakich says. “Coach LeClair’s dream for East Carolina to go to Omaha will become a reality under Cliff’s leadership. He will make it happen because he is a champion and has been a winner his entire life.”
A boost to the program
Williams agrees that being a graduate helps attract student-athletes.
“No question,” he says. “Coaching at a place you went to school, you have so much pride in and for. Also, it helps you in recruiting when you’re fully invested in the university as a student, graduate and working there. Having walked down College Hill to class every day—they can tell I love the place.”
Williams coached men’s golf from 1995-2005, men’s and women’s golf from 2000-2005 and women’s golf from 2007 to today. He graduated from ECU in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in history, though he didn’t play golf while in school. He tried out twice but didn’t make the team. He later went on to play in two PGA Club Professional Championships.
He’s guided the Lady Pirates to seven consecutive NCAA East Regional appearances. He coached the 2013 Conference USA player and freshman of the year, Frida Gustafsson Spang.
His players are competitive on the course and in the classroom. In July, the team was recognized for having a collective GPA of 3.635, ranking it 25th nationally.
“I know the area. I know the golf pros. That’s a big asset for us,” says Williams, who’s also worked as a club professional in eastern North Carolina.
Women's golf coach Kevin Williams watches as Frida Gustafson Spang practices.
Charles Bloom, ECU’s sports information director from 1988 until 1995 and now part of the athletics administration at the University of South Carolina—his alma mater—says when schools hire alumni, the benefits can be wide-ranging.
“When you put your people into the field after they graduate, if they’re qualified to come back, that’s a feather in your program,” says Bloom, who directed the Southeastern Conference’s media and public relations efforts for 17 years. “That says a lot about an institution. That’s a very good thing for all the parties involved.”
Compher says he groups alumni student-athletes and former ECU assistant coaches together as people who know ECU and what it takes to win in Greenville.
“It’s very important to have someone…who’s familiar with this region and what it takes to recruit here,” Compher said. Alumni also stir excitement among the fan base. Ticket sales surged for baseball after Godwin’s hiring was announced even though the team’s schedule hadn’t been released yet.
“There’s a familiarity there, and people remember them as players or have familiarity with them as a coach,” Compher says. “That’s a great way to start off.”
Fostering a feeling of home
McNeill says being an alumnus gives him perspective on how the athletic program has grown and nurtured its student-athletes—almost in a patriarchal way.
“When I came to East Carolina, it was that (family) atmosphere,” says McNeill. “Coach Dye was my substitute dad, and the guys on the team were brothers.”
Having been a Pirate football player gives him an instant bond with players before they choose ECU and after they arrive on campus.
Football coach Ruffin McNeill creates a family atmosphere.
“It’s a place that takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary,” says McNeill, who guided quarterback Shane Carden to player-of-the-year honors last season in Conference USA.
“It’s not a sell job. When I talk to them, I actually have gone through the exact same things as a student, as an alumnus, and I’ve come back as a coach. I’ve had a chance to coach at all kinds of venues. This is one of the best jewels in the country here.”
Junior linebacker Montese Overton, himself the son of a former Pirate athlete, basketball player Darrell Overton, says McNeill’s status as an alumnus makes a difference for players.
“It’s a great atmosphere,” Overton says. “Everyone just bought into the program. He was here in the past, so he knows how hard it was to build from there to here.”
Reciting Bryant’s famous quote, Bloom, a graduate of South Carolina, knows how special it can be to go back to Mama.
“When I came back here, part of the allure was coming back to the alma mater,” he says. “As an alumnus, there’s that added passion. Can you go home? That’s the question.
“Sometimes it doesn’t work out, but when it does work out, it’s very nice.”
The following men played sports at ECU and later served as head coaches in football or baseball.
Among those, Johnson is part of one of the most unusual stories connected to Pirate athletics, though it occurred after he had retired from coaching.
In October 1977, the heavily favored Pirates were playing William & Mary in the Oyster Bowl in Norfolk, Virginia. In the fourth quarter, ECU led by three points. With time ticking away, William & Mary quarterback Tom Rozantz broke loose and appeared headed for a touchdown.
Johnson, described by The Virginian-Pilot newspaper as “a portly 65-year-old gentleman in a raincoat,” ran from the sidelines and threw a block tackle on Rozantz just before he reached the end zone. The unusual turn of events silenced the William & Mary fans, and the officials gathered to discuss their course of action. After deliberation, the play was ruled a touchdown, giving William & Mary a 21-17 victory.
Johnson, who also coached baseball and basketball and served as athletic director, died in 2004.
Jim Johnson, Football
Ed Emory, Football
Ruffin McNeill, Football
Coach 2010 - Present
Earl Smith, Baseball*
Hal Baird, Baseball
Gary Overton, Baseball
Cliff Godwin, Baseball
Coach 2014 - Present
*Smith also coached basketball at East Carolina.
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